To say that Caligula (1979)is difficult to critique because too much like a a home movie would be misleading (and make my early life seem far more interesting than it was). It’s just that I saw it about a dozen times when I was in college spellbound by Malcolm McDowell, overproduction and orgies. To tell you those things are listed in the order of their magnetism, with orgies bringing up the rear, gives you an idea of the power of Malcolm McDowell.
You’d need two Viggo Mortensens, one young Sean Penn and half a Benicio Del Toro to reach McDowell’s level of intensity. That face, capable of projecting a child’s joy and diabolical cruelty at the same time is perfect for the role of alluring loon, which McDowell had just done a few years earlier in his star-making stint as Alexander DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange. The power-mad young Emperor of a dissipated Rome was a role he was born for - indeed, there’s even a scene in Clockwork where Alex imagines himself as a Roman Centurion with a bloodlust as rich as Caligula’s – only the Caligula might have had someone do the ultra violence for him (it’s so blue-collar after all) as he often does in the movie.
The film was roundly panned on its release, despite a stellar cast, including Peter O’Toole, Sir John Geilgud and Helen Mirren, who positively smolders with sexual intensity as Caligula’s wife: wise, lurid and loyal, she’s his perfect match, not even seeming to mind that he’s still fooling around with his sister who is the real love of his life. That it’s a flawed film is true, it’s greatest flaw being that in its eagerness to show us the wretched excess of Pagan Rome we never really learn that much about the title character, even those he’s in almost every frame of the picture. Caligula is called a “reptile” by his own grandfather but we never know why, which makes his cruelty seem hollow. Even McDowell’s charisma passion can’t fill the holes in the script.
The T&A of Rome, the swinging wangs and hairy coochies are all get a lot more airtime than the Emperor’s character. Caligula is hardcore art porn (made by Penthouse International, directed by Bob Guccione and TInto Brass), as heavy, purple and lurid as the time it depicts. You’ve got to love the uniquely 70’s idea that a weighty history lesson on Rome and girls going down on cocks the size of Thermoses go together like Shields and Yarnell. It says more about the period the film was made in than the one it reports on.
The sex in Caligula is mostly orgies, which pack more people in per square foot than the Tokyo subway, have more going on than a Wang Chung video and are shot in an amber firelight that’s warm and sensuous which makes a lot of it, especially the lingering shots, very hot indeed. It makes you reflect, in its brainy, art-porn way that a) every guy in Rome was hung like Trigger, b) every woman in Rome was a Venus and c) when the hell is someone going to build a time machine so we can go visit?
The best examples of Caligula’s cruelty and imagination are sexual as well, especially the one in which he deflowers – and then sort of reflowers – a young couple on their wedding day and the magnificent bordello he builds for the wives of his Senators who, he decrees, are the biggest whores in Rome and must go to work for the state.
Caligula, available for sale at Fairvilla Megastore, is a controversial classic and worth seeing for its status as such, a lesson in Roman history, 70’s sexuality and great actors participating in the great experiment of merging history, high art and hardcore. Those guys had balls. You’ll see plenty of evidence of them here.