Malcolm McDowell. Helen Mirren. Sir John Gielgud. Peter O'Toole. Teresa Ann Savoy.
It was the boldest move in cinema history: presenting the most celebrated and respected actors of the day in a film that could only be described as pornographic. Bob Guccione, founder of Penthouse magazine, set his sights on decimating the boundaries between art, sex, and cinema and succeeded to such a potent degree that even 40 years later, no theatrical event has come close to matching the scope and scandal of Caligula.
Produced with twice the budget of Star Wars, Caligula captured an unbelievable 96 hours of footage of boldly costumed drama, sex, and violence on the most extravagant stages imaginable, and at an estimated cost of 17.5 million dollars remains the most expensive and extravagant pornographic film ever created.
Originally envisioned as a historically accurate depiction of anarchy and corruption, the writer and director of the film (legendary author Gore Vidal, and counterculture icon Tinto Brass, respectively) ultimately distanced themselves from the production, having their names removed from the final product. The movie was ultimately released as an altered vision of the creators' vision, edited by Guccione himself, with extended pornographic sequences replacing important plot developments. Variety magazine called the movie "a moral holocaust" and famed critic Roger Ebert described the film as "sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash," yet admitted in the same review that lines to see the film stretched around the block.
Various edits of Caligula have surfaced over the years, each with only minor adjustments and brief bits of footage added from foreign releases.
Amidst the drama and excessive litigation surrounding the completion of the film, the original 96 hours of raw footage were spirited out of Italy, and hastily placed in mismarked cans to hide their location. In the years that followed, the camera negatives and any unseen footage of Caligula was long believed lost, and the possibility of a coherent edit of the materials took on a mythical status among cinephiles.
In January 2020, it was announced that the original materials had been located and that Penthouse had commissioned author and archivist Thomas Negovan to produce a new edit of the film conforming to the original Gore Vidal script.
On May 17th, 2023, Caligula: The Ultimate Cut will premiere as an Official Selection at the Cannes Film Festival.