Caligula: The Worst Movie Ever Made?

Esquire Magazine recently published an article, “Caligula Wasn’t Supposed to Be a Porno.” In the article, critic Chris Nashawaty discusses how the movie was so bad that Roger Ebert walked out two hours into the movie and did not stay for the rest of the 156-minute film. Nashawaty describes Caligula as, “A film that was so inept and god-awful he (Ebert) had to get up and walk out of the theater.” In Ebert’s review of the film, he said:

‘Caligula’ is sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash. If it is not the worst film I have ever seen, that makes it all the more shameful: People with talent allowed themselves to participate in this travesty. Disgusted and unspeakably depressed, I walked out of the film after two hours of its 170-minute length. That was on a Saturday night, as a line of hundreds of people stretched down Lincoln Ave., waiting to pay $7.50 apiece to become eyewitnesses to shame. I wanted to tell them…what did I want to tell them? What I’m telling you now. That this film is not only garbage on an artistic level, but that it is also garbage on the crude and base level where it no doubt hopes to find its audience. ‘Caligula’ is not good art, it is not good cinema, and it is not good porn.

If you are not familiar with the 1979 movie, Caligula is an erotic historical drama film focusing on the eponymous Roman Emperor Caligula’s rise and fall. The film starred Malcolm McDowell in the title role, alongside great actors like Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, and John Gielgud. It is the only feature film produced by the men’s magazine Penthouse. Producer Bob Guccione, Penthouse magazine’s founder, intended to make an explicit pornographic film with a feature film narrative and high production values. Guccione signed Gore Vidal to write the screenplay. Vidal was paid $200,000 and wrote the script as a debauched and homoerotic allegory about how absolute power corrupts absolutely. Vidal naively believed that his screenplay about the mad, monstrous emperor who became synonymous with cruelty, insanity, and megalomania would be a relatively classy affair. There was no initial indication that the film would become a pornographic monstrosity. 

While Vidal was naïve to think this would be a reputable movie, he had reason to believe that Guccione did want to make something respectable. After all, Caligula was not Guccione’s first foray into filmmaking; he had already helped finance a handful of major-studio productions such as Chinatown (1974), The Longest Yard (1974), and The Day of the Locust (1975). As Nashawaty points out:

Caligula wasn’t supposed to be a porno movie. Not exactly. Yes, there would be ample nudity of both the male and female variety. And sure, Guccione had personally flown a bevy of his magazine’s voluptuous Penthouse Pets to Italy to appear as horny extras. But it didn’t start out as the hardcore film that would end up playing in theaters.

However, when the movie’s budget grew to over $17 million, Guccione became a little nervous. Guccione sensed he would not be able to recoup the film’s costs; so, he decided (unbeknownst to anyone involved with the project) that he needed to take control of the film back from director Tinto Brass. Guccione snuck onto the set late at night and secretly shot hours of graphic pornographic inserts to splice into the film. The result was an odd jumble of scenes of unsimulated sex scenes and orgies.

I always loved teaching Ancient Rome, especially the mad emperors Tiberius (Reigned 14–37 CE), Caligula (Reigned 37–41 CE), Claudius (Reigned 41–54 CE), and Nero (Reigned 54–68 CE). It was always one of my most popular lectures. I read a lot about the emperors, especially Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars. So, back when Netflix still mailed out DVDs, I requested Caligula to see what all the talk was about. While it’s a terrible movie, it is by far not the worst that I have ever seen. I have seen many independent gay movies that were atrocious and barely watchable. However, I used to (with a disclaimer) allow my college students to watch and review Caligula for extra credit, along with dozens of other much better historical movies. Only a few took me up on the offer to watch Caligula, and those who did were all shocked. It is a shocking movie; how shocking depends on whether you watch the 1981 105-minute R-rated version without the explicit sexual material or the original 1979 156-minute version.

If you’ve never watched the original version of Caligula, you might think Guccione’s post-production edits and additions might have turned the film into the sexy, high-quality pornographic film Guccione intended, but you’d be sadly disappointed. The spliced scenes of endless orgies and graphic close-ups, complete with a graphic castration sequence, fisting, and oral sex, are so strange and out of place in this strange attempt to portray Caligula’s debauchery. Honestly, most of the film is just boring. Although contemporary reviews were overwhelmingly negative, Caligula is now often considered a cult classic by some, and its political content is deemed to have some merit. I think we have all seen cult classics that are so bad that they are good. Nashawaty Esquire article states that Caligula is not in this category. Amazingly, McDowell, O’Toole, Gielgud, and Mirren emerged from the ignominy unscathed, considering how bad the film was. As for Vidal, he cashed his six-figure check and told Caligula war stories for years.

Have you ever seen Caligula? Did you see the full version or the edited version? What was your opinion of the movie? If you haven’t seen it, are you tempted to watch it? Warning: It is graphic!

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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