This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
1979’s Caligula was banned in Britain for some time, before eventually resurfacing and escaping to the general public in this heavily cut (51 minutes gone!) 98 minute version. Common wisdom would say it was refused classification due to it’s controversial sex scenes and supposed erotica, but I’d contend it was banned due to being so overwhelmingly awful you’ll wish they’d cut out the remaining 98 minutes.
The post of Emperor was a controversial and powerful one to be introduced in Rome, but it seemed to work out well for Julius and Agustus. Caligula kicks off before his ascension to emperor, allowing us to experience first hand Tiberius (Peter O’Toole)’s dotage in his secluded palace full of nude people and freaks of nature. Nude people will become something of a motif throughout, nailing its flesh-toned colours to the mast early doors with the opening scene of Caligula (McDowell)’s sister Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy)’s bosoms flopping around through an occasionally concealing robe.
After Tiberius attempts to poison Caligula, this irritates him enough to carry out the traditional Roman promotion plan, murder. Allowing his friend and Captain of the Praetorian Guard Macro (Guido Mannari) to off Tiberius, he ascends to the throne and starts a reign of lavish unusualness.
While Caligula hits the broad details of what came to be regarded as historical ‘facts’ (although more recent analysis suspects most of the insanity attributed to him to was a posthumous character assassination) such as his ‘overly close’ relationship with his sister, his paranoia of being murdered fuelling his own murderous habits, his attempted admissal of his favourite horse to the Senate (which is again regarded as more likely to be attributable to his strange sense of humour than insanity), the only reason these events are mentioned in the film is to provide a slightly different low-budget ropy looking facsimile of ancient Rome as a background for the continuing nudity.
Malcolm McDowell seems to have made a career of portraying nutters, and as a result he’s fairly adept at it. Having impressed as the wide-eyed psychopath Alex in A Clockwork Orange it’s interesting to see he has carried over some of the large ornamental phalluses to make a cameo appearance in Caligula. Surprisingly for inanimate objects they put in one of the more dynamic and lifelike performances present. In a film with the likes of Peter O’Toole, Helen Mirren and John Gielgud, this is not an observation that ought to be made in any sane world. Why the best actors in the movie are also relegated to minor roles is a question left as an exercise for the reader.
To be fair, on the few fleeting occasions this film focuses on the attendant political intrigue of the Emperor it’s mildly diverting. However, it quickly moves away from such lofty subjects due to the lesser scope for nudity. Indeed, by far the majority of this films woeful existence is consumed by McDowell prancing around like a tit against a backdrop of tits, making the occasional proclamation of nonsense. Throw in the terrifically terrible set dressing and the odd insanely impractical execution machine and it results in a movie no-one in their right mind would want to see for its dramatical content
As for it’s much vaunted erotic content, well, I suggest a copy of ‘Readers Wives’ would prove a more satisfying experience for all concerned. There’s certainly a fairly insane quantity of naked flesh on display, but very little of it is even remotely arousing unless you’re a very sick puppy indeed. Incest, necrophilla and the thankfully excised bestiality scenes aren’t particularly appealing to the vast majority of right-thinking folks, or even a deviant like me, and the rest of the nudity is more incidental than erotic. Witness slaves scrubbing the floor…in the nude! See the soldiers of the Empire charge…in the nude! This isn’t erotica. This is nonsense.
Caligula was one of the lucky band of films fortunate enough to be banned by the BBFC (in it’s uncut version, at least), which while disastrous for initial sales practically ensures that it will maintain a strange and discernable cachet that its actual quality cannot hope to otherwise attain. The production values are tawdry, the scripting poor and the acting abysmal. I’d recommend no-one see this film not because you’ll be shocked by its decadence, but by its dismal failure to be anywhere approaching competent.