Championed by a few, loathed by the many, Caligula is surely among the most mangled, mutilated, misunderstood movies in cinema history. There are several tie-in books already, but they don’t provide any believable background details about how and why the movie came to be made amidst conflict, how and why the movie was so changed afterwards that the writer and director both refused to take responsibility for the result, and how and why it destroyed an Italian production company, making a pauper of its once-respected producer, driving him to an early grave. So that would make for an interesting tale, yes?

My goal back in early 1979 was to learn enough about this movie to write a pamphlet about it, maybe 100 pages, certainly no more than 150 pages. I wanted simply to describe Gore Vidal’s screenplay and follow that with a brief description of the film as Tinto Brass had directed it. That’s all. I just wanted to know why Gore and Tinto had both disowned the final product. Simple as that. Alas, there was no information anywhere — no script was available, and no shooting records could be found. Then in the autumn of 2003 there was an announcement that the Gore Vidal Papers were to be housed at Houghton Library at Harvard University. An inquiry confirmed that many Caligula-related papers were included in the collection. They were treasures, and I spent a total of four weeks there — four weeks that opened me to many new ways of thinking about many things, not merely Caligula. Then in early 2007 I got a brief glimpse of some of the contents of the film vault. That changed the story almost entirely. At the same time I began to acquire the previously unknown storage locker rented by Caligula producer Franco Rossellini. (Yes, Franco Rossellini was the producer of Caligula. You didn’t know that, did you?) Over the course of almost two years, three friends helped me acquire the bulk of the contents of that storage locker. We tried to get every scrap, but that proved impossible. We got the most important items, though. Frustratingly, there were many gaps in those four crates of papers. Why was I surprised in July 2012 to discover that about 800 of Franco’s missing pages were held at Duke University? I paid a freelance researcher to photograph all the relevant materials there. In 2014 I discovered that a goodly number of items from Bob Guccione’s personal Caligula collection were being auctioned. Again, with the help of friends around the globe (“The Gore Vidal’s Caligula United Front,” we called ourselves), I managed to acquire a fair number of those items. Then papers stored in the attic of a house, papers that had been destined for the rubbish heap, were shipped to me instead: two crates of documents from Twickenham Studios relating to the protracted editing of Caligula. Just as the book was two short leaps from the finish line, I got full access to pretty much everything else, which, again, was just days away from being dumped into a landfill. That story is itself worthy of a book. The amount of material is overwhelming. Working 50 hours a week, it would take several years to get through it all. The amount of significant material is minimal. I’m searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

There have been adventures of late. They were not always good adventures. Some were pretty darned devastating adventures, emotionally draining, and most were tied to this book. So many novel (mostly bad) things happened from October 2016 through July 2017 that those nine+ months seem as long as fifteen years. 28 June 2017 through 10 July 2017 seems like two and a half years. So I decided: This book has caused me too many problems, