I couldn't help it: I was young. (Actually, I was 35, but skip that for now.) Back in 1999, I acquired my first multi-region DVD machine, capable of playing discs from all over the world. A couple of months later, I found myself on a two-week holiday in America, a country crammed with video shops which were prepared to sell me DVDs I couldn't buy back home. So if Customs had chosen to examine my suitcase on my return from the States, they'd have found one movie in there that they'd previously prohibited from ever entering the UK: the uncut version of Caligula.
That was nine years ago. Embarrassingly, up until recently, I still hadn't seen it: I'd lent it to a few people at work, but never got around to watching it myself. So imagine my irritation when I discovered that Caligula's previously unspeakable perversions have now officially entered the British mainstream. It's been passed uncut by the BBFC, and as of this week it can be purchased in all its hardcore glory from your local high street. (Or from the Amazon link below, of course.) Which probably means it's about time I sat down and watched it.
To be frank, the story behind the making of Caligula is infinitely more interesting than the film itself. Just a glance at the opening credit roll gives you a hint of how troubled its production was:
Adapted from an original screenplay by Gore Vidal
Principal photography by Tinto Brass
Editing by The Production
Additional scenes directed and photographed by Giancarlo Lui and Bob Guccione
Guccione's name is the key one here. Back in 1976, when Caligula started filming, he was the boss of Penthouse magazine. Gore Vidal had approached him with a script documenting the life of Rome's most demented emperor, and Guccione saw it as an opportunity to produce a whole new type of movie - a big-budget historical epic, with shagging. He assembled a cast of heavyweight British talent that no porn film before or since has ever matched: Malcolm McDowell in the title role, Helen Mirren as his wife Caesonia, Peter O'Toole as his predecessor Tiberius, and John Gielgud as adviser Nerva. With a bevy of Penthouse Pets as supporting players, and notorious Italian softcore director Tinto Brass at the helm, what could go wrong?
Well, everything. By the time Caligula finally saw the light of day in 1979, both Vidal and Brass had been thrown off the project. Rumours of major personality clashes between the writer, the director and Guccione were rife, particularly when the producer took it upon himself to film extra hardcore material that could be inserted into the film whenever the plot threatened to get in the way. The definitive version of the film, over two and a half hours long, is most famous for those hardcore scenes: but several other versions have existed over the years, as censors, producers and distributors have all had a go at recutting it to their liking.
The new UK Imperial Edition from Arrow Films contains no fewer than three separate versions of the movie across its four discs, but the main point of interest has to be the first legal British appearance of the full hardcore cut. How does it hold up, in the light of the BBFC's newly relaxed attitude to stiffies, jizz and the ILOOLI rule? Well, it's a right old mess, really. Even if you hadn't been told in advance that the sex scenes had been added after the event, it wouldn't be too difficult to work it out - typically, in the middle of a dramatic scene involving the real actors, there'll be a sudden cutaway to some porn stars in togas playing with themselves. Any traces of Tinto Brass' eroticism, or Gore Vidal's wit and intelligence, have been completely obliterated in the carcrash transitions between sex and drama. If you're looking for a shopping list of what the new DVD will give you that the previous one didn't, the good people at Melonfarmers will be happy to oblige. But aside from the impressive excess of the climactic orgy sequence, there's not much here that's of interest, and (for me at least) nothing particularly arousing.
Which means I have to be the film geek, and analyse a porn film to see what's interesting in it if you ignore the porn. Sadly, the drama's quite indifferently handled. McDowell at least appears to be having a reasonable amount of fun in his role: I don't actually have a copy of the new UK edition, but I'd be fascinated to hear the commentary track he recently recorded for it. The veteran actors fare less well, sadly: O'Toole is pissed throughout, while Gielgud cunningly channels his obvious distaste for the whole enterprise into the distaste of his character. The Italian supporting actors all suffer from being dubbed into English, and by incredibly familiar voices at that: I spotted Patrick Allen and Joss Ackland, and there may well be more.
The technical aspects of the film don't hold up much better. If there's one element that remains impressive to this day, it's Danilo Donati's magnificent set and costume design. Donati had previously worked with masters like Fellini and Pasolini, and he comes closest to delivering the epic look that Guccione was aiming for, from the gaudy opulence of the palace settings to the lunatic scale of Caligula's death machine. Unfortunately, Brass ruins the visuals with his camera's habit of obsessively zooming in and out all the time, one of those stylistic tics peculiar to the period. Meanwhile, Paul Clemente's score veers clumsily between bombast and sleaze, rather like the film itself. The music's been padded out with classical selections from Khachaturian and Prokofiev, but somehow they just make it sound even cheesier. This must have been especially true for British viewers when the film was first released, watching the tragedy of Caligula's incestuous relationship with his sister being played out to the theme from The Onedin Line.
If you're interested in the film's hellish production history, there are plenty of new documentaries and commentaries on the subject in the Imperial Edition, though I'm afraid I haven't seen any of them myself. But I'm glad to report that the one extra from my 1999 American DVD appears to have made it onto there: the portentiously-titled A Documentary On The Making Of 'Gore Vidal's Caligula', which dates back to before the release of the movie (while it still had the working title Gore Vidal's Caligula). Both Vidal and Brass justify their efforts in speeches to camera, before Guccione wades in with his hairy chest and medallion (oh yes) to contradict them both and give his own view on the "package of excellence" he was assembling. Helen Mirren is allowed one line of opinion - "an irresistible mixture of art and genitals" - before someone notices the filthy smirk on her face and bars her from the rest of the documentary. The whole thing is topped off with a voiceover narration from Bill Mitchell, whose subterranean tones worked brilliantly on thirty-second Denim adverts but sound bloody stupid stretched over a sixty minute film.
When Mitchell claims that Caligula "will without question be the most widely seen and talked-about film of our time," it's hard not to be entertained by the industrial levels of hubris displayed by all concerned (with the possible exception of Helen Mirren). And that's probably the main reason to buy the Imperial Edition of Caligula today: to watch in appalled fascination as a large-scale movie production goes hilariously off the rails. It's certainly not worth buying for the sex - I've spent nine years assuming that this was the hardest-cored thing in my DVD collection, only to find that 42nd Street Forever: XXX-Treme Edition knocks it into an enormous-cocked hat. Film students will have a great time with Caligula: wankers, not so much.