Sir John Gielgud said that he was delighted by the film Caligula, in which he starred alongside Helen Mirren, Malcolm McDowell and Peter O’Toole.
Gielgud, aged 75 when it was released in 1979, declared that he had seen it three times, twice paying his own money to do so. ‘I loved it. My first pornographic film!’ he said, beaming.
Almost everyone else associated with the infamously bawdy – and infamously bad – film, felt differently.
Helen Mirren, who appeared in numerous sex scenes, has said that the experience of appearing in the calamitously bad movie about the rise and fall of the Roman emperor was: ‘like showing up in a nudist camp every day.’
Caligula’s star Malcolm McDowell, then at the absolute peak of his fame, had been attracted to the project because of a script written by the satirist Gore Vidal.
Helen Mirren (pictured starring the the film Caligula) said shooting the film was like ‘like showing up in a nudist camp every day’
The movie, which also starred Malcolm McDowell (pictured) is a famously X-rated romp about the Roman emperor
He thought that it would be a blistering commentary on power corrupting and the banality of evil.
Instead – thanks in part to Penthouse magazine’s Bob Guccione producing the film, and inserting footage of unsimulated penetrative sex featuring porn stars – McDowell ended up being the face of what many think is the worst film ever made.
You’d think that the greatest stinker in film history would be destined to sink into obscurity – but instead it’s coming back to cinemas.
A version of Caligula was shown in Cannes last week after a new editor was handed 96 hours of footage.
He cut a new film entirely, and one which doesn’t actually share a single shot with the original.
It will be released in France, and the makers are now looking for distributors across the world.
(Naturally there is legal action – from the original Italian director, Tinto Brass, now 90, who says that the new Caligula isn’t true to his vision.)
Last week Dame Helen, always a good sport, was on hand to see Caligula screened in the ‘Classics’ section of the Cannes Film Festival.
Helen Mirren (pictured attending the premiere of the film ‘Jeanne du Barry’ at Cannes earlier this month) is said to have watched the new cut
Despite the revisions – and despite a modern world in which, thanks to shows like Game of Thrones, viewers are far more accustomed to graphic sex and violence, there were still ‘dozens’ of walk outs, particularly after the scene in which Caligula rapes a bride and bridegroom at a wedding.
Some also found the scenes featuring an intricate beheading machine more than they could take.
Before the screening began in the Salle Bunuel, an official at the festival warned that the audience could expect incest, bestiality, a double rape, a variety of physical deformities, childbirth, and one instance of fisting.
There was a small round of applause when the trigger warning finished.
According to those who have seen the new cut, what remains is still quite true to the ‘moral holocaust’ observed by the trade magazine Variety 44 years ago.
According to reports, numerous people walked out of the screening of the film at Cannes (pictured: Helen Mirren starring in Caligula)
The noted film critic Roger Ebert was among those who walked out of screenings in 1979. He said: ‘It is not good art, it is not good cinema, and it is not good porn.’
The film tells the story of Caligula, who is introduced in bed with his sister. He visits his great uncle Tiberius, played by Peter O’Toole, who is covered in venereal disease sores, cavorting with scores of concubines.
Among the highlights of the lurid and lavish picture – on which no expense was spared – are an indoor ship with rowing oars that carry it nowhere and a contraption of spinning razors that functions like a lawnmower meant for decapitation.
So how did the worst film in the world come to be made – and remade?
The genesis of the project were the ambitions of Penthouse boss Guccione, who wanted to make his own Citizen Kane – a historical epic with a side order of explicit decadence.
He provided the finance and intellectual leftie Gore Vidal wrote the script. The direction was handed to Italian Tinto Brass, known for his cult erotic movies.
The X-rated nature of the film has made it unpopular with many, who feel it is unnecessarily bawdy (pictured: Malcolm McDowell in Caligula)
During the development period, Gore Vidal fell out with everyone over changes to his script and eventually took legal action to get his name taken off the credits. He called it: ‘easily one of the worst films ever made.’
Meanwhile Tinto Brass and Bob Guccioni also fell out – actually all major creative personnel either quit, got fired, or were physically barred from entering the set during a fractious filming period in Italy. Brass also sued to have his name taken off the credits.
Guccioni wanted more sex than Brass was willing to put in, and adult film actors were actually brought to the set at nights to shoot scenes which were then spliced into the original.
His reasoning was that people would come to see the explicit content.
Many find some of the depictions of excess unintentionally hilarious, such as the scene where Caligula’s fever breaks and he realises that he is whispering sweet nothings into his horse’s ear. ‘Take my horse to his own bed,’ he commands.
Speaking about the movie, Malcolm McDowell has said there is ‘quite a good movie in there somewhere, but not the porn stuff’
‘It was a mess, really,’ said McDowell in an interview recently.
‘But look, I was called up by Gore Vidal, one of the best writers America had, so it was a no-brainer for me. Then I discovered that a pornographer was the producer.’
He added: ‘There’s quite a good movie in there somewhere, but not the porn stuff.’
That was the belief of Thomas Negovan, who spent three years creating a new Caligula from the ashes of the old one.
Negovan felt that the original film was the ‘clickbait cut’ and that it had ignored some acting of subtle brilliance by its stellar cast.
He worked his way through 96 hours of footage over a three year period to create Caligula: The Ultimate Cut.
He said: ‘Clockwork Orange is brilliant. But it’s not the same range that he has in Caligula. I feel like this is the best performance Malcolm ever gave.’
Now Thomas Negovan has created a new cut of the film, combing through 96 hours of footage to create his new movie (pictured: Malcolm McDowell in Caligula)
Naturally, the original director is appalled.
Brass said: ‘After numerous and fruitless negotiations that have followed over the years, first with the Penthouse and then with other unclear individuals, to edit the material that I shot and which had been found in the Penthouse archives, a version has been created on which I did not take part and which I am convinced will not reflect my artistic vision.
‘As is well known, the editing process is what shapes my very personal directorial style. If I can’t edit a film, I don’t recognise it, and I have not acknowledged authorship [of the new ‘Caligula’ cut’.
He added: ‘My lawyers are dealing with the matter.’
It seems that, 44 years on, the most scandalous film ever made has lost none of its power to offend.