Caligula is a 1979 film directed by Tinto Brass, with additional scenes filmed by Giancarlo Lui and Penthouse founder Bob Guccione. The film concerns the rise and fall of Roman Emperor Gaius Caesar Germanicus, better known as "Caligula". Caligula was written by Gore Vidal and co-financed by Penthouse magazine, and produced by Guccione and Franco Rossellini. It stars Malcolm McDowell as the Emperor. Caligula remains the only major motion picture to feature eminent film actors (Sir John Gielgud, Peter O'Toole, Malcolm McDowell, Dame Helen Mirren) in a film with graphic and explicit sex.
Caligula, the young heir to throne of the syphilis ridden, half mad Emperor Tiberius, thinks he has received a bad omen after a black bird flies into his room early one morning. Shortly afterwards, Macro, the head of the Praetorian Guards, appears and tell the young man that his grandfather (Tiberius) demands for him to arrive at once on the Isle of Capri, where he has been residing for a number of years with his close friend Nerva, the dim-witted relative Claudius and Gemellus, Caligula's younger stepbrother and Tiberius' favourite. Caligula, fearing an assassination, is afraid to leave, but his beloved sister Drusilla convinces him to do so.
Once at the Capri, Caligula finds his grandfather has become a bitter, filthy old man, marred by his numerous venereal diseases, who has been long disillusioned with Rome and politics. In order to pass the time he spends living at the Capri, Tiberius puts on various degrading sexual shows, often including children and various freaks of nature. Caligula can't do anything but watch in a mix of fascination and horror. Tensions only rise when Tiberius jokingly tries to poison Caligula in front of Gemellus. But once Tiberius collapses from a stroke after Nerva commits suicide in fear of living under Caligula's inevitable reign, Macro and Caligula begin planning a way to make Tiberius' departure swifter.
Late one night, Macro escorts all the spectators out of Tiberius' bed chamber in order for Caligula to get rid of his loathed grandfather once and for all, but when he's unable to, Macro finishes the deed himself by strangling Tiberius with a scarf. Caligula truimphantly takes the imperial ring off of Tiberius' hand, realising only too late that Gemellus bore witness to the murder. Tiberius is buried with honours and Caligula is proclaimed the new Emperor, who in turn proclaims Drusilla his equal, much to the disparagement of the senate. Afterwards, Drusilla, fearful that Macro may turn the tables against them, convinces Caligula to get rid of him. Caligula obliges by setting up a mock trial, in which Gemellus, scared into being a "witness," claims that Macro acted alone. Macro, along with a number of other perceived enemies of the state, are buried up to their necks in sand and decapitated by lawn mower-like blades attached to a giant moving wall. After dispatching Macro, Caligula proclaims the docile senator Chaerea as the new head of the Praetorian Guard. With Macro gone, Drusilla considers that her next duty is to find Caligula a wife amongst the Priestesses of the Goddess Isis, a religion which she and her brother secretly practice. However, Caligula wants to marry Drusilla, even though she tries to explain to him that only the Egyptians are allowed to do so. Out of spite, Caligula decides to marry Caesonia, a known courtesan, but only after she bears him an heir.
Caligula proves himself to be a popular, but eccentric ruler. He gives various tax breaks to the Roman citizens and purges all the oppressive laws that Tiberius designed, yet the senate begins to dislike the young Emperor due to various silly proclamations and insults Caligula devises in order to poke fun at the law structure. However, some darker traces of his personality begin to surface, such as raping of an innocent bride and groom on their wedding day due to a minor fit of jealousy and heartlessly ordering the execution of Gemellus for no apparent reason other than to provoke Drusilla.
Soon after he finds out that Caesonia is pregnant, Caligula gets struck down by the fever, but Drusilla manages to nurse him back to health. After he has made full recovery, Caesonia gives birth to a baby girl and Caligula marries her. During the celebration, Drusilla collapses in Caligula's arms from the fever which she contracted while nursing him back to health. While Drusilla is in the care of the royal physician, Caligula receives another ill omen in the shape of a black bird. He rushes to Drusilla's side and watches her expire. Caligula experiences a nervous breakdown, smashing the nearby statue of Isis into pieces and dragging Drusilla's limp body around the palace while screaming hysterically.
Caligula, in deep depression, escapes into the Roman streets, disguised as a beggar to see first hand what his citizens live like. After a brief stint in the city jail, he returns to the palace, along with a mute giant he befriended in prison as his new right-hand man, determined to take down the senatorial class, which he has come to loathe. His reign becomes one humiliation after another for the upper class. The senators' wives are forced to work as prostitutes in order to boost up the treasury, estates are confiscated and Caligula personally degrades the state religion and launches a faux war on Britain in order to humiliate the army. It soon becomes clear to the senators and the military that the only way out of the horrific cycle of systematic abuse is to have Caligula assassinated.
Late one night, while reflecting on his recent actions, Caligula wanders into his bedroom where the nervous Caesonia waits for him. The black bird makes one last appearance, but this time only Caesonia is scared by it.
The next morning, after rehearsing an Egyptian play, a blitz attack, headed by Chaerea, is launched on Caligula and his family. Caesonia is brutally stabbed in the stomach and their daughter has her head smashed against the marble steps of the stadium. The giant tries to protect them but is beheaded by Chaerea. Caligula is stabbed repeatedly, but being his usual defiant self, he mockingly cries out to Chaerea, "I live!"
As the bodies of Caligula and his family are thrown down the stairs and their blood is washed off the marble, a High Priest declares Claudius the new Emperor and the cycle of politics, blood and sex begins all over.
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 Wertmuller, Tinto Brass, a relatively young Italian director, was selected by Guccione to direct the film. Guccione was impressed by Brass' previous work, the 1976 controversial film Salon Kitty, which fused explicit sex with a big budget historical drama. Caligula production was housed in Dear Studios, Rome, where the infamous Cleopatra was filmed thirteen years earlier. Shooting commenced in September 1976, with plans for a 1977 release.
However, 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 as 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."
Casting and logistical issues were also a problem. Uncomfortable with the sex and nudity in the script, the female lead Schneider quickly resigned from the film. It was also 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 matte paintings, 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 also plagued by delays due to disagreements between Brass and Donati over Brass not using Donati's completed sets, 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." With the help of McDowell, Brass rewrote some of the screenplay.
By the time the principal photography on Caligula had 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."
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") , casting actual criminals as Roman senators, and using what Guccione considered "fat, ugly, and wrinkled old women" in the sex scenes instead of his Penthouse Pets. Guccione hired 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 also shot extra scenes of hardcore sexual material 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 Caligula. 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). In 1981, Anneka Di Lorenzo, (aka Marjorie Lee Thoresen) the 1975 Penthouse Pet of The Year centerfold model who played Messalina, also sued Guccione, claiming that he damaged her career by using hardcore sexual scenes in the final cut of Caligula without her knowledge, thereby associating her unfairly with a pornographic film. After a protracted litigation, in 1990 a New York state court awarded her $60,000 in compensatory damages and $4,000,000 in punitive damages. On appeal, the punitive damages were determined to be not recoverable and the court vacated the award.
In late 1979, three years after production began, Caligula made its debut.