Caligula is one of those cult films that has had a bad reputation from the start. Roger Ebert called it the most repulsive film he had ever seen. Rex Reed panned it, as did almost every other critic of the time.
What made Caligula so repugnant? To start off, it was produced by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione. Guccione was known for pushing the limits in his magazine, and was no different when creating Caligula.
Gore Vidal developed the original story from Roberto Rossellini's un-produced television mini-series. Rossellini and his nephew Franco hadn't been able to find financing for their planned historical drama. Then Vidal contacted Guccione, who agreed to finance the project as a feature film, as long as it was made as a flamboyant spectacle with plenty of sex in order to promote Penthouse. With that, production was launched.
The production was plagued by difficulties from the start. Along with problems between Guccione and Vidal, there were problems with casting, too aggressive a shooting schedule, insufficient experience for a film of such scope, and production delays. Although the script was written by one of the best novelists of the time, by the time control was removed from Vidal's hands and into Guccione's and subsequently Tinto Brass's, the film became a light comical riff on the original serious Vidal script. In the end, both Tinto Brass, the director, and Vidal had launched lawsuits against Guccione, further delaying the release of the film.
Upon release, Ebert called Caligula, "sickening, utterly worthless, and shameful trash." Leonard Maltin said the film was little more than "chutzpah and six minutes of not-bad hard core footage."
Well, here we are almost thirty years later with Caligula: Three Disk Imperial Edition. Somewhere, over time, things settle down, and that which was viewed through the time frame of 1979 is viewed in light of 1989, then 1999, and now here in 2007; we have evolving standards. Having time to rework the film gives it some additional interest and the gives the viewer the ability to see it with fresh eyes.
For decades, the original elements of the film remained in Penthouse's vaults. Then, in November 2006, after Guccione had lost control of Penthouse because of bankruptcy, the new owners agreed to release a new deluxe DVD edition. With the location of some clips previously thought to be missing, Image Entertainment began to try to rework the film into what it was "supposed" to be.
Caligula: Three Disk Imperial Edition contains several versions of the film. Disc one contains the 1980 uncut, unrated, 156-minute version, along with the theatrical trailers. Disc two contains a 1979 pre-release version that is more true to Tinto Brass's vision. This disc also has very informative commentaries from film historian Nick Redman, co-stars Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren, film journalist Alan Jones, and others, as well as an interview with a spokesman from Penthouse, Ernest Volkman, and Image Entertainment's Nathaniel Thompson.
Disk three contains more extras, including "My Roman Holiday" with John Steiner; "Caligula's Pet," an interview with "Pet of the Century" Lori Wagner; "Tinto Brass: Orgy of Power," an interview with the director; and "Making of Caligula," a documentary that was shot during production and includes Gore Vidal. There is an extensive photo gallery, two versions of Vidal's screenplay, a press kit, and pages from Penthouse promoting the movie. The set also comes with a twelve-page booklet that explains the film's history through this release.
Now you ask, what about the film? Caligula: Three Disk Imperial Edition is not going to be for everyone, certainly not for the meek of heart, or the easily offended. There is a lot of violence for violence's sake, a lot of naked skin, and a lot of very, very graphic sex. Is it a historical film, or pornography? One could probably make valid arguments for either side, but I would guess that the more convincing ones would support the latter. Is it a good movie? Not really, but from a historical perspective, it is an interesting one.
What makes Caligula: Three Disk Imperial Edition worth having, in addition to all the special features, is the historical significance of the film itself – that is, what the film meant to society, not its historical accuracy. Also, to some degree, the quality of the actors makes it interesting. Having the likes of Peter O' Toole, Helen Mirren, Malcolm McDowell, and John Gielgud in such a controversial film lends it weight it might not otherwise have.