Monday, May 24, 2010

Caligula Resurrectus

The London Symphony Orchestra performing Montagues and Capulets, aka Dance of the Knights from Act 1 Scene 2 of Prokofiev's ballet Romeo & Juliet. The evocative piece was used as the title theme for Bob Guccione's controversial film Caligula.

The only news more astonishing than Italian director Tinto Brass's announcement of a planned 3D remake of Caligula is that Brass intends to remake the film as a comedy, which sounds about as funny as a Mexican kidnapping. The film is reportedly entitled Who Killed Caligula?, and is described as "the first erotic comedy in stereoscopic 3D."

Shooting was scheduled to begin in Rome in July 2010. 

Terrible as it sounds, the film will be hard-pressed to surpass Brass's previous effort in terms of sheer tastelessness.

If, as Oscar Wilde observed, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, the original Caligula (1980) remains an unqualified success. Over thirty years after its initial release, Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione's over-the-top epic about the excesses of the infamous Roman emperor is still talked about in the hushed tones usually reserved for sex crimes or genocide; the film remains a much sought-after collectible among aficionados of shock cinema.

Guccione promoted Caligula as "the most controversial film ever made," and he may be right. The film's notoriety arose from its graphic violence and its portrayal of actual sex acts, however Caligula cannot honestly be called true pornography because the film's overriding effect is to nauseate rather than titillate. And it arguably has some artistic and social merit. Offensive as the film is--and it is extremely offensive--it is not altogether historically inaccurate.

'Oderint dum metuant'
('Let them hate, so long as they fear')
- Caligula -


Caligula (photo: Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek/Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0)

The Roman emperor Caligula (AD 37 - AD 41) is often held up as an example of the corrupting influence of extreme power. Ultimate power doesn't always corrupt ultimately, however when combined with the effects of childhood trauma, brain damage, lead poisoning, and a narcissistic personality disorder--as was likely the case with Caligula--the results are bound to be less than charitable. If Caligula was the monster that some have claimed him to be, he likely wasn't born that way but was made one through a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances. 

Caligula's actual name was Gaius (short for Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), however as a youth he was nicknamed Caligula, which meant "little (soldier's) boots." Caligula's father, Germanicus, was a highly respected Roman general whom the boyhood Caligula frequently accompanied on military campaigns dressed in a miniature soldier's outfit. The nickname "Caligula" referred to the shoe-like leather sandals, or caliga (pl. caligae), worn by Roman soldiers.

Caliga (photo Matthias Kabel)

According to the historian Suetonius (The Lives of the Twelve Caesars), Caligula was dearly loved by the Roman soldiers, primarily out of affection for his father, Germanicus. So great was the young Caligula's influence with the Roman army that when the army threatened to revolt against the new emperor Tiberius following the death of Caesar Augustus, the mere sight of the boy was enough to becalm the soldiers and quell the uprising.

It's clear that even at a very young age, Caligula was one of the most powerful people in the Roman empire. Which mightn't have been a bad thing had Germanicus survived to exert a moderating influence on the boy.

Apart from being a brilliant general, Germanicus was a noble, bigger-than-life character who was immensely popular with the army and the people of Rome. Had he not been assassinated by order of his own adoptive father, Tiberius, Germanicus likely would have become emperor of Rome. Under his influence, the young Caligula might have turned out very differently.

Bust of Germanicus (photo: Louvre)

Unfortunately, Tiberius was a vicious, paranoid man who felt so threatened by Germanicus's popularity that he ordered Germanicus poisoned when Caligula was only 7.  Over the next decade, Tiberius managed to kill or banish most of Caligula's remaining family, while Caligula himself was kept under virtual house arrest.

Twelve years later, things would get even worse for the young future psychopath.
Bust of a young Tiberius (photo: Chris Nyborg/Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0)

At the age of 19, Caligula was brought to the island of Capri, where Tiberius ruled in absentia from one of 12 remote, impregnable palaces. The most elaborate of these, the massive Villa Jovis, was allegedly equipped with dungeons and torture chambers where Tiberius was able to indulge his obscene cruelties out of sight and sound of the rest of the empire. When Caligula arrived on the island, he half expected to be tossed from the notorious salto di Tiberio or Leap of Tiberius, the 1,000-foot cliff where Tiberius was said to have disposed of his victims.

Tiberius had other plans, however. Instead of killing Caligula, the syphilitic old emperor decided to groom the boy to be his heir, to which end he held Caligula captive on the island for six years, corrupting, terrorizing, and debauching him as he attempted to strip away any last remaining vestiges of decency and humanity. It was during this ghastly indoctrination that Tiberious is said to have wickedly boasted that he was "nursing a viper for the bosom of Rome."

Tiberius had no idea.

Island of Capri (photo: Radomil/
GNU Free Documentation License)

According to Suetonius, Caligula was understandably fearful of Tiberius, and only participated in the Emperor's loathsome depravities in order to stay alive, however Caligula soon realized that in order not to appear weak he would have to steel himself into becoming even crueler and more devious than Tiberius, in much the same way that the fictional Keyser Soze in Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects  slaughtered his own family in order to show his enemies how ruthless he was.

Marble bas-relief of Praetorian Guard (photo: source unknown/Louvre)

In AD 37, Tiberius became ill to the point of death, and it appeared as though Rome, and Caligula, would finally be rid of the perverted tyrant. When Tiberius unexpectedly recovered, Caligula ordered the head of the Praetorian GuardMacro, to promptly kill the old man. Macro obliged, either by smothering Tiberius with a pillow or strangling him with the bed curtains, it's not clear which. 

After Tiberius's death, Caligula proclaimed himself emperor and triumphanty returned to Rome, where he was cheered by an enthusiastic public who still harbored fond memories of Caligula's father. By then, Tiberius had become so despised that when Caligula entered the city, he was met with raucous cheers of "Tiberius to the Tiber!"

Statue of Caligula on horseback, British Museum, London. (photo: Stephen R. Sizer)

As a boy, Caligula had been one of the most indulged children on the planet. Nothing was denied him, which would be sufficient to distort any child's sense of ego and self-worth. In Caligula's case, this may have laid the foundation for a narcissistic personality disorder that would surface later in life. Add to this the childhood traumas of his father's assassination and the systematic destruction of his family--followed by six years of subjugation to the corruption of Tiberius--and it's easy to see why Caligula might have had personality issues.

Redheads have more fun? The colors of this reproduction bust of Caligula were based on microscopic paint chips embedded in the marble original  (photo: Matthias Kabel/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic)

When Caligula became Emperor, he initially was able to rise above his own demons and emotional handicaps to become a generous and civic-minded ruler, however fate wasn't through with Caligula. Seven months into his reign, he was struck down by a mysterious "brain illness" that nearly killed him, and from which he emerged with a dangerously altered personality. Paranoia, delusion and insomnia were the milder side effects. Far worse were the lethal rages and grotesque sexual improprieties. Based on the symptoms of Caligula's illness, some medical historians believe that he may have suffered from a bout of viral encephalitis, which can result in a dramatic personality shift due to damage to the temporal lobes of the brain. Symptoms of this sort of brain damage sometimes include extreme paranoia, irrational rages, and impulsive and aggressive sexual behaviors.

Aside from his traumatic past and the near-fatal brain illness, Caligula's tenuous grip on sanity may also have been threatened by a case of chronic lead poisoning

In a fascinating article in the May 1985 EPA Journal entitled Lead Poisoning: A Historical Perspective, author Jack Lewis makes a strong case that the Romans were virtually intoxicated with the stuff. They drank water from lead pipes--the word "plumbing" comes from "plumbum," the Latin word for lead--and also used lead as an ingredient in paints. (The ancient quip, "crazy as a painter" referred to the lunatic behavior of lead-poisoned painters).

Not only did the Romans use lead in their paints and their plumbing, they also put it on--and in--their bodies. Lead was used in makeup, and as a spermicide; they even used the soft, bittersweet metal as a food preservative and condiment

"They would never dream of drinking wine except from a golden cup, but they thought nothing of washing down platters of lead-seasoned food with gallons of lead-adulterated wine," writes Lewis of the Roman elite, going on to say that "Domitian, the last of the Flavian emperors, actually had a fountain installed in his palace from which he could drink a never-ending stream of leaded wine."

Lewis ultimately blames the Romans' addiction to lead for the sterility, incompetence and "creeping cretinism" of the Roman elite, which "manifested itself most frighteningly in such clearly degenerate emperors as Caligula, Nero, and Commodus."

Roman wines were particularly toxic due to the addition of something called defrutum, a preservative and sweetener made by simmering herbs and grapes in a lead-lined bowl. The chemical reaction between the fruit acids and the lead during the cooking process caused the precipitation of lead acetate crystals that gave the defrutum its preservative qualities and its unique bittersweet flavor. Unbeknown to the Romans, the compound was highly toxic, containing levels of lead 290,000% higher than that which the EPA has determined to be safe for human consumption.

According to the philospher and historian Philo, Caligula was frequently drunk as a result of  consuming an "abundance of strong wine" (Philo's words), which is significant because if Caligula was a heavy drinker, it's likely that he suffered from lead intoxication, the symptoms of which--i.e., insomnia, aggressive  behavior, violent mood swings--perfectly matched Caligula's strange behavior at the height of his madness.

By the time Caligula's reign was in full swing, he was, according to Philo, "utterly insane." And Philo should know. Among the early chroniclers of Caligula's exploits, Philo was one of the few who actually met the tyrant. Philo's gripping firsthand account of his encounter with Caligula while on an ambassadorial mission from Alexandria offers a vivid portrait of Caligula's terrifying megalomania.

The extent of Caligula's atrocities as reported by Suetonius and others is almost beyond comprehension. After recovering from his illness, Caligula executed several of his most loyal supporters. He declared himself a god, and humiliated and harassed the Roman Senate by executing some senators and forcing others to run beside his chariot. He lusted after  "boys and women" (Philo), and reportedly engaged in sex with his own sisters in full view of the guests at his lavish parties. At such events, Caligula is reported to have regularly raped the wives of his guests and then critiqued their performance and physical attributes. He had virgins torn apart by wild animals at sporting events, but because it was forbidden to send virgins into the arena, he had them raped before they were killed. The list goes on and on, ad nauseum, ad infinitum. 

brutusCaligula's reign was mercifully short. He was in power for less than four years, however by the time he was assassinated in AD 41, he had become so hated that his own Praetorian guards hacked him to pieces, along with his wife and child. Which is fairly surprising, considering the Praetorian guard were a pretty rough bunch themselves. They essentially were little more than paid bodyguards and assassins, loyal only to Caesar. For them to have killed the guy who wrote the paychecks suggests that even they had had a bellyful of the murderous, cross-dressing lunatic. 

Caligula's villainies were so egregious that they earned him the unprecedented indignity of being the first Roman Emperor to suffer de facto damnatio memoriae ("damnation by memory") by vote of the Roman senate, a posthumous dishonor that entailed the erasure of all traces of Caligula from the official life and history of Rome.

There are those who feel that Bob Guccione's film should have suffered a similar fate.

Roman coin bearing Caligula's likeness minted between AD 37-38 in Ionia in what is modern-day Turkey. Such currency is rare because most coins bearing Caligula's likeness were reportedly demonetized and destroyed after his assassination in AD 41. (photo: The Joe Geranio Collection)

                   GORE VIDAL'S CALIGULA

The story behind the making of Caligula the movie is actually more interesting than the film itself, and is a comic nightmare of egos and intentions gone horribly awry, the result of which was a film from which virtually everybody but Bob Guccione ultimately disassociated themselves.

Caligula began life as a screenplay by critically-acclaimed author Gore Vidal, who adapted the script from an unproduced mini-series by Roberto Rossellini. Vidal envisioned the film as a straightforward historical drama, shocking only inasmuch as it followed the traditional Suetonius accounts fairly closely. Guccione, who always had a healthy taste for sewers, liked the idea and agreed to produce the film on the condition that he be allowed to "salt the mines," so-to-speak, by adding gratuitous nude scenes spotlighting his famous Penthouse pets. Vidal didn't seem to mind, and the film was initially entitled Gore Vidal's Caligula.

(1984: Author Gore Vidal discussing his historical novel Lincoln with Pat Buchanan) 

To birth the film, Guccione hired controversial Italian director Tinto Brass, whose films were known for their provocative mixture of sexploitation and social commentary. Guccione had been particularly impressed with Tinto's Salon Kitty, loosely based on the true story of a notorious Nazy spy brothel operated by Gestapo chief Reinhard Heydrich. The slender parallels between Caligula's Rome and Nazi-era Berlin aside, Guccione was struck by Salon Kitty's lush visuals, blackly ironic cabaret numbers, and the unsettling juxtaposition of the beautiful and the grotesque (i.e., the horrific slaughterhouse sequence), and he felt that Brass's sensibilities would be perfect for a historical epic about one of the world's most perverse and powerful men. 

Sir John Gielgud as Nerva
Heading up the first-rate cast was Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange), whose blazing eyes, cruel features and crazed intensity were ideal for the part of the capricious Caligula. Peter O'Toole (Lawrence of Arabia) was cast as the decadent Tiberius, while a young Helen Mirren (The Queen) played Caligula's libertine wife, Caesonia. The great Shakespearean actor, Sir John Gielgud (Hamlet) appeared as Marcus Cocceius Nerva, one of Tiberius's closest friends and confidants, who committed suicide while living on the island of Capri as part of Tiberius's entourage. (According to the Roman historian Tacitus, the historical Nerva actually committed suicide by starving himself to death, not by cutting his wrists in a bath as depicted in the film.)

Malcolm McDowell in his signature role as Alex the droogie in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.

Caligula was an immediate imbroglio thanks to the clash of titanic egos. Producer Guccione wanted to use the film as a cross-promotion for Penthouse, to which end he attempted to showcase as many gorgeous Penthouse "pets" as possible. This infuriated Brass, who, strangely enough, was trying to make a somewhat more "serious" film, and had preferred to cast more authentic-looking women. Brass had also cast several actual criminals as Roman senators, which did not go over well with Guccione.

"He was a dyed-in-the-wool Communist," Guccione said of Brass in an interview in New York magazine. "He saw Guccione as the beast and himself as the hunter."

Brass left the production, though whether he quit or was fired by Guccione isn't clear. The accounts vary depending on who's telling the story. 

By then, Gore Vidal had divorced himself from the project out of frustration over the direction the film was taking. Brass had ordered the disgruntled Vidal off the set after Vidal had called film directors "parasites" in a magazine interview. Vidal later sued to have his name removed from the production, in exchange for which he forfeited a 10% share of the film's profits.

Unencumbered by a writer or director, Guccione hired Italian cinematographer Giancarlo Lui to help him finish the film. Unbeknownst to stars McDowell, Mirren, Gielgud and O'Toole, Guccione and Lui shot additional hardcore sex footage that was later edited into the film to make the orgy scenes more licentiously graphic. 

(right) McDowell as Caligula

Meanwhile, leading man Malcolm McDowell was squiring fellow cast members around to the most expensive restaurants and nightclubs in Rome, charging the tab to Penthouse. When Guccione got the bills, he was not amused.

Caligula eventually was released to nearly unanimous critical scorn. Many film critics found the movie irredeemably vile--worse than porn--while the most jaded, seen-it-all audiences were shocked by the film's graphic sex and violence. Moreover, it was the first time that respected stars the likes of O'Toole, Gielgud and Mirren had appeared in such a brazenly explicit film, never mind that they hadn't been on set during the shooting of the porn sequences.

One of the most enduring devices of early exploitation cinema was something known as the "square-up," which usually came at the beginning of the film in the form of a narrated voiceover or scrolling text that went something like: "This motion picture is presented not in an attempt to exploit this sensitive subject, but in the belief that it is only through an educated public that..." (blah, blah, blah, you get the picture.) The square-up provided a thin veneer of legitimacy while cueing the audience that they were about to see something scandalous or forbidden.

Caligula's square-up came in the unimpeachable form of a Bible passage--"What shall it profit a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul? (Mark 8:36)"--thereby establishing a moral high tone that absolved the audience of any culpability for what they were about to see. The aesthetic distance was designed to allow the viewer to feel less like a voyeur or participant than an objective social critic, theoretically permitting the audience to wallow in the full measure of sleaziness without feeling quite so soiled by it.

Peter O'Toole as he appeared in
David Lean's classic Lawrence
of Arabia (1962)

The film opens on a woodland scene with Caligula frolicking half-naked with his beautiful sister, Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy), with whom he has an incestuous relationship. In the bedroom scene that follows, we are furthermore surprised not only to learn that Drusilla is married, but that Caligula has had sex with her husband. Provocative as these opening scenes are, they are innocent compared with the darker, grislier outrages to come.

Tiberius Rex: O'Toole having
 a bad skin day in Caligula

The film follows Caligula's rise and descent into madness by way of a loose chronology of Suetonius, the explicit horrors of which are only ameliorated by the film's glacial pacing and art director Danilo Donati's campy vision of ancient Rome, which seems to resemble a Miami Beach palazzo as might have been designed by Donald Trump and Tony Montana.

Aside from the lingering (but curiously lackluster) sex scenes, one surefire tipoff that Caligula is an epic exploitation flick is the historically ridiculous invention of a giant lawnmower-like head-chopping machine that Caligula uses to dispatch his victims. (In spite of the gore and the lunatic absurdity of it, the scene is actually one of the least disagreeable in the entire film.)

Due to the film's slow pacing, distracted camerawork and overdubbed dialogue, the movie superficially resembles a European "art"' film, which is presumably why some people have come to regard it as a "classic," the assumption being that any European film is innately superior by virtue of having been made in Europe. However, Caligula is not a classic, not in this or any other lifetime, regardless of Mr. Guccione's efforts over the years to convince us otherwise.

The only reason anybody sits through Caligula at all is because of the notorious shock scenes, most of which involve some form of explicit sex act or sexualized violence (i.e., rape, fellatio, fisting, castration, etc.), however even those scenes are so ineptly shot, one frequently wonders what the camera was supposed to be pointed at.

Helen Mirren plays
Caligula's wife Caesonia

Much was made of the fact that Guccione wanted Caligula to be as sexy as possible in order to appeal to the readers of his magazine, yet in spite of the plethora of Penthouse "pets" who appeared in the film--mostly naked--the movie is about as erotic as a visit to a sausage factory. It's hard to tell exactly what audience Guccione was trying to reach--sadists who enjoy watching orgies involving deformed midgets?--however those who enjoy looking at penises will have a high old time. The film is crammed with them. Big ones, small ones, hard ones, soft ones, severed ones. Giant fake ones in some cases, but real ones for the most part, of every conceivable size and shape and degree of tumescence, usually engaged in activities so grotesque they can't even fairly be called homoerotic. 

Dame Helen Mirren won an 
Oscar for her portrayal of 
Queen Elizabeth II in 

The construction of human male genitalia is clearly a triumph of function rather than form. In the catalog of terrestrial zoology, there is likely not a more aesthetically ridiculous collection of functional organs than those which obstruct the inseam. Why they are such a prominent feature of Caligula given Guccione's intended audience of heterosexual male Penthouse readers is something of a mystery, however if Guccione's intent was to titillate, the last thing he ought to have shown us was a bunch of hairy Italian men masturbating into bowls.

Just a suggestion, Bob.

If nothing else, Caligula still has the power to shock. It is an aggressively unpleasant film that is difficult to watch with other people in the room without feeling a sense of shame, which is always a major buzz-kill. Indefensible as the movie is, Bruno Nicolai's musical score and Danilo Donati's gloriously over-the-top sets imbue the film with a kind of lurid grandeur, and there are occasional flashes of brilliance which suggest that this was a potentially interesting movie that somehow got buried in all the byzantine squalor. I would go so far as to suggest that had Tinto Brass been allowed to make the film that he wanted to, we might have a very different view of Caligula today. One suspects that it might have turned out to be a garish hybrid of Ken Russell and Federico Fellini, though we'll unfortunately never know.

Perhaps the film's one redeeming quality is that it is so viscerally offensive. Love it or not, The Passion of the Christ wouldn't have been nearly as effective without the extreme violence, so perhaps that's the key to Caligula. Could it be that the point of this otherwise execrable movie is to remind us of our shared humanity and the frailty of life?

Nah, I Don't think so. Besides which, if we need a movie like Caligula to remind us of that, we're already beyond redemption.

According to a somewhat confusing synopsis posted at, Brass's remake, Who Killed Caligula?, will be an erotic comedy of errors in which the hapless emperor is accidentally killed by a falling statue while hiding in a bordello, leaving his frantic right-hand man, Timocle, to attempt to stage a more dignified death using a Caligula lookalike. Wackiness presumably ensues, undoubtedly involving lots of palace intrigue with scantily-clad Italian actresses. 

Dumb as the movie sounds, it has at least one redeeming advantage over the original: Caligula gets killed at the beginning.


Lead Poisoning: A Historical Perspective, Jack Lewis, EPA Journal

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