Caligula (1979)

Picture this for a moment. You have Tinto Brass working with an illustrious cast led by Malcolm McDowell, working with a screenplay by Gore Vidal, high production values, it seemed as if this film had all the right ingredients that made a classic, or a close approximation of one, so what went wrong? Well somehow the founder of Penthouse magazine, Bob Guccione, became the film’s producer. While Tinto Brass wanted to make the film as a political satire, Guccione simply wanted an extravagant, high class porno, and because the producers didn’t let Brass edit the film at all, Guccione was free to put in as much unsimulated sex scenes as he wanted, completely disregarding Brass’ original vision.

I’m no prude, but needless to say, I can understand why Roger Ebert walked out on this film. It seems to have no worth other than as an extravagant cavalcade of degeneracy, devoid of the meaning that Tinto Brass had hoped to bestow upon it. Seriously, I’ve seen some messed up stuff in films, but this film, with its lurid, feverishly graphic sex scenes that you’d now find only in the some of the more hardcore online pornography, stretches it for two-and-a-half long hours. If Guccione attended something arousing then he’s surely failed. He bastardised what could have been a truly great film for nothing.

As for the plot, it’s essentially sex-crazed retelling of the rise and fall of the infamous Roman emperor Caligula, who ascended to the throne after the death of his predecessor Tiberius. The film details some of Caligula’s eccentricities, but isn’t exactly historically accurate. It’s historically accurate to some degree, but I don’t recall Roman historical accounts of a red wall with rotating blades beneath it that chopped the heads off of anyone buried up to their necks.

I assume this is the film from which people get their assumptions of “pagan Roman debauchery”, some of them using it to say “this is why Christianity is better”. Keep in mind this was a film produced by Penthouse, a magazine that specialised in smut. Certainly that’s what Bob Guccione wanted out of Caligula, and in fact, much of the sex scenes, which are often stretched beyond belief and often seem like they interrupt the plot anytime something interesting actually happens, were filmed by him, rather than Tinto Brass. If you’re impression of Roman history comes from here then I don’t really know what to tell you.

The acting is actually quite good, but it’s Malcolm McDowell whose fine acting talents truly carry the film. In keeping with the garish, over-the-top interpretation of Imperial Rome that he is cast in, McDowell raises the level of his performance to match the gaudiness of it all. It tends to result in him overacting, but with McDowell it’s quite riveting. His charged performance really stole the show and made the film at least more tolerable to watch.

Another plus side to the film is its tremendous production values. The whole film looks extravagant and gaudy, the film is given a booming classical music score. I suppose this was part of the producers’ attempt to give the film an extraordinarily opulent atmosphere, but thanks to the frequently overstretched hardcore sex scenes and spates of gore, the film’s atmosphere has more of a grotesque opulence. Maybe that was intentional. To be honest, I’m not sure what parts of the film were Brass’ ideas or Guccione’s ideas.

On the whole, Caligula was, to put it bluntly, an overblown failure, both in its artistic merits and as a commercial product. To my mind, this was something that could have been a similar historical masterpiece to Ken Russell’s The Devils, but sadly it got into the hands of a lecherous porn producer, and what you get is a bloated, overstretched film that attempted to offer up a titillating Roman fantasy but instead leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.

  • Score: 59%
  • Grade: D

Mad Max (1979)

MadMazAusOut of all the Mad Max films, the first film immediately comes across as the odd one out. Whereas the other films play out as very stylized post-apocalyptic action films, this first film takes its cues from what was called the “new wave of Hollywood directors”, which were more subtle in their approach than what you might see today. In fact, the film’s director envisioned the film as something like a silent film, with the car-based action as an extension of the kinetic qualities of the kind of film he had in mind. Compared to its successors, the first Mad Max film is decidedly more experimental, resembling the modern equivalent of a Western film, only much darker and grittier. Indeed, the film tells a story of a good man who tries to cling on to sanity, but in the end is driven to the edge, and driven back into a job that he wanted to retire from.

The story is slowly paced, but I think that makes sense given the film’s direction. Unlike a lot of action films, this one gives us characters with actual depth, and I’m not just talking about Max himself. That being said, however, this is the only film in the series that gives any insight into what Max had to lose (specifically, his wife and child, who only appear in this film). Mel Gibson fits into the title role quite well, making for a convincing cop in a post-apocalyptic setting, and his character becomes all the more engaging as the film progresses, particularly towards the end. The villains are pretty much thugs, but they’re not totally brainless, otherwise they wouldn’t make for very good villains. The film emphasizes the madness of the villains in its script, but most of the credit should go to the actors portraying them. Their performances really bring out the grotty, deranged, violent characteristic that should come naturally in the context of the post-apocalyptic highway setting. In other words, they were nasty in a very believable way.

It’s worth mentioning that the film was produced on a budget of only around 400,000 Australian dollars, which was quite low even for its time. For something like that, the film is quite an eye-catching visual spectacle. The vehicular action scenes are choreographed quite well, and at the very least they’re more enjoyable to look at than a by-the-numbers car chase scene. Of course, violence is everywhere in this film, and Max delivers highly proficient justice to his enemies, with a particular highlight of the film being that one scene where Max handcuffs a man to his car and sets him alight. All in all, George Miller did very well in crafting a mad, violent world to life. It may not be as well-done as its successor (and it certainly doesn’t hold a candle to Mad Max: Fury Road), but even today, it’s a cut above a number of action films, and it continues to stand out brilliantly amongst the other films of its kind.

  • Score: 85%
  • Grade: A