As someone who studies Gore Vidal pretty heavily at this point, the movie Caligula remains a fascinating bit of strangeness. For those of you who don't know the full story (and there's an excellent website that covers all that), the thumbnail sketch is as follows: Vidal wrote a screenplay about the famously mad emperor Caligula; Italian director Tinto Brass directed it; and then the head man at Penthouse magazine took the movie, cut in some hard, hard core sex scenes, and the result is a mess in which some of the best actors of their generation (Peter O'Toole, John Gielgud, Helen Mirren) turned in performances that ranged from puzzling to preposterous. It's a movie that's almost worth watching for that factor alone. Almost.
When I watched the film some time back, though, I was struck by how much promise was lurking right below the surface. Vidal apparently intended the movie to be an analysis of the corruption of power--something he touched on in his much-earlier essay on Robert Graves's translation of The Twelve Caesars:
Yet what, finally, was the effect of absolute power on twelve representative men? Suetonius makes it quite plain: disastrous. Caligula was certifiably mad. Nero, who started well, became progressively irrational. Even the stern Tiberius’ character weakened. In fact, Tacitus, in covering the same period as Suetonius, observes: “Even after his enormous experience of public affairs, Tiberius was ruined and transformed by the violent influence of absolute power.” Caligula gave the game away when he told a critic, “Bear in mind that I can treat anyone exactly as I please.” And that cruelty which is innate in human beings, now given the opportunity to use others as toys, flowered monstrously in the Caesars.
There are certainly hints of that in the final cut, but it's buried under the pornography and under the numerous shocking editorial lapses, in which character and story is sacrificed for...well, it's hard to say what, exactly.
Attempts have been made over the years to restore Caligula to something like the movie Tinto Brass would have produced. Alexander Tuschinski did a lot of work on it; he assembled what footage he could and consulted with Brass at various points. Apparently, he even got access to the Penthouse archives. The result is the mini-documentary above; and this is all the fruits of his labor.
I have no idea why they never went further with the project, though the story linked above gives some clues. What I do know is that, at long last, there is a recut of Caligula on the way. It's premiering at Cannes. And it isn't the Tinto Brass cut. Brass is not happy. He's even threatening legal action, though what he can do is somewhat obscure; presumably whoever owns Penthouse owns the movie.
If this isn't the Brass cut, what is it? Well, according to the movie's website, it's the Gore Vidal cut:
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.
This is an odd decision, to me; I adore Vidal, but I can't imagine his name has that much more cachet at this point than Tinto Brass. The average Penthouse reader probably couldn't differentiate them in a lineup; the average cinephile would probably prefer to see the Brass version. Dark speculation emerges: is this a rights issue? Is the very dead Gore Vidal less likely to ask for a cut of the pie than the living Tinto Brass? I'm no lawyer and no insider, so I can't say.
[I should note that I mean no aspersions to be cast toward Thomas Negovan and his team, who have devoted three years of their lives to this project and who seem to be devoted to restoring this movie to something more in line with the movie it could have been at the beginning]
What I can say is two things:
1] There's something about this decision that doesn't smell quite right to me. And yet,
2] I'm really interested in seeing this cut. Not only because it apparently uses none of the footage shown in the original movie, but also because it does seem to be following the Vidal script. Since my interest in Caligula--beyond its status as a trash icon--is almost wholly Vidalian, I have to admit that I'm intrigued in spite of my grave suspicions about the motives behind it.
At any rate, I'm going to be watching for this thing to drop. It'll make an interesting bit of Vidal ephemera, and hopefully we'll get the chance to see better what the actors, at least, thought they were doing when they showed up on set.