Malcolm McDowell plays the permanently titillated titular character in this quasi-historical depiction of ancient pornocracy. It was quite hard (no pun intended) to find an appropriate image for this film, since virtually every scene is awash with naked bodies. This is the most appropriate one I could find, with only some naked bodies in.
On its release in 1979, Caligula alienated all but the randiest members of its audience with its constant and explicit sex. As well as highly explicit…ahem, organ grinding, there’s incest, implied bestiality and fisting. But the less said about it the better. Let me just say that the only film I’ve seen that comes close to this level of sex on screen is Nymphomaniac. And you can probably make a fair guess at the content of that even if you haven’t seen it.
Admittedly the DVD release is the full uncut version, so the cinematic release would have no doubt shied away from some of the prolonged displays of prolonged body parts at work, but it is in any case easy to see why people found it off-putting.
Much like Nymphomaniac it’s difficult to see past the sex, since it dominates every scene. To this point, it is the only film ever produced by Penthouse, and was disowned by its own director due to the addition of hardcore sex in post production against his wishes. Originally using a script from Gore Vidal (if you can believe it) it was quite literally sexed up, with the misguided aim of improving its commercial viability. The popular marketing idiom ‘sex sells’ clearly has a limit as it went limp at the box office.
McDowell is excellent in the lead role, bringing an element of levity rarely seen in more traditional historical films. His zaniness accurately portrays an egomaniac’s slide into insanity, just like if Alex from A Clockwork Orange had his own empire (and even lower sexual inhibitions). The music is good as well, with the best use of the Apprentice theme since Prokofiev used it in Romeo and Juliet.
As a depiction of Roman political intrigue it’s comparable to Cleopatra, but instead of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s verbal sparring, there’s a three hour orgy. But gone is the scale of the great historical epics (unless you’re talking about the scale of certain…’members’ of the cast). It boasts reasonable production values, but looks more like it was inspired by a toga party than actual Romans. A bigger issue than the sex is simply that the historical genre doesn’t appear to have progressed at all since the 1960s.
It also fails to get to the root of the reason for the empire’s decadence and obsession with the erotic. While Caligula’s insanity is apparent, the film’s determination to cram in as much coital congress as possible from the word ‘go’ shows that Caligula inherited this culture rather than created it, making his arc less interesting. For a film with such frequent fornication it has remarkably little to say on the topic.