Many people associate the late 1970s with exploitation and sexually explicit content, yet “Caligula” is one of the few high-profile films from the era that was able to secure a theatrical release despite its violent violence and unsimulated sex scenes. The theatrical attraction of 1979’s “Caligula” was heavily reliant on shock value in the wake of the release of other contentious and graphic movies like “I Spit on Your Grave” and “Sal, or the 120 Days of Sodom” and other films of a similar nature. It managed to cram explicit pornography, gore, animal brutality, and sexual violence into a 156-minute running time. “Caligula,” regarded as an erotic historical drama, recounts the fictionalised account of the Roman Emperor Caligula (Malcolm McDowell).
Many accounts describe Caligula as a mentally ill ruler who enjoyed hedonism, sadism, and sexual exploits even if much of his real reign in Rome is speculative (via History.com). Despite its admirable — if superficial — message, the project was met with fury and controversy. Bob Guccione’s film adaption attempted to investigate Caligula’s mental breakdown and the notion that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” “Caligula” is viewed as long-form pornography with a flimsy plot by many moviegoers. Even the movie’s all-star ensemble, which featured Helen Mirren, John Gielgud, and Peter O’Toole in addition to McDowell, couldn’t stop the protests and several country bans; the movie is supposedly still off-limits in Canada and Iceland.
It’s obvious that a lot happened behind the scenes of “Caligula” that many people are unaware of in the wake of the movie’s social and legal problems. We’ve created a list that reveals the “Caligula’s” hidden truth as a result.
Caligula is produced by the founder of Penthouse Magazine
The creation of “Caligula,” which was initially a creative project supported by Bob Guccione, the creator of Penthouse Magazine, was the first indication that something was wrong.
Penthouse combines softcore pornography with cultural essays, therefore the publication’s involvement helps partially explain some of the gratuitous sex scenes in the movie.
Although Caligula’s sexual tendencies played a part in the plot, Guccione’s original ideas were ultimately responsible for the issue.
Guccione stated that while he was no stranger to sponsoring high-budget movies like “Chinatown” and “The Longest Yard,” “Caligula” was the first time he was engaged with the creation of one. (Source: Malcolmmcdowell.net.)
To the dismay of the actual director of the movie, Giovanni “Tinto” Brass, who finally quit, his creative involvement resulted in such graphic sexual imagery all throughout the movie (via Filmint).
The Encyclopedia of Epic Films claims that the founder of Penthouse had a vision of mixing Shakespearean performers with explicit sex scenes and knew from the start that he wanted to make an adult film. According to several outspoken critics of the movie, such as scholar Ranjit Sandhu, who wrote the book “200 Degrees of Failure,” Guccione sought to modify the regulations governing public viewings of pornography, and for him, making a high-budget, story-driven adult film would open up legal loopholes. That may also provide an explanation for the utilisation of unsimulated sex scenes, which are uncommon in the realm of movies (via IndieWire).
Although the majority of critics believe Guccione solely intended to create erotica, he insisted that “Caligula” was not pornographic and should be regarded as legitimate art in a 1980 interview with Penthouse: “We’ve done with cinematic visuals what so many authors and historians have done with words.”
Director Tinto Brass disavowed the film due to the post-production change in tone
After the movie’s debut, suspicions started to circulate regarding Tinto Brass’ involvement in the finished product. Gore Vidal, the project’s author, and Brass, its director, would both denounce it before it was formally published (via New York Magazine). Brass, though, was involved in the entire shooting, so his exit was less obvious.
Many reviewers initially believed that Brass’ departure was merely a result of his disagreement with Bob Guccione on the inclusion of its real-life sex scenes. Guccione returned to Rome with a few of the Penthouse models after the shoot for Brass concluded in December 1976 in order to covertly record the intense sex scenes on the set (via Malcolmmcdowell.net). He allegedly continued by preventing Brass from entering the editing room, adding the video he shot, and radically altering the mood Brass had intended for the movie (via The Globe and Mail). While Brass was willing to make a movie about sexual degradation, his goal was more artistic than sensuous, according to “What Wild Ecstasy.” Guccione claimed that hiring Tinto Brass was his “worst mistake ever” and that he had “run up large costs, cast genuine criminals as Roman senators, and utilised ‘ugly’ women in the orgy sequences” (via New York Magazine).
After the film’s release, Malcolm McDowell, who played Caligula, expressed his admiration for Brass and disgust with the endeavour. The actors were informed that the movie would feature nudity rather than pornography. “I’ll tell you honestly, this photo still creates extremely bad feelings in me – it was a real betrayal,” he stated in an interview.
