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DVD Review: Caligula: The Imperial Edition
Bobby Black   |  

Caligula: The Imperial Edition

3-DVD Imperial Edition
Image Entertainment
Release date: October 2007


At the mere mention of the name, eyes roll and brows furrow, typically evoking reactions of either perverse pleasure or derisive disgust. Based on the reign of the notoriously sadistic and perverted Roman emperor of the same name, this erotic historical epic is widely considered to be the most controversial (and catastrophic) film in cinematic history. Now that Penthouse is free of Bob Guccione‘s grasp, the company has bravely undertaken the seemingly thankless task of re-editing, re-mastering, and re-releasing this misunderstood masterpiece as a 3-disc set — and I for one am glad they did.

As a big fan of both the ancient world and pornography, I’ve always loved this film. In fact, my best friend (and pagan high priest) Lord Julian “” who shares my aforementioned affinities “” and I have even taken to shouting “CALIGULA!” at moments of extreme debauchery and/or brutality. But despite my former interest, it wasn’t until I watched the extensive documentaries, interviews, and commentaries on this edition that I learned all the sordid details of the movie’s past.

It goes something like this: the film began auspiciously with a brilliant script penned by acclaimed historical fiction writer Gore Vidal and a top-notch cast of Shakespearean actors such as Peter O’Toole, Sir John Gielgud, Helen Mirren, and Malcolm McDowell in the title role. Their search for a director led them to eccentric but inspired Italian filmmaker Tinto Brass. In one scene of enclosed documentary “The Making of Caligula,” theatrical agent Guidarino Guidi says of their choice, “In order to make a film on a sexual mad maniac and madman, you needed another sexual maniac and madman, and the only answer was Tinto Brass.”

The final piece in the puzzle came from Penthouse magazine publisher Bob Guccione, who came on board as producer “” reportedly spending an eventual $17.5 million of his own money to see the project through. With the addition of Guccione, the stage had been set for a creative clusterfuck as perverse and painful as anything going on in the emperor’s palace.

First, before shooting even began, Vidal felt his script had been so compromised that he abandoned the film, insisting his name be stricken from the title (it was originally supposed to be called Gore Vidal’s Caligula) and disassociating himself from it entirely. The film was shot in Rome, using over 60 of the most elaborate sets ever constructed “” including the largest prop in the history of cinema (the Roman brothel ship). After they’d finished shooting nearly a hundred hours of film, an editing war ensued between Brass, Guccione, and co-producer Franco Rosselini. Rosselini had so many scenes re-ordered, re-cut, and re-shot, and so much of Vidal’s dialogue deleted, that the result was a convoluted mess.

Meanwhile, Guccione had secretly returned to the set over a year after the film had wrapped and re-shot graphic hard-core retakes with 13 of his Penthouse Pets to replace many of the soft-core sex scenes. This infuriated Brass, who later said, “In my mind, the film should have been a film on the orgy of power. In [their] version, it became the power of the orgy.” Brass claimed to have conducted a séance, invoking the spirit of Caligula himself, who revealed to him that he was about 65 percent correct in the interpretation of his character “” a percentage Brass considered flattering.

After having more hands on it than there were on the actresses, the film finally opened in limited theaters and got horrible reviews. Rather than being viewed as provocative as Guccione hoped, it was seen as merely bad. Roger Ebert declared it “sickening, joyless, utterly worthless”¦shameful trash.” To this day, critics continue to lambaste the film “” calling it bloated, overindulgent, obscene, awful, deranged, demented, and wretched.

Nevertheless, Caligula remains a sensational but authentic portrayal of the height of pagan Rome’s decadence and the devastating consequences of a God-man gone mad. Never before and never since has a movie with such graphic sexuality “” including full penetration, oral sex, and even money shots “” had such a lavish budget and star-studded cast. Despite its scandalous reputation “” or perhaps because of it “” Caligula is a boner-fide classic, and seeing a version that has decoded the orgy of incompetence surrounding its production is worth the price alone.

Those who enjoy the movie enough to own it will find most of the extra features in this release fascinating. As I’ve illustrated, the 62-minute documentary is extremely enlightening. The deleted scenes are, in most cases, merely alternate takes and angles to existing scenes and nothing worth getting aroused over. As for the alternate version of the film on Disc Two…rather than offering more sex scenes that may have been omitted as one might hope, the pre-release version is actually far less explicit. It’s probably closer to what Brass envisioned without Guccione’s corrupting influence. Also, pop in the DVD-ROM and you can check out PDFs of Vidal’s original script, the 1980 Penthouse magazine layouts from the movie, and other goodies.

But for my money, the most entertaining of the bonus features has to be McDowell’s audio commentary. His opening line of “God help us” as the title screen appears is but a small taste of the hilarious narration to come as he reminisces about O’Toole’s excessive pot smoking on set, and does a spot-on imitation of a disgruntled Gielgud: “What is a knight of the realm doing in a porno movie?”

What indeed! Personally, I tend to agree with The Gucc’s assessment: “[Caligula] is not pornography “” its paganography.”



Bobby Black is the executive editor and columnist for High Times magazine.


  1. I am honored to write on the same site as Bobby Black.

    Comment by Jerry — November 6, 2007 @ 6:28 pm

  2. This film is instilled in my mind for ever. No other film stirs such emotions. From disgust to dazzle to dismay to discharge?!?!

    Comment by Groovespook — November 7, 2007 @ 12:34 pm

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