Caligula (film)

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US release poster
Directed by Tinto Brass
(Principal Photography)
Additional scenes:
Giancarlo Lui
Bob Guccione
Produced by Bob Guccione
Franco Rossellini
Written by Gore Vidal
Malcolm McDowell
Masolino D'Amico
Tinto Brass
Ted Whitehead
Starring Malcolm McDowell
John Gielgud
Peter O'Toole
Helen Mirren
Teresa Ann Savoy
Music by Sergei Prokofiev
Aram Khachaturian
Paul Clemente
Cinematography Silvano Ippoliti
Edited by Nino Baragli
Enzo Micarelli
Russell Lloyd
Distributed by Produzioni Atlas Consorziate (Italy)
Analysis Film Releasing (US) Europa Home Vídeo
Release date(s)
  • August 14, 1979 (1979-08-14) (Italy)
  • February 1, 1980 (1980-02-01) (United States)
Running time 156 minutes (Wide)
See alternate versions
Country Italy
United States
Language Italian
Budget $17.5 million (Initial)
$22 million (Final)
Box office $23,438,120 (US)

Caligula is a 1979 ItaloAmerican erotic biographical drama film directed by Tinto Brass from a script by Gore Vidal, with additional scenes filmed by Giancarlo Lui and Bob Guccione. The film concerns the rise and fall of Roman Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, better known as Caligula. It was co-financed by Penthouse magazine and produced by Guccione and Franco Rossellini. It stars Malcolm McDowell, Teresa Ann Savoy, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole and John Gielgud.

Guccione, the publisher of the erotic magazine Penthouse and other similar publications, didn't allow director Brass to edit the film, but instead changed its tone by removing and changing many scenes, in addition to adding pornographic and semi-pornographic scenes that hadn't been filmed by Brass or scripted by Vidal. In return, Brass refused to be credited as "director" in the final film.[1][2][3] Caligula remains one of the most infamous cult films ever made[4] and remains banned in several countries to this day.[5][6]


Caligula, the young heir to the throne of the syphilis-ridden, half-mad Emperor Tiberius, thinks he has received a bad omen after a blackbird flies into his room early one morning. Shortly afterward, Macro, the head of the Praetorian Guard, appears to tell Caligula that Tiberus, his great uncle, demands that he report at once to the island of Capri, where the Emperor has been residing for a number of years with Nerva, his close friend; Claudius, a dim-witted relative; and Caligula's younger stepbrother Gemellus. Fearing assassination, Caligula is afraid to leave, but his beloved sister and lover Drusilla convinces him to go.

At Capri, Caligula finds that Tiberius has become depraved, showing signs of advanced venereal diseases, and embittered with Rome and politics. Tiberius enjoys swimming with nude youths ("little fishes") and watching degrading sex shows, often including children and deformed freaks of nature. Caligula observes with a mixture of fascination and horror. Tensions rise when Tiberius jokingly tries to poison Caligula in front of Gemellus, his favorite. After Nerva commits suicide on the prospect of Caligula's rule, the dying Tiberius is at his mercy. However, Macro halts Caligula's action and commits the deed himself, choking Tiberius and thus hastening Caligula's ascent to the throne.

Caligula triumphantly removes the imperial signet from Tiberius' finger and realizes that Gemellus has witnessed the murder. Tiberius is buried with honors and Caligula is proclaimed the new Emperor; he in turn proclaims Drusilla his equal, to the apparent disgust of the Roman Senate. Afterward, Drusilla, fearful of Macro's influence, convinces Caligula to get rid of him. Caligula obliges by setting up a mock trial in which Gemellus is intimidated into testifying that Macro alone murdered Tiberius. After Macro is executed in a gruesome public game, Caligula appoints Tiberius' former adviser, Longinus, as his right-hand man while pronouncing the docile Senator Chaerea as the new head of the Praetorian Guard.

Drusilla endeavors to find Caligula a wife amongst the priestesses of the goddess Isis, the cult they secretly practice. Caligula only wants to marry Drusilla, but when she insists that they cannot marry because she is his sister, he marries Caesonia, a priestess and notorious courtesan, but only after she bears him an heir. Despite some reluctance, Drusilla supports their marriage. Meanwhile, despite his popularity with the masses, the Senate dislikes Caligula for what initially seem to be light eccentricities. However, darker aspects of Caligula's personality emerge when he rapes a bride and groom on their wedding day in a minor fit of jealousy and orders Gemellus' execution merely to provoke a reaction from Drusilla.