Roger Ebert walked out of Caligula
Roger Ebert, the renowned Pulitzer Prize–winning film critic, rarely got up in the middle of a showing and left (via Screen Rant). Though he promised in 2008 to “Never, ever again review a film [he] hasn’t seen in its entirety,” Ebert had quite a message for the production company and its potential audience back when “Caligula” was released in the U.S. However, even the seasoned film veteran was apparently no match for the very worst of “Caligula” (via The Los Angeles Times).
“Caligula” is one of the few movies that Ebert couldn’t finish, despite the fact that, according to his review, he made it through the first two hours of one of the most divisive movies of the 1970s. He refers to it as “sickening, absolutely worthless, despicable rubbish” in the opening sentence of his review and claims that it might be among the worst films he’s ever watched. In his zero-star review, Roger Ebert sums up his feelings by saying, “‘Caligula’ is not good art, it is not good cinema, and it is not good porn.” He specifically criticises the film’s depiction of intense violence, poor cinematography, and the absence of genuine eroticism rather than “a nauseating excursion into base and sad fantasies.”
The film depicts an actual birth
Unexpectedly, “Caligula” has a renowned sequence that doesn’t feature any explicit sexual material or violent behaviour; instead, it appears to show a real, unedited birth. In order to record a live birth for the movie, Tinto Brass kept seven expectant ladies on call (per Den of Geek). The disturbing sequence allegedly required three takes with three separate expectant mothers. Despite the fact that many might anticipate the worst given the contentious nature of the production, all of the doctors present during the birth were real, working physicians with access to sterile, contemporary medical technology.
Caligula was anticipated to leave behind a male successor, as was the case with all freshly minted ancient monarchs. Caligula and Caesonia (Helen Mirren), who were due to give birth, had a history of having offspring who killed their parents and vice versa, as the movie makes apparent. It is expected that Caligula’s child will be born in a lavish public ceremony. In front of an audience of Roman elite, the pregnant body-double for Mirren is seen giving birth while wearing a mask to conceal her face. Attendees essentially throw their own party as the empress of Rome gives birth just a few feet away in what can only be described as the most theatrical, group baby shower possible. Considering all the effort they put in, it’s surprising that the birth scene is so quick and subdued given the movie’s propensity to depict obscene and unsimulated imagery.
The original film was not supposed to have hardcore sex scenes
Adult movies like “Last Tango in Paris” started to conflate popular culture and pornography in the 1970s. However, Bob Guccione wanted to push the boundaries of making an X-rated sexual film even farther with “Caligula.” According to New York Magazine, he stated that he wants to “create a film by a famous book, with a major director, major stars, and go all the way.” Guccione set out to create an adult movie with one of the biggest budgets in history with this goal in mind, but most of the cast and crew had no idea it would be an adult movie (via Esquire).
Although actors like Malcom McDowell, Peter O’Toole, and Helen Mirren were initially hired to portray characters in nudity and simulated sex sequences, no one would learn about the hardcore sex scenes that were inserted into the movie until after it had already screened. Guccione misled them when he presented the movie’s premise to them as a hard-core pornographic production with lavish sets and excessive nudity (Mirren later compared the set to a “nudist camp”). When “Caligula” is complete, it contains everything from money shots to oral sex and everything in between. Although it’s obvious that Guccione wanted to push the boundaries of adult entertainment with this movie, the most overt, unsimulated sex scenes weren’t really shot or included in the original storyboard until Tinto Brass had officially wrapped up filming the entire thing. Guccione returned to the set with post-production director Giancarlo Lui to film shots, including the famed lesbian sex scene between Anneka Di Lorenzo and Lori Wagner (via The Guardian).
The original screenplay was far more homoerotic
There is a lot to be written about Gore Vidal’s unexpected departure from “Caligula,” especially in light of the fact that the movie was originally titled “Gore Vidal’s Caligula” before his legal dispute with Bob Guccione (via WhatCulture). It’s obvious that conflicts between him, Tinto Brass, and Guccione erupted far sooner in the production than they did for the majority of the team. New York Magazine claims that Vidal received $200,000 for his screenplay but made it quite apparent that he didn’t want to be there and didn’t like the way Guccione changed what was purportedly meant to be a political drama. Guccione has implied that Vidal’s original story didn’t align with the Penthouse vision, stating that the original script concentrated almost entirely on homoerotic romance. Vidal stated, “I have the dubbing script in my possession. So I have a pretty fair idea of the sleazy porn Guccione has done with my screenplay” (via Malcolmmcdowell.net). Caligula and his sister Drusilla were allegedly the sole heterosexual couple in this early iteration. Although not many modifications were made, Guccione claimed that the final product includes less perverse sex than Gore’s initial script and is now more appealing to heterosexuals.
