Some films achieve a level of recognition for the landmark changes they make in the art of cinema. Most top movie lists have the same entries with films such as ‘Citizen Kane’, ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Gone with the Wind’. Then there are those movies that become cult classics with an avid and loyal fan base. Other flicks are noted for being so poorly made that people watch in a fashion akin to slowing down on the highway to rubber neck a traffic accident. Then there are those movies that are certain to stir up a heated debate when film buffs gather. This type of movie results in controversy with many denouncing them as horrible while others laud them as misunderstood classics. When you get to this last category of movies there is one that stands apart from the others and is a prime example of debatable flicks; ‘Caligula’. Made in 1979 no movie has created quite the fervor that this one has. Some have called this a bug budget pornographic movie that was so badly made that actors paid extra money to the producers to keep their names off of it. This film has been derided and banned by the mainstream and celebrated by the counter culture resulting in several versions being released over the last couple of decades. The film is explicit like no other conventional film up to the time of its release in 1979. No matter which side of the fence you happen to be on this is an historic movie that has paved the way for subsequent generations of film makers to express their views in a fashion that others would not approve of. It is now once again time for the studios to release a new edition of the film to gross out and entertain a new batch of movie buffs. Image Entertainment has held the home theater distribution rights for awhile now and they have once again come up with a new take of this thirty year old flick. We now have the ‘Imperial Edition’ on both DVD and Blu-ray. Yes, there is a high definition version of the film for those that like their adult entertainment with 1080p video and lossless audio. Both editions have are chocked full of extras for the legion of fans still out there.
As is the case with almost every aspect in the production of this film the crew credits are cloaked with controversy and a few legal debates. Also compounding the misunderstandings and quagmire is the fact that there are numerous conflicting versions of the film. The author of the basic script used in the original 1979 cut was Gore Vidal. He is no stranger to controversial films after his 1970 novel; ‘Myra Breckinridge’ was made into a movie. the co-director and one of the producers, Bob Guccione, did provide additional scenes for the 1984 re-cut of the film resulting in Vidal demanding his name be removed that that release. Vidal was never the type to shy away from any topic no matter how gritty it might be. This is certainly the case here. One thing to remember is the subject of the film; Caesar Gaius Germanicus Caligula. He is reviled in history as one of the most perverse and radical leader any nation ever had. He brought the term excess to new depths. Even modest historical accounts paints this man as insane; paranoid, powerful and possessing a sexual appetite that was unmatched even by ancient Roman standards. He raised a horse to the status of a Roman senator and put the wives of the other senators to work at a brothel. His exploits are so deranged and perverse that they seem unbelievable. When you have such an outrageous historical character to portray in a film there is no way to sugar coat the events that surrounded and shaped this time in history. Yes, there is a pornographic film by all but the most restrictive definitions of the term. The thing is the times it depicts were beyond what any adult film maker would consider.
Ostensibly in charge of the direction of this movie was Tinto Brass. Prior to ‘Caligula’ he had an extremely eclectic career covering a myriad of genres. Like Vidal Brass has been said to have disowned the production. While there were many rumors that this action was taken as a result of the highly explicit sexual scenes much of the trouble apparently was over creative differences mostly the input of the star Malcolm McDowell who altered the main viewpoint and focus of the movie. This film is now known more for the backroom deals, mistakes, prolonged shooting schedule and other production arguments than the much talked about sex. It is ironic that a film should be better remembered for its problems than the content but this one achieved that lamentable notation. Brass and MacDowell had worked on a shooting script with the assistance of Vidal but still the disagreements marred the production. At the center of this maelstrom was Bob Guccione, the creator of Penthouse Magazine. We all know the content of that publication and the more renowned types of photographs that are featured in it. In many ways it is fitting that a magazine that it targeted by so many anti-pornographic movements would producer a movie about Caligula. If Caligula was alive today he would consider Penthouse children’s entertainment. Guccione is well noted as adding some of the most pornographic scenes well after the ‘final’ edit were ready to go. It is confusing to most people the sheer number of editions of this film that have found their way to DVD and other media.
If you judge this film by the criteria that are used throughout the film industry the movie is not well constructed. Many shots are out of focus or look like they were filmed through a haze. Due to the many re-cuts and re-edits most editions are choppy and fail to maintain even a modicum of narrative or continuity. If you are a fan of the film and we all know you exist and are out there this is the version to get. There is a choice between two cuts of the film along with commentaries and a lot of bonus material. There are four discs to the DVD version and thanks to the huge capacity of Blu-ray two discs in that set. Even with the poor quality of much of the video the movie never looked or sounded better. It just goes to show you that Blu-ray can make a whole new experience out of any film. The ultimate test of whether a movie works is if is succeeded to do what the people behind the scenes intended. From Guccione it has to be said that the film works. He set out to make a movie that would shock people and be remembered for decades afterwards. There is no doubt that he did just that. MGM has given this film a 1080p video with DTS HD soundtrack. The thing is this film is apparently fairly accurate in how it depicts this time it is just what was done then is appalling to most of us today.