As part of Grogflog’s ceaseless quest to bring you the finest in obscure cinematic gems, I was the other day rummaging through a tray of discount DVDs and pulled out a neglected masterpiece of historical drama about ancient Rome. However, as it was only five bucks, I bought ‘Caligula’ instead.
(1979 and 1984. Colour. Script: Gore Vidal (credited despite his best efforts), Bob Guccione, Giancarlo Lui and Franco Rossellini (uncredited). Direction: Either Tinto Brass or Bob Guccione (depending on who you speak to). Cinematography: Silvano Ippoliti. Score: Bruno Nicolai and Renzo Rossellini.
After watching ‘Caligula’ for the first time in 25 years I am delighted to report it lived up to all my memories of it as a vast, bloody, ridiculous, campy and ornate mess overseen by a bunch of oversexed venal Italians with grandiose ideas. Bit like ancient Rome itself circa 40 AD.
The credits above hint at the kind of clusterfuck (literally in some scenes) the project became as all the principals fell out with eachother and lawsuits and alternate cuts started flying around.
‘Caligula’ went from a bold and noble vision to a gaudy pornographic pageant in about the same time that it took its namesake to go from popular young prince to psycho party tyrant. The unintended parallels you can keep drawing between the film and its subject matter is one of its effable charms.
Yes ‘Caligula’ does have some charms despite the fact it is an enormous freestanding gilt and plaster turkey.
The art direction, while quite possibly perhaps not 100% historically accurate, is pretty damn striking and I think probably captures the flavour of the times quite well. Not the ancient Rome of austere marble, military and senators but the gaudy cosmopolitan capital of empire.
There’s also some gaudy cosmopolitan acting as well. The posh English talent hired to add a bit ‘o class, know what I mean squire, generally seem to be enjoying themselves and don’t hold back. Helen Mirren proves again there’s more to being sexy than just looking sexy while Malcolm McDowell as Caligula and Peter O’Toole as Tiberius, rather alarmingly, don’t appear to be acting at all. Only Sir John Gielgud as a court advisor seems to be looking forward to dying as soon as possible.
And if your taste runs towards to gorgeous women in scanty clothing and modish gladiator sandals you might find the odd enjoyable hour or two here and there.
The version I just acquired contains all the naughty bits shot by Guccione Caesar with a bunch of Pets and well-endowed extras who I can assure you are definitely not acting in the orgy scenes. However the inclusion of these scenes is an excellent example of the lack of direction, in every sense, that assailed the project. There’s not enough to make the flick truly pornographic and too much to make it erotic. Personally I found the most arousing moments were generated by Helen Mirren’s expressions and body language in certain comprising but tastefully inexplicit scenes.
The funniest moments are not in the film itself but in the extras which included a “making of” documentary - actually shot during pre-production, once again displaying the narrative ineptitude typical of the whole project.
In retrospect, the doco was probably made to raise more funds from investors as Guccione Caesar reeled from being overcharged by the locals. Shades of Emperors staging games on credit to get the backing for campaigns to find the loot to pay for the games. The parallels continue.
Anyway, between footage of the vast sets being um…erected underneath breathless commentary (“a visionary undertaking…master craftsmen from across Italy…no expense spared..”), the key players talk about their great expectations for this grand project.
Guccione Caesar is funny enough as he sits, shirt open to the navel to display some serious seventies bling in his chest hair, in his gold and marble dining room (apparently not used as a set because it would have been too over the top) talking in monosyllables about why it’s such a serious artistic endeavour. “I feel ancient Rome much to teach about today, y’know?”
The real hilarity though is watching a suave and urbane Gore Vidal fluently and intelligently discussing his original script, completely unaware of what’s already going wrong behind the scenes and how the whole thing will end up. “The underlying question is how would someone act if they had been given absolute power of life and death over everybody else in the whole world.”
After watching the rushes, Gore would have had a good answer. He was so appalled that he traded his 10 points of the gross (that’s gross not net folks!) in exchange for having his name removed from the credits. But not before one version was released, billed as ‘Gore Vidal’s Caligula’ – leading to the waggish logline “Or least he wishes he was.”
But don’t let this Grogflog put you off lashing out five bucks if you come across ‘Caligula’ while fossicking around in a bargain bin. At the very least you’ll enjoy how the spirit of Little Boots lives on in some corners of today’s movie industry.
GrogFlog’s verdict: “You're an honest man, Proculus, which means a bad Roman! Therefore, you are a traitor! Logical, hmm?”
Two out of ten laurel wreaths. Oh Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus! I didn’t see you there. Did I say two? I meant two hundred! No, two thousand!
Coming soon: The end of the world featuring the United Fruit Company, the kind of animated feature Pixar will never make and some blatant salosism.