Guccione also suggested that Vidal was challenging to work with. The majority of movie directors, according to Vidal, are “parasites,” whereas screenwriters are a movie’s true visionaries (per Time). He was eventually expelled from the film’s set by Brass and Guccione (per The Seattle Times). Vidal quickly cut himself out of the production, and no one is given credit for writing the script in the movie.
The sets and costumes were reused for Messalina, Messalina!
Although “Caligula” may have been the most costly adult movie ever to make, that doesn’t always indicate it was successful. Many people were actually worried that the movie might never be released from the beginning of development to post-production, which would imply that the millions of money invested on the movie would be lost (via Not Coming to a Theater Near You). Co-producer Franco Rossellini decided to repurpose the pricey costumes and sets because there were so many ongoing litigation from the actors and crew against the movie. The unauthorised sequel to “Caligula,” “Messalina, Messalina!,” reused as much of the production designer Danilo Donati’s sets and outfits as feasible.
With Anneka Di Lorenzo reprising her role from “Caligula,” the Italian sex comedy “Messalina, Messalina!” is a low-budget retelling of Messalina’s relationship with Emperor Claudius (Vittorio Caprioli). The buzz surrounding “Caligula” led to a number of knock-offs, like “Caligula… The Untold Story,” trying to capitalise on presenting a hypersexualized ancient Roman Despite the fact that many people view “Messalina, Messalina!” as a sequel, it was released two years earlier, in 1977, as a result of the lengthy post-production of the first movie.
Donati was responsible for creating the elaborate, meticulously detailed sets as well as the clothes, jewellery, and wigs. Unfortunately, Donati did not agree with the decision to reuse his work. “Messalina, Messalina!” has a message during the opening credits that reads: “Certain elements of the sets and decorations created for the film Caligula by Danilo Donati have been used in the production of this film without his consent.” Despite the fact that Donati was only paid to design the set and costumes of “Caligula,” it’s simple to mistake “Messalina, Messalina!” for the same movie with different actors.
The uncut version of the film is banned in multiple countries
Even while it might have seemed like movies were much more pornographic in the 1970s and 1980s, there were still strict censorship rules in place everywhere. It didn’t take long for nations to start censoring and outright banning “Caligula,” a project that was so contentious. The anti-pornography and morality movements’ attempts to file lawsuits against the movie to stop it from playing in places like New York, Boston, and Atlanta are described in the book “Freedom and Entertainment.” But in the United States, none of these challenges would succeed in halting the film’s distribution because all of the judges would ultimately rule in favour of the movie. The Miller test, which decides whether speech or expression is deemed offensive, would find that “Caligula” passed despite its explicit sexual content, according to the Boston Municipal Court (per The Washington Post).
The uncut version could not be screened in other nations, therefore these problems varied internationally. Many nations, including Australia, would outlaw the movie until 1981, when Penthouse International Films published a 105-minute R-Rated version that omitted the obscene, hardcore scenes, according to the book “Caligula and the Fight for Artistic Freedom.” The United Kingdom wouldn’t allow the release of the unedited version until 2008, while other nations like Russia would maintain their bans until 1993. (via Evening Standard). According to some reports, the movie is still illegal in Canada and Iceland nearly 40 years later (per History.com), despite the fact that other sources claim it was shown in some areas of Canada for at least six months. Despite the production’s fight against censorship, it is presently essentially inaccessible and not listed on any streaming services. It is only available on DVD from unaffiliated vendors (via JustWatch).
There are few official credits on the film due to its many lawsuits
Films rarely go without any writing or directorial credits, despite the fact that we may be familiar with ghostwriters and unnamed, nameless teams. “Caligula” has any formal credits, as if the entire movie somehow popped out of nowhere, but the truth is much darker. Lawsuits hounded the production throughout post-production, which lasted from the end of filming in 1976 to 1979, to the point where the cast and crew were worried the movie would never be released. This initial batch of lawsuits, in contrast to those that sought to prevent the movie from playing after it had been released, were brought by crew members who wished to remove themselves from what they perceived to be a bad or embarrassing mark on their CV (via The Spool). The original screenplay’s author, Gore Vidal, filed a lawsuit to have his name removed following modifications (per Pop Matters). Tinto Brass, the film’s director, would deny all responsibility for it and receive only a principle photography credit. Many cast members experienced issues with the production, including Anneka Di Lorenza, who played Messalina and later sued Penthouse International Films and Bob Guccione for sexual harassment on set.
Over 100 uncredited people connected with the makeup, hair, and design departments may also be found on the IMDb crew list for the movie. Although there were several editors on the movie, none of their names are given in the credits. They are still mentioned in the movie’s opening credits, which read “Edited by the Production.”
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