After discovering that Caesonia is pregnant, Caligula suffers severe fever; Drusilla manages to nurse him back to health. Just as he fully recovers, Caesonia bears him a daughter, Julia Drusilla; Caligula marries Caesonia on the spot, but insists on regarding Julia Drusilla as a boy. During the celebration, Drusilla collapses in Caligula's arms from the same fever he'd suffered. Soon afterwards, Caligula receives another ill omen in the guise of another blackbird. Despite his desperate prayers to Isis, Drusilla dies from her fever. Initially unable to accept her death, Caligula suffers a nervous breakdown and rampages through the palace, destroying a statue of Isis while clutching Drusilla's body.

Now in a deep depression, Caligula walks the Roman streets while disguised as a beggar; he causes a disturbance after watching an amateur performance mocking his relationship with Drusilla. After a brief stay in a city jail, Caligula proclaims himself a god and becomes determined to destroy the senatorial class, which he has come to loathe. His reign becomes a series of humiliations against the foundations of Rome – senators' wives are forced to work in the service of the state as prostitutes, estates are confiscated, the old religion is desecrated, and the army is made to embark on an absurd and hopeless invasion of Britain. It is obvious to the senators and the military that Caligula must be assassinated, and Longinus conspires with Chaerea to carry out the deed.

Caligula wanders into his bedroom where a nervous Caesonia awaits him. The blackbird makes a final appearance, but only Caesonia is frightened of it. The next morning, after rehearsing an Egyptian play, Caligula and his family are attacked as they leave the stadium in a coup headed by Chaerea. His wife and daughter are brutally murdered and Chaerea himself stabs Caligula in the stomach. With his final breath, he defiantly whimpers "I live!" As Caligula and his family's bodies are thrown down the stadium steps and their blood is washed off the marble floor, Claudius is proclaimed the new Emperor.



Gore Vidal developed a screenplay from Roberto Rossellini's unproduced Caligula television mini-series. Franco Rossellini, nephew of Roberto, and Vidal's original choice, was to create a modestly-budgeted historical drama. When the pair could not obtain financing, Vidal contacted media mogul and Penthouse founder and publisher Bob Guccione. Guccione agreed to finance the project on two conditions: that the film would be transformed into a flamboyant, luxurious spectacle akin to Hollywood's sword-and-sandal epics of the 1950s and 1960s, and that extra sex and nudity would be added to the script in order to promote Guccione's magazine. Vidal and Rossellini agreed and the project was launched.

Federico Fellini's art director, Danilo Donati, was hired to build the expensive and complex sets and costumes. Renowned acting talent, including Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole and Sir John Gielgud were cast. Maria Schneider was originally cast as Caligula's doomed sister Drusilla, but later dropped out and was replaced by Teresa Ann Savoy. After Guccione was unable to come to an agreement with more established directors John Huston and Lina Wertmüller,[7] Tinto Brass, a relatively young Italian director, was selected by Guccione to direct the film. Guccione was impressed by Brass' previous work, the controversial 1976 film Salon Kitty, which fused explicit sex with a big budget historical drama. Caligula production was housed in Dear Studios, Rome, where Cleopatra had been filmed thirteen years earlier. Shooting began in September 1976, with plans for a 1977 release.

From the start, Caligula was plagued by difficulties. According to Guccione in a 1980 Penthouse magazine interview, Vidal (whom Guccione called a "prodigious talent") started trouble with a Time magazine interview in which he called directors "parasites living off writers", and that the director need only follow the directions provided by the author of the screenplay. According to Guccione, an enraged Brass responded to Vidal's comments by throwing Vidal out of the studio. Guccione was forced to side with Brass (whom he called "a megalomaniac") because "Gore's work was basically done and Tinto's work was about to begin."[7]

Casting and logistical issues were problems. Uncomfortable with the sex and nudity in the script, the female lead Schneider quickly resigned from the film.[8] It was soon apparent to the filmmakers that the aggressive shooting schedule developed by the inexperienced Rossellini and Guccione was unrealistic for a film of such scope. Donati had to scrap some of his more elaborate original ideas for the sets and replace them with such surreal imagery as bizarre scenic backings, blacked-out areas, silk backdrops and curtains. This resulted in significant script changes, with Brass and the actors improvising scenes written to take place in entirely different locations, and sometimes shooting entirely new scenes (such as the frolicking scene that opens the film) in order to show progress while the incomplete or redone sets were unavailable. The production was plagued by delays due to disagreements between Brass and Donati over Brass not using Donati's completed sets,[7] as well as Brass and Guccione disagreeing over the sexual content of the film.

Brass was similarly unhappy with Vidal's script. "It was the work of an aging arteriosclerotic. Vidal redid it five times, but it was still absurd."[8] With the help of McDowell, Brass rewrote some of the screenplay.

Malcolm McDowell as Caligula

By the time principal photography on Caligula was completed, Vidal (having a previous issue with his involvement in the infamous Myra Breckinridge) was concerned about being associated with such an out-of-control production. Fearing the film would turn out incoherent, Vidal distanced himself from the project. Of Vidal, Brass concluded, "If I ever really get mad at Gore Vidal, I'll publish his script."[8]

As the film entered post-production, Guccione took control of the film footage, fired Brass for running up huge costs (Guccione claims Brass shot enough film to "make the original version of Ben-Hur about 50 times over"),[7] casting actual criminals as Roman senators,[9] and using what Guccione considered "fat, ugly, and wrinkled old women"[7] in the sex scenes instead of his Penthouse Pets. Guccione hired his friend, Giancarlo Lui to re-edit the film. Lui was instructed to refashion the film into something more in keeping with what Vidal had first scripted, while delivering the sexual content demanded by Guccione. In their most controversial move, the pair shot extra scenes of hardcore sexual material[9] which would be used to replace scenes shot by Brass.

With much footage improvised and rewritten from the original draft of the film, Lui further scrambled, re-cut and deleted scenes altogether. Many of the disturbing sexual images shot by Brass were removed, replaced by approximately six minutes of hardcore sex shot by Guccione and Lui. In the end, the final cut of the film had strayed far afield from what Brass had intended. Ironically, perhaps, it bore little resemblance to what Vidal had scripted as well.

In the unpleasant aftermath, both Brass and Vidal launched independent tirades against the film and lawsuits against Guccione, delaying the release of the film. Vidal, who was paid $200,000 for his script, agreed to drop his contractual claim for 10% of the film profits in exchange for having his name removed from the title of the film (original billing was to have been Gore Vidal's Caligula).[7] In 1981, Anneka Di Lorenzo, who played Messalina, sued Guccione, claiming sexual harassment. After a protracted litigation, in 1990 a New York state court awarded her $60,000 in compensatory damages and $4 million in punitive damages. On appeal, the punitive damages were determined to be not recoverable and the court vacated the award.[10]

In late 1979, three years after production began, Caligula made its debut.

During the time span of Caligula's post-production difficulties, Rossellini produced a second film titled Messalina, Messalina in order to ensure the elaborate sets and costumes created for the first film paid off in some way should the first film not get released. The second film was much more cheaply produced and was filmed as a comedy, depicting the promiscuous activities of Messalina, wife of Caligula's successor as emperor, Claudius (Anneka Di Lorenzo portrayed Messalina in both movies). The second film was released prior to Caligula's premiere and to a much smaller audience. However, following the first film's release, the second was repackaged under the title Caligula II: Messalina, Messalina.


Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 24% of 29 reviewers gave Caligula positive reviews, with an average rating of 3.1/10 as of July 2014.[11] Roger Ebert gave it a rare zero stars rating, calling it "sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash", criticizing not only the film's vulgarity in its depiction of sex and violence, but also its technically incompetent direction and structure.[12] Ebert stated "In the two hours of this film that I saw, there were no scenes of joy, natural pleasure, or good sensual cheer. There was, instead, a nauseating excursion into base and sad fantasies." [12] It is one of only three films Ebert ever walked out of ("two hours into its 170 minute length"), the other two being Tru Loved and Jonathan Livingston Seagull.[13][14] Rex Reed called Caligula "a trough of rotten swill".[9] Jay Scott, reviewing Caligula for the The Globe and Mail, stated "Caligula doesn't really work on any level".[15] Scott unfavourably compared Caligula with In the Realm of the Senses, describing the latter film as a better treatment of extreme sexuality. Scott's review went on to say "Rome would seem to be at least as fecund a territory for the cinematic exploration of sex, death and money, as pre-war Japan...but what's missing from Caligula, which is rife with all three, is any connective tissue (also any point of view, any thought, any meaning)".[15] Scott concluded his review by claiming the whole film's production was "a boondoggle of landmark proportions".[15] Time Out London called the film "a dreary shambles".[16] Leslie Halliwell called Caligula "a vile curiosity of interest chiefly to sado-masochists." [17]

After its release, Caligula soon developed a reputation as being one of the worst motion pictures ever released. An early example was the Australian newspaper The Age stating that Caligula was being "billed by critics everywhere as one of the worst films ever made". [18] The Hamilton Spectator, in a list of "low points" of popular culture, referred to Caligula as "possibly the worst movie ever made". [19] Journalist Joe Holleman, in an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch discussing historical films set in Ancient Rome, argued that "two of the worst movies made in the 20th century were ancient Rome pieces...Cleopatra, and Caligula".[20] Christopher Armstead, reviewing Caligula for the website Film Critics United, stated, "Dollar for dollar, this could very well be the worst movie ever made." [21] Keith Phipps, reviewing the DVD of Caligula for The A.V. Club, said " Just about everything in Caligula that can go wrong does. The expensive, elaborate sets never look like anything but expensive, elaborate sets, director Tinto Brass brings no character to the project, and everyone except Gielgud overacts hideously."Phipps also remarked: "As a one-of-a-kind marriage of the historical epic and the porn film... Caligula deserves a look. But it might be better to let Guccione's savagely unpleasant folly fade into the century that spawned it". [22]


Caligula was shown in various versions:

  • The unrated version, available in the US and mainland Europe, running 156 minutes (NTSC) and 150 minutes (PAL), is the most widely seen cut of the film. It enjoyed a limited, albeit highly profitable, run in North American cinemas. Ebert noted, with disgust, in his zero-star review "a line of hundreds of people" waiting to enter as he left the film. [12] This version contains the unedited sequences of both simulated and un-simulated scenes of sexuality and extreme violence and gore.
  • The UK theatrical version, running 149 minutes. Aside from removing around 11 minutes of explicit footage, the censors substituted some replacement shots, derived from Brass' principal shoot, as well as some remainder footage from Guccione's reshoots. It seems that the alternate footage was inserted carelessly, resulting in glaring continuity errors (especially obvious during the Rape of Proculus and Livia and the Temple of Isis scenes). This version is out-of-print, and was eventually replaced by the uncut version, which was finally granted classification in July 2008, 29 years after its initial release.[4]
  • The rumored 210-minute unreleased version, shown as part of a private trade show for investors and distributors in Cannes, France (not to be confused with the Cannes Film Festival). The extra hour was a behind-the-scenes featurette included during the screening, which created the rumor of an extended cut of a running time of 210 minutes.[23]
  • Guccione eventually authorized an R-rated cut, released in 1981, 105 minutes long, which earned the film a wider distribution. In this version the hardcore, bloody and violent footage was either trimmed or replaced with yet another set of alternate shots and angles.
  • In 1984, Franco Rossellini, unhappy with Guccione's final edit of the film, re-edited an alternate pre-release print of Caligula and spliced in some minor scenes and shots that were found in the Italian post-production labs that housed the materials before the production moved to England. This new edition of the film, re-titled as Io, Caligola clocked in at 133 minutes and contains material not present in any other versions of the film, but the Italian censors had it cut down to only 86 minutes; after a public backlash, the film was restored to 123 minutes. The missing ten minutes are no doubt responsible for a few jump cuts that occur throughout the film. This version has been released on DVD, albeit available only in Italy.
  • When Io, Caligola was released on video, the distributor put back in some of the hardcore material shot by Guccione (it was deleted by Franco Rossellini) in order to boost the sales. This version is available on DVD.
  • A second R-rated version was released in 1999. It was released straight to DVD and contained no alternate angles. Various shots simply repeated themselves (instead of using the different takes of scenes seen in the R-rated theatrical release), resulting in continuity problems. Otherwise, this version is based on the 1981 censored release. This DVD version ran a total of 102 minutes and was released with a red cover.
  • In 1999, the Film4 channel, frustrated by the lack of any extended version of the film available in the UK (only the low quality 1981 censored version was still in print), released their own cut of Caligula, running approximately 143 minutes (the missing 13 minutes can be mostly attributed to the PAL overspeeding and time compression). It was essentially the same as the 156-minute version, with most of Guccione's explicit sexual material removed, including a lesbian tryst and a handful of sexual inserts during the imperial bordello sequence.
  • A 150-minute Italian cut; basically a shortened version of the U.S. edition. It was eventually pulled out of release in favor of Franco Rossellini's re-edited version, but a briefly released VHS tape exists, though it is now out-of print. Raro Video announced that it would release a re-mastered edition of this cut on December 5, 2006, along with an interview by Tinto Brass, in which he would discuss for the first time where the editing of the film went wrong. This release never came to fruition as Raro Video's distributor backed out, and the company replaced it with a remastered print of Franco Rossellini's edit.
  • The uncut 20th Anniversary Edition DVD was refused classification in November 2005 by Australia's OFLC, effectively banning the film in its uncensored form (although a 102-minute version was passed with an R-rating in 2004). The OFLC deemed the film too sexually explicit to fall within the R18+ classification (despite sexually explicit mainstream films such as 9 Songs receiving this rating). The film could not be accommodated in the X classification (for explicit sex) as it contains depictions of violence (although a 143-minute version of the film had, in fact, been granted an X rating for video release in 1984, when the X rating had only just been introduced and still permitted depictions of violence; the 156-minute version was passed with an X rating in January 1985).[5] Although the film's sexual content was permissible in the X category, the OFLC's classification guidelines unambiguously state "No depiction of violence, sexual violence, sexualised violence, or coercion is allowed in the category." The film was once again refused classification in July 2010; the version was presumably the Imperial Edition, as it is mentioned as having a running time of 930 minutes and many special features.[5]
  • In October 2007, Image Entertainment released a 3-disc special edition known as the Imperial Edition. It features two cuts of the film, the 156-minute print and a new edit created from an alternate pre-release version which re-arranges some scenes and does not include most of the explicit sexual inserts added by Guccione (a few shots were left in by mistake and various outtakes from Brass' shoot and a handful of 16 mm behind-the-scenes footage were used to fill in for the deleted material). Both versions have been digitally remastered. Commentary tracks featuring McDowell and Mirren are included on the non-hardcore, pre-release version, and the DVD includes interviews with Tinto Brass, who discusses the film's hectic production and botched editing; and Penthouse Pet Lori Wagner, who discusses the addition of the hardcore footage, including the lesbian sex scene in which she participated. DVD-ROM content includes Gore Vidal's original screenplay, an interview with Bob Guccione, and several hundred production photographs. Other extras include more than two hours of deleted and alternate footage. The DVD set was to carry a fourth disc with the film's complete musical soundtrack, but Penthouse later pulled the soundtrack, along with any mention of the music (and the people behind it) in the behind the scenes featurettes. The 156-minute and 102-minute versions will be released separately in new collectible packaging.[24] The booklet included with the 3-disc set includes a discussion of the many different versions of the film, and states that a significant amount of footage remains unaccounted for; the notes include a plea to viewers to contact Image if they are in possession of any footage not included in the DVD set. The Imperial Edition was released on Blu-ray on January 6, 2009 in the US and Canada.
  • The Imperial Edition was released in the UK (Region 2) in September 2008 by Arrow Films. This edition contains four discs, retaining the three from the Region 1 Imperial Edition, and including a newly discovered half hour of deleted and alternate footage not present in the US release, and a fourth disc (third in order of the set) claiming to feature the 1981 R-rated version, but actually featuring the differently edited 1999 R-rated print. The set does not feature the booklet from the US Imperial Edition; it does, however, include the CD-ROM features on the fourth disc.
  • A Japanese special edition was released, containing the newly discovered deleted footage, but without the R-rated release.
  • The Guccione Collection (founded by Jeremy Frommer), released the exclusive Bob Guccione cut edition to their website for free download in September 2013 and shortly after made it available for purchase only. They also have attempted auctioning off the original film reels from the Japanese edit.

In popular culture[edit]

In 2005, a fake trailer for Gore Vidal's Caligula was produced by artist Francesco Vezzoli for an alleged remake as a promotion for Versace's new line of accessories, starring Helen Mirren as "the Empress Tiberius", Gerard Butler as Chaerea, Milla Jovovich as Drusilla, Courtney Love as Caligula, and Karen Black as Agrippina the Elder and featuring an introduction by Gore Vidal. It was a parody, "ostensibly [promoting] a film about a mad Roman emperor who sleeps with his sister, executes his critics and presides over a crowd of ambisexual extras dressed only in the occasional accessory."[25] The trailer screened worldwide, including a showing at New York City's Whitney Museum of American Art's 2006 Whitney Biennial.[26]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Reconstruction of Brass' original ideas for the film. (PDF; 15,2 MB)
  2. ^ In all official versions of the film, Tinto Brass is only credited for "Principal Photography"
  3. ^ Tinto Brass discusses his original ideas for Caligula. (Video)
  4. ^ a b "Case Study: Caligula". Students' British Board of Film Classification. Retrieved 9 June 2012. 
  5. ^ a b c "Film Censorship: Caligula (1979)". Retrieved 9 June 2012. 
  6. ^ Davis, Laura (5 October 2010). "Caligula (1979)". Retrieved 9 June 2012. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f Ernest Volkman (May 1980). Bob Guccione Caligula Interview from Penthouse May 1980 "Penthouse Interview: Bob Guccione". Penthouse: 112–118, 146–115. Retrieved 9 June 2012. 
  8. ^ a b c "Will the Real Caligula Stand Up?". Time (magazine). 3 January 1977. Retrieved 9 June 2012.  (requires reader to be a registered member)
  9. ^ a b c Vinciguerra, Thomas (6 September 1999). "Porn Again". Retrieved 9 June 2012. 
  10. ^ "Marjorie Lee Thoreson A/K/A Anneka Dilorenzo, Appellant-Respondent, V. Penthouse International, Ltd. And Robert C. Guccione, Respondents-Appellants". Retrieved 2011-01-19. 
  11. ^ "Caligula (1979)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 3 July 2014. 
  12. ^ a b c Roger Ebert (22 September 1980). "Caligula". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 9 June 2012. 
  13. ^ "Roger Ebert : IAmA". Reddit. Retrieved 9 June 2012. 
  14. ^ Roger Ebert (16 October 2008). "Don't read me first!". Retrieved 9 June 2012. 
  15. ^ a b c Jay Scott, The Globe and Mail, February 7th, 1980.
  16. ^ "Caligula (1979)". Retrieved 9 June 2012. 
  17. ^ Photoplay Magazine, Volume 38, 1987 (p.38)
  18. ^ "News Diary", The Age June 8, 1981 (p.2).
  19. ^ "Lowest:100 Really Bad Moments in 20th Century Entertainment". The Hamilton Spectator, July 24, 1999 (p. W17).
  20. ^ Joe Holleman, "Roman Warriors roam the big screen again". St. Louis Post-Dispatch May 5th, 2000 (p. E1).
  21. ^ "Caligula" by Christopher Armstead Film Critics United. Retrieved 10 January 2014.
  22. ^ Caligula by Keith Phipps Apr 23, 2002. The AV Club. Retrieved January 12, 2014.
  23. ^ "Caligula (1979) - FAQ". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 9 June 2012. 
  24. ^ Image Entertainment / Feature Film / Caligula (Imperial Edition)[dead link]
  25. ^ "My Hustler". 16 June 2005. Retrieved 9 June 2012. 
  26. ^ Yablonsky, Linda (26 February 2006). "'Caligula' Gives a Toga Party (but No One's Really Invited)". The New York Times. Retrieved 9 June 2012. 

External links[edit]