WFTB Score: 1/20
The plot: Lusty young prince Gaius Caligula Caesar becomes emperor of Rome – effectively leader of the world – under suspicious circumstances. The power immediately goes to his already half-crazed head and he instigates a series of mad schemes, all the while turning on anyone he suspects of conspiring against him.
I never usually feel the need to justify my film-buying or watching practices, but I will make an exception for Caligula, which was nestled between Toy Story and Anastasia in the videos of a charity shop. The film had a certain notoriety so I thought I’d give it a go, and besides, it was only 25p. Upon viewing, the price turns out to be at least 20 pence too much.
It’s the 1st Century A.D. and Malcolm McDowell is Caligula (‘little boots’), the young adoptive grandson of rancid Emperor Tiberius (Peter O’Toole). Tiberius is approaching the end of his life but clinging on, and indicating that he might prefer his natural grandson Gemellus (Bruno Brive) to succeed him (if attempting to poison Caligula can be called an indication). With the murderous intervention of his friend Macro (Guido Mannari) Caligula does become Emperor, and his first act – prompted by his sister Drusilla, with whom he is sexually involved – is to have Macro arrested for the murder.
Drusilla also prompts Caligula to take a wife and he chooses the slatternly Caesonia (Helen Mirren); but despite his God-like power over the people of Rome and therefore the entire world, events do not turn always turn out in his favour as Caesonia bears him a daughter (which he declares a son anyway) and Drusilla succumbs to a fever. Taking the death badly, Caligula’s insane schemes escalate to the point where he is marching his army into the sea and prostituting senators’ wives. But who will put an end to them? Surely not little boots’ ineffectual Uncle Claudius (Giancarlo Badessi)?
If someone like John Nash can have a biopic, then barmy Roman Emperor Caligula certainly can, and you would expect it to contain a certain amount of debauchery. The original version of Caligula (so I read) certainly lived up to the description, the out-of-control hedonism of Tinto Brass’s filming spiced up with graphic (but utterly gratuitous) sex scenes shot by Penthouse owner Bob Guccione. I do not have that version, but from the footage that remains in the cut-down version I have, I can only imagine that it was a horrible, horrible film: not just – not even principally – because of the subject matter and the acts displayed, but because it is a sequence of poorly-lit, out of focus, badly-filmed scenes in empty papier-maché sets, which are incoherent at the same time as being utterly predictable – guess what happens to Caligula at the end of the film?
Cutting the film to about 100 minutes by removing most of the graphic sex and violence does not make the film any less unpleasant. Editing has been carried out by ‘The Production’, presumably by the film stock being thrown up in the air and spliced back together at random, meaning that scenes are confused and riddled with continuity errors to such an extent that much of it is nonsensical. By the way, those looking for titillation are likely to be disappointed as the nearest Caligula comes to sexy is by way of a bit of gentle necrophilia.
Remarkably, there is the germ of a good film contained within the mess. McDowell brings the same intensity to the role of the Emperor as he did to Alex in A Clockwork Orange, and the mainly British cast at least try to act (John Gielgud, playing Tiberius’ advisor Nerva, is lucky: he commits suicide early on). In the script too – much argued over between Brass and Gore Vidal – there is much potential for interest, as someone who is treated like a God, with the terrible example shown by Tiberius, is surely going to think himself a God and act as one; but we never get to examine Caligula in that much depth as the film sickeningly lurches from one random nastiness to the next (except, of course, in this version, the nastiness never actually happens). All you are left with is McDowell exhibiting delight in his madness. And while McDowell seems to be having a lot of fun, it’s incredibly boring for the rest of us.
I don’t believe that anything created by the informed, rational and free will of adult participants should be censored from being viewed by other adults. There is much that goes on in cinema that isn’t to my taste (Adam Sandler films, for a start) but criticism has to transcend, as far as it can, personal preferences and dislikes. However, watching Caligula doesn’t come down to a matter of taste, or objections on a moral level: in aesthetic, technical, and narrative terms, amongst many others, it’s simply awful.