I have returned to musing on this subject recently. I have had a film in my collection for many years and it has merely been gathering dust. There is a reason for this. It would be difficult watch this film in company. The film is the one pictured above. It boasts a mixture of well known stars such as Helen Mirren and John Hurt. Even Peter O’Toole stars as the Emperor Tiberius. Yet other parts are played by total unknowns.
It tells the story of the titular Roman emperor. If you have read Robert Graves ‘I Claudius.’ or seen the excellent T.V. series with Derek Jacobi, you will know this story and the film does follow Caligula’s life, as told by Graves, very closely. However the producers of this film of the mad Emperor’s life may come as a surprise. it is a ‘Penthouse’ production. This company is best known for soft core pornography magazines and videos.
This, then is the reason I cannot watch this in company. The story is fairly accurate, insofar as any fiction can be. It wouldn’t satisfy a dedicated Roman historian for the same reason it is unwatchable in a social environment. Simply that it is crammed with sexual scenes.
Rich Romans in this period were supposed to be dissolute, morally bankrupt and gluttonous. This applied to sex as much as day to day life and this film is full of examples of this immorality. it is surprising that such big names were attracted to this film as it is peppered with extensive and very erotic sex scenes. The Cinema version I first saw was toned down but still graphic for it’s time and the explicit DVD version can only be described as hard core.
Yet there is a difference to what people describe as erotic today and even the description of Hardcore has changed. If you watch a porn film today it launches straight into explicit graphic sex. No back story, no build up. No attempt to create a fantasy which would heighten the eroticism. The nature of the sexual acts is hard, fast and with no attempt to explain why it is happening. The participants are obviously put into a studio and told to get on with it. For me there should be a reason why these acts are taking place but this is simply lacking. One of my favourite scenes from the 70’s follows a sexually frustrated woman who is sleeping in the same house as a young man. it has cut scenes of her fantasies and her growing frustration. Eventually she wakes the young man with some intimate kissing and sex ensues. Because of the storyline and the fact that she is obviously battling with her own guilt v her attraction to him it becomes so much more.
Caligula is like that. The story is fairly accurate, if not by historical factual standards, then at least by film standards. The sexual scenes and the almost non existent Roman clothing are erotic throughout the film, Male and female genitals are on full view and they are all fully involved in the action. There is a very titillating lesbian scene featuring the Vestal Virgins. At one point Caligula decides to go to a wedding and avail himself of his droit de seigneur (To mix historical references.) with both bride and groom. I could go on but I am sure you get the idea. All these are graphic and explicit scenes. There are some scenes of sexual violence, but not too graphic because that really would have been a step too far at the time (Late 70’s I think.).
When the uncut version was released in 2008 the justification was that it did not set out to arouse, and as I have said it was a historical film. Interestingly most of the stars were not informed that there were to be extensive sexual scenes when filming and one asked for his name to be removed from any publicity. Others felt betrayed, thinking it to be a serious historical film.
Nevertheless, for me the films sexual scenes are justified because Rome was decadent at this time, Graves mentions it several times. The events in Caligula are in ‘I Claudius’. Generally Rome was as portrayed. Corruption was everywhere and the Emperors were the most dissolute of the bunch. Caligula’s madness was well handled. The sexual scenes were professionally filmed.
But, for me, the sexual scenes were all the more erotic because there was a reason for them, they were an integral part of the story. They engaged brain and body. So much better than the ‘Bung ’em all naked into a studio and run the camera’ mentality of the modern pornographer.