The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
Caligula was one of those films I didn’t get to see until much later in life. Of course I had heard about it being produced by Penthouse, was gory and that it contained hardcore sex scenes. While going through the films of Tinto Brass a few years ago, I finally watched Caligula and really didn’t expect it to send me down the rabbit hole, I am still in today. That original film was a bit of a tonal mess. There was of course the promised explicitness, since it was produced by Bob Guccione, owner of Penthouse, but there was something lopsided about performances from great actors who were at top of their game. The takes were a bit all over the place from scene to scene, but sometimes they were perfectly keyed in, to the point it made me curious to know if there had been an issue with the edit.
I’m fascinated by films that fall into the “What If” category, which I realized was the case for Caligula, which had a VERY troubled production. Bob Guccione was looking to bring porno chic to the next level, by doing a big budget spectacle that had both explicit nudity AND big stars, like a Ben Hur or a Spartacus but with hardcore sex. Tinto Brass was recruited for the project after Salon Kitty with a script by Gore Vidall. The script was eventually rewritten from scratch and by the end of the chaotic production the film had doubled in budget, Brass was locked out of the edit by Guccione, and new hardcore footage was shot to insert into the film. Several crew understandably asked to have their names removed from the film and a legend was then born.
What if Caligula had been finished as intended by its director?
Earlier this year it was announced that Thomas Negovan had spent three years culling through 90 hours of raw negatives and audio to try to solve this question, thanks to Penthouse giving him access to their archives. With the Brass now 90 and suffering from dementia, Tom used the many versions of the script that were written and rewritten for the project during the shoot. Early on, when Gore had begun making rewrites difficult for Brass, McDowell stepped in for revisions that would continue to evolve throughout the shoot giving Tom several options for any given scene. But this new Ultimate Cut managed to recycle none of the original footage from the film, which makes it nearly a new film altogether. I’ve been looking forward to this screening since all of this was announced, and I got to check it out at Fantastic Fest where McDowell himself attended stating in his intro that after forty plus years his original performance was finally being seen.
While Caligula isn’t a completely different film plotwise, the performances of not only McDowell, but Mirren – whose screen time has been upped from 20 minutes to nearly an hour – really make this film finally live up to its long lost potential.
Caligula is the story of the very real Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, nicknamed Caligula, or as it translates, “Little Boots”. In a short five year reign as Caesar of Rome, he earned a reputation for being one of the most depraved emperors of the Roman Empire, which is why he was chosen by Bob Guccione as the subject of his big budget porno-chic epic. In the film, after ascending to the throne by having his great uncle Tiberius (Peter O’Toole) killed, Caligula falls prey to the ambition and greed that his uncle warned him of in his final lesson before his death. When Caligula’s sister – whom he was also sleeping with – dies, the power drunk Caligula then descends into madness as he attempts to tear down the corrupted bureaucracy from the inside out, and is assassinated. His antics include faking an invasion of Britain, naming his horse head of the senate, and forcing the wives of the Roman senators to work in his Imperial Brothel to raise money for his war chest for his fake invasion.
I felt given current events this thematic move of destroying it all and starting fresh was shockingly hyper relevant given the current sociopolitical landscape today. Caligula’s attacks on the senate are primarily due to their corruptness, having grown fat off the land and were more interested in their own personal wealth, rather than serving the will of the people.
The biggest difference here, between the many available cuts and the Ultimate Cut presented here, is the consistency of performances and thematic tissue that now feels wholly intentional and brings the film together. Thomas Negovan resurrected an unnerving and powerful performance by Mcdowell. While he is near reptilian in the first few acts as Caligula ambitiously eyes the throne, there are a few vulnerable respites showing his love for his sister. With how cutthroat the power struggle is and how treasured a commodity actual trust was in the Roman Empire, it in a very twisted way makes sense that some would look to their family for relationships. Where this invokes the other big change is Helen Mirren’s role as Caesonia, Caligula’s wife, who is full fledged player in this game and is a chaotic force to be reckoned with. Caesonia is a real ride-or-die for her husband and that makes her much more endearing and nuanced than her previous incarnation.
The last half of the film was the most surprising for “fans” of the original and has McDowell really going to some unexpected places with his character, intertwining his reptilian ambition with madness, paranoia, chaos and a real sense of dare I say regret? It’s something that on a whole gives the film a real trajectory and narrative purpose. The score also has been completely redone, leaving behind the retro Ben-Hur/Spartacus feel for something more contemporary in the realm of the 80s, and it helps further guide the audience along with these new performances and their journeys. Thomas Negovan also begins the film with a new animated sequence that shows the origin of the legendary dance that earns Malcom Mcdowell’s character his nickname of “Little Boots” and it’s a rather striking way to introduce us to Caligula and his world. Dancing is another thematic touchstone in this Caligula that has been brought to the forefront in this Ultimate edition. The act of asking someone to dance is used as a sign of asserting dominance or control of another and the repetition of this in the film only emphasizes the power struggles at play.
This really feels like the film that was originally promised by Bob Guccione back in the late 70’s, when he referred to it as a “package of excellence”. While this new Caligula doesn’t fundamentally morph the film into something more palatable for general audiences, what it does is get us as close to the original intent of the filmmakers as we will ever get. It still features plenty of nudity to signify the decadence of the Roman Empire which mirrors the late 70s disco cocaine aesthetic. I do think it’s definitely one of the best performances by McDowell, along with Mirren, and the new edit really makes this a much more coherent and tragic story that is definitely worthy of reappraisal and rediscovery. The Ultimate Cut addresses everything from performances to pacing, making this the best possible version of the film. It also shows how much weight of a film sits on the shoulders of editors and directors. Even if you have the kinds of performances unearthed here, there’s still a chance they might see the light of day.
But thankfully the “what if” has finally been answered and Caligula is the transgressive erotic masterpiece it always could have been. All Hail Caesar!