Notorious epic Caligula given new lease of life with complete re-edit

Helen Mirren appeared in 1979's Caligula which is returning to cinemas in 2024. (Alamy) (AJ Pics)

When it comes to crazy Hollywood production stories few can beat the insane making of 1979’s Caligula.

Intended as a classy historical epic about the insane Roman Emperor’s reign, it boasted a screenplay by literary legend Gore Vidal, was to be directed by European arthouse star Tinto Brass and had a starry cast that included Malcolm McDowell, Sir John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole and Helen Mirren.

But hiding in the wings was the movie’s producer and financier, Penthouse Magazine boss Bob Guccione, who had a very different kind of film in mind.

The shoot was barely contained chaos. Gore Vidal, whose screenplay had depicted a sparse, austere Rome, was horrified when he discovered that designer Danilo Donati (later responsible for the more appropriate visual excesses of Flash Gordon) had completely ignored both him and the screenplay, designing vast, fantastical sets, including an imperial brothel complete with a working elevator and a three-story beheading machine.

Writer Gore Vidal was a regular face on television in the 1970s. (LWT/Alamy)
Writer Gore Vidal was a regular face on television in the 1970s. (LWT/Alamy) (Cinematic Collection, Cinematic)

Enraged, Vidal quit and spent his time sniping at the production from the American talk shows on which he was a regular, waspish, guest. “Did you know Caligula is Latin for ‘turkey?’” was a typical dig.

But worse was to come. Immediately after the film had wrapped, Bob Guccione flew a planeload of ‘Penthouse Pets’ out to the set and spent two weeks shooting hardcore sex scenes which he then inserted, apparently at random, into the film. His big idea was to take porn mainstream, to increase its audience and profitability.

The resulting film was a critical and commercial disaster. “Sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash,” was Roger Ebert’s devastating conclusion. “Remarkably repulsive,” sniffed The New York Times.

SANTA MONICA, UNITED STATES:  Bob Guccione (L), Penthouse magazine publisher, poses for photographer 06 March in Santa Monica, California, during a rare promotional appearance to introduce his lastest film project
Penthouse magazine publisher Bob Guccione was no stranger to publicity stunts. (AFP via Getty Images) (MIKE NELSON via Getty Images)

“You trust the people that you're working with,” McDowell sadly tells Yahoo about his decision to join the cast. “And in this case, when I got involved, it was because of Gore Vidal. He's one of the literary giants. So, of course, I trusted him. Which was a mistake, if you like. But it seemed to be a wonderful project, to play this Emperor with all these great sets and this great cast that they got together. It was fantastic on paper. But I felt completely betrayed in the end.”

The character of Caligula, as described to him by Gore Vidal, had fascinated McDowell, who was then one of the hottest stars in the industry after his performance in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.

“Caligula was an anarchist, one of the original anarchists who tried to destroy the Roman Empire from the top,” he says. “And he went through the previous Emperor, Tiberius's huge cache of money that Tiberius had accumulated over 12 years. Caligula went through it in 18 months. And made a lot of enemies.”

CALIGULA, Malcolm McDowell, 1979. (c) Penthouse Films International/ Courtesy: Everett Collection.
Malcolm McDowell starred in 1979's Caligula. (Penthouse Films International/Everett Collection) (Courtesy Everett Collection, Everett Collection Inc)

For half a century the film has hung like a millstone around everybody involved’s necks. But after the surprise discovery of nearly 100 hours of previously unseen footage, Caligula has now been re-edited from the ground up. The gratuitous sex scenes have been consigned to the dumpster and the performances by McDowell, Gielgud and Mirren allowed to shine.

Astonishingly not a single frame of the originally released version remains in Caligula: The Ultimate Cut. It is to all intents and purposes, a completely new film and likely the most radical restoration ever attempted.

The mastermind behind this is writer and art historian Thomas Negovan. Negovan, a huge admirer of Malcolm McDowell, had avoided seeing the film on its original release after the actor disowned it. Like McDowell, he considered it a lost cause.

But it wasn’t until a few years ago, when a company that had bought the now defunct Penthouse Company’s assets invited him to appraise them, that he realised that a complete re-edit might be possible.

Peter O'Toole Film: Caligula (1979)   Director: Tinto Brass & Bob Guccione 14 August 1979   **WARNING** This Photograph is for editorial use only and is the copyright of PENTHOUSE and/or the Photographer assigned by the Film or Production Company and can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above Film. A Mandatory Credit To PENTHOUSE is required. The Photographer should also be credited when known. No commercial use can be granted without written authority from the Film Company.
Peter O'Toole in Caligula. (Penthouse/Alamy) (Cinematic Collection, Cinematic)

“I walked into this warehouse, filled with rotting film and old crusty photos,” he tells Yahoo. “I opened all of it up and I went through all of it and it was like finding a treasure chest, because underneath inside some of these cans were the original negatives. Right from the camera.” For Negovan it was akin to discovering the Lost Ark of the Covenant.

“For 40 years Malcolm McDowell has been saying that underneath it all, he was sure that they had made a good film. So for years, people have been saying ‘what if?’. Can we do a new version of this film? I thought we had enough to do that.”

Using Gore Vidal’s original screenplay and McDowell’s performance as anchors for his new vision, Negoval chose entirely unused versions of scenes, reconstructing the film from the ground up.

“Malcolm spent a year of his life making this performance, making this character arc, putting so much on the screen. I was watching it and I was thinking, ‘Bob Guccione was obviously an asshole,” Negovan laughs. “And so my loyalty was completely to the actors, to Malcolm.”

For McDowell, the new version finally puts the ghosts of one of the oddest, most disappointing experiences of his career to rest. “I think Tom’s done a fantastic job,” he says.

“For years revisiting Caligula is something I’ve not been fond of. It wasn't that I wasn't happy about the work that was done. It was just the betrayal of Guccione, adding porn into it and all that. That really destroyed it for me. I couldn't even watch it.

"But this new one, I would say it's very interesting. It's much more what we envisaged. It's so much better than having this modern 70s porn in the middle of it. Go see it.”

Caligula: The Ultimate Cut will be released in 2024.

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