One of the oddest worst movies ever made has to be the Penthouse ‘erotic epic’ Caligula, released in 1979. It’s an extreme example of a massive gap between proclaimed artistic worthiness at the start and a finished result that can only be described as two and a half hours of incoherent drivel. The trajectory of the movie’s production reflects this rapid fall from grace – starting off with a script by Gore Vidal and directed by the avant-garde director Tinto Brass it ended up with Bob Guccione, owner of Penthouse, sneaking into the studios to film and edit in a bunch of hardcore porn scenes shot with Penthouse ‘Pets’. Vidal had a bust up with Brass and disowned his script, Brass fell out with Penthouse and also disowned his film, as did many of the big name actors who’d been roped into the movie. It’s hard not to see the final result as a hideously pretentious but typical porn movie of the era, in which the long boring and badly acted bits pre-VCR viewers had to put up with between sex scenes are stretched out beyond endurance.
And yet Caligula doesn’t quite fall into the same soft-porn category as, say, Emmanuelle (1974) or Bilitis (1977), and it’s interesting to speculate whether it could have ended up as a reasonable art house movie in different circumstances. To begin with removing the baleful influence of Bob Guccione would have turned the movie into more or less a Fellini tribute. Guccione, who was described by John Geilgud as ‘exactly how I’d imagined that kind of man to be’, was a typical 1970s hairy-chested gold-medallioned worshipper of ‘the feminine divine’ (i.e. pornographer with artistic pretentions). The opening sequence of giggling half-dressed nymphs running through a misty wood in soft focus is about as profound as that type of ‘art’ ever got. Guccione insisted on sprinkling young attractive naked women (his ‘Pets’) in just about every scene. Tinto Brass, in Fellini-mode, would push them into the background in favour of his own parade of more ‘normal’ types recruited from the general Italian population, only to have them edited out in favour of Ms’s April through November 1978 in the final cut. Guccione had loudly proclaimed that Caligula would combine the production values of a Hollywood epic with edgy envelope-pushing underground cinema, though it was pretty obvious that in this case ‘underground’ was Debby Does Dallas and not Jean Luc-Godard or Luis Buñuel.
The choice of subject matter didn’t help much either. The problem with the Emperor Caligula was that he was mad from day one. All the murders and capricious acts of insanity (making his horse a senator, sending the army into the sea to fight Neptune) came from the voices in his head, rather than any complex motivation or character trajectory. Vidal and Brass saw the film as an essay on absolute power corrupting absolutely, and the film starts with the quote from The Gospel of St. Mark – ‘For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’ But beyond that it’s clear that neither the director nor Malcolm McDowell had much to work with, so we just get a sequence of a mad ruler doing mad things out of boredom or temporary lunacy. McDowell had the disadvantage (for English audiences anyway) of following John Hurt’s astonishing portrayal of Caligula in the BBC series I, Claudius – but then Hurt’s character appeared in the broader context of the entire Julio-Claudian family from Augustus (Brian Blessed) through to Nero (Christopher Biggins), with Derek Jacobi’s Claudius himself as the foil and commentator to the whole depraved dynasty.
In many ways Caligula is the mirror image of the BBC I, Claudius. Jack Pulman’s series was a typical telly drama of the era – studio shot in a tiny handful of box sets with very theatrical performances from a cast of renowned British TV and stage actors. For its day it had just about as much semi-nudity and sex as prime time BBC would allow, and yet often came across as more erotically charged than the Penthouse movie for all the latter’s shoe-horned explicitness.
Caligula also boasted an impressive cast with Malcolm McDowell as the deranged emperor, Peter O’Toole as Tiberius, Helen Mirren as Caesonia and John Gielgud as the senator Nerva (he was originally approached to be Tiberius but, rather ingenuously, turned the part down as too pornographic). McDowell did the title role more or less as a chirpy version of his Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Peter O’Toole was drunk most of the time and delivers one of the most bizarre performances of his career – his lines seemingly out of sync with everyone and everything else, Helen Mirren has very little to work with as a character that can only really be described as Penthouse Pet with Words to Say, and Gielgud is Gielgud – magnificent and stately despite having to deliver quasi-profound lines constantly surrounded by bored naked women. McDowell and Peter O’Toole (late sober) loudly disowned the movie. Helen Mirren referred to it as “an irresistible mix of art and genitals” and Gielgud described his own involvement in a radio interview many years later.
Nowadays Caligula largely comes across as a pretentious soft-core porn film. In an age when TV series like Game of Thrones and Spartacus manage to combine copious nudity and sex scenes with intelligent scripts, tight direction and excellent performances (although Spartacus’s final series degenerated into a tedious conveyor belt of shouting men in furry pants), Caligula is a feeble mess shot through with unpleasant sexism masquerading as ‘art’. Yet ever so often there is a shot, or a couple of seconds in a scene, that point at a better Fellini-esque study of decadence. If you extracted them all and edited them together you might get 5 minutes of interesting cinema, if you were that desperate.