It is the early years of the first millennium, and the Emperor Tiberius (Peter O'Toole) is waning. His adopted son Caligula (Malcolm McDowell) is called from his bedchamber - which he shares with his sister, who is also his lover - by his right hand man, Macro (Guido Mannari) to attend a get-together with Tiberius at his palace. When Caligula arrives, he is concerned with the diseased state of his father, and also that he will soon be Emperor of Rome himself if he dies, especially when Tiberius tells him that it is the destiny of an Emperor to be murdered by his subjects. But it is Caligula's machinations which will see the old replaced by the new - and an insane new at that.
"Insane" is a good word for this film, a true one of a kind of would-be blockbusters which has been talked of in hushed tones of awe ever since. Although it did well in the few cinemas it was released in, so notorious was it that it appeared as though everyone involved with its creation was either ashamed or aggrieved, including original writer Gore Vidal, and the rumour had it that Bob Guccione of Penthouse magazine who had financed the film had done his best to sabotage the production by his insistence on the inclusion of hardcore pornography, edited in as obvious inserts to the action.
Of course, nowadays the only reason anyone wants to see Caligula is because it is thought of as a porno movie that happens to have actual, proper actors in it like Malcolm McDowell, Dame Helen Mirren who plays his wife and mother of his child, and Sir John Gielgud who appears in two scenes and in one of those he commits suicide - plus McDowell slaps his bald head Benny Hill-style, one of many nutty choices by the star. Rest assured, none of the great British (and Irish) talent here is part of the hardcore sequences, although McDowell and Mirren do appear naked in it. Well, we would be let down if they didn't.
However, the wide eyed and loony acting by Malcom ends up being oddly appropriate, as after all this is a depiction of how the most powerful man in the world can be hopelessly corrupted by that power, so it makes sense in its way that he should act, shall we say, eccentrically. This includes a goofy dance not once but twice (and the second time starkers) and fisting a man on his wedding night (McDowell drew the line at filming a sodomy scene - see, he does have boundaries), all contributing to a sense of barely contained hysteria. Or it would, if the film did not last around two-and-a-half hours, which is a long time to sustain any levels of hysterics.
As you watch Caligula, the amount of times you can ask "What the...?" before slumping into a kind of submission of disbelief are limited, but the most bizarre thing about it is that it seems to be intended to be taken entirely seriously. The intrigue around the Emperor could have been drawn from the BBC production of I, Claudius, a far classier affair, and his love for his sister, however perverted, is presented wholly sincerely, although when we're supposed to be moved when she dies it's difficult to work up any emotion as seconds later Caligula is licking her naked and lifeless body all over. As a study in the paranoia the men at the top suffer there's little that's more vivid, although even Richard Nixon didn't have a huge decapitation wall built to murder his enemies. Sure, this is an absurd folly which would be funny if it did not make the viewer so queasy, but it does have a curious conviction in its excesses, if not so much method in its madness. Music by Bruno Nicolai, along with the themes to the British T.V. series The Onedin Line and The Apprentice.
[Arrow presents the film uncut on DVD for the first time in the UK, including two other versions and a host of extras on a fourth DVD.]