Review: Caligula [Film] (1979)

I watched Caligula last week.


I had seen it before, a few years ago, at an evening meet-up of the University of Otago Classics Society. That time, I had never heard of the film’s reputation, and was understandably surprised at stumbling across a late 1970s combination of Sword-and-Sandal Epic and Hardcore Pornography. Now? I knew what I was getting into, and wanted to see if Caligula was quite as… unique… as I remembered.

In the event, it wasn’t as unique as I remembered. Indeed, Caligula the film is all a bit sad and dull to 2019 eyes, which might say more about 2019 than anything else. Game of Thrones can cast a long shadow over previously risque material, to the point that even a legendary piece of cinematic pornography like Caligula loses its power to shock. Genitalia and oral sex on screen? Yawn. Disembowelling and child murder? Yawn. Brother-sister incest? Must be Tuesday. For legal (and moral) reasons the film even dials back on some of Tiberius’ alleged historical monstrosities, via ageing up his “little fishes”.

So, yes, Caligula is a failure. But – and I was struck by this – it is an ambitious failure. It makes a serious, albeit ponderous, attempt to examine the mind of a man gifted with absolute power over his fellow human beings. Such a man, the film argues, would soon think himself a god, and go mad as a result. All well and good, and Malcolm McDowell does his absolute best to conjure such a psychological screw-up, but… well, it ultimately doesn’t work, and an ambitious failure is still a failure.


Specifically, this thematic study simply does not justify Caligula’s two-and-a-half hour running length. The film would have benefited massively from either a massive cut in length (I’m not just talking about axing the infamous hardcore pornography either), or else actually introducing a greater degree of character conflict.

I think the biggest problem with Caligula is not its continual straying into gratuitous pornography – though that is obviously a problem, especially when it confuses quantity of sexual material with quality of sexual material. I think the biggest problem with Caligula is that apart from the (genuinely interesting) early scenes with Tiberius, the plot may be summarised as:

“A man finds himself in a position of absolute power. He tries to test the limits of this power via deliberately antagonising those around him. Those around him finally snap. The End.”

One would almost be tempted to suggest that there is some post-modern meta-commentary at work, with the film antagonising the audience after the manner of the Emperor and his victims, but that would be to give the film credit it does not deserve.

(As it was, I was struck by how uninteresting and thin the plot felt, when stretched to this length, when by contrast the Caligulan sections of I, Claudius are so absorbing. The distinction is that I, Claudius has meaningful character conflict – it’s about Claudius’ desperate struggle to survive his nephew’s insanity – and much more developed characters. We care about the characters in I, Claudius. We do not care about the characters in Caligula, who, like something out of late-season Game of Thrones, exist for nothing more than the purpose of grotesque spectacle. Two and a half hours of grotesque spectacle, where you just wish the plotters would hurry up and murder the protagonist so you can go and do something else).


So Caligula fails at its attempted thematic musings, fails at entertaining the audience, and even fails as titillation. So far as we know about the actual Emperor Caligula’s reign (itself a pretty sketchy subject), the film mangles the history too. That’s pretty dire. Is there anything that can be said in favour of the film, beyond nominating it as something So Bad It’s Good?

It turns out there is. As mentioned, there is some genuine early tension between Tiberius and Caligula, with the decrepit old Emperor simultaneously advising and threatening his successor. Tiberius is mad and evil, a decayed monster who revels in having the power of arbitrary death over his subjects – and unlike his adopted heir, he does not outstay his welcome.

Yay for character conflict, and even a bit of catharsis as our protagonist survives to assume power (though we know how he’ll end up). Macro is even set up as a decent threat after the old man shuffles off the mortal coil… but sadly wasted, as Caligula then promptly deals with him, and spends the rest of the film engaged in murders, orgies, and murderous orgies. A story that explores Caligula’s transition from trusting Macro to fearing him would have been much better, but, well, such psychological subtlety is too much to expect from this piece.

The other thing I will say for Caligula the film – it is capable of generating a peculiar, and often outright surreal, visual aesthetic. While it over-eggs the pudding, the strange interplay of smoke, costume, and character decadence would not be out of place as an adaptation of Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique (now there’s an idea…). I love Tiberius’ twisted funeral mask, for example, and the head-chopping machines are just awesome. This Rome, so tired of life, so hungry for something new to sate its appetites, has succumbed to an overly civilised hedonism and (literal) naked depravity – it is a compelling setting, and deserves better than what is done with it here.


So… Caligula. A fucked-up and legendarily mad piece of 1970s cinema. Is it worth watching? In a sense, no. It’s a literal and metaphorical orgy of torture porn, as much for the audience as for the characters, and there are much better ways to spend a hundred and fifty minutes of your life, unless you want to be put off sex for a week afterwards. It’s also strangely tame by 2019 standards. On the other hand, buried within the mounds of dull filth, there are occasional glimpses that suggest the film didn’t have to be this way. Not that anyone is about to attempt a re-make any time soon.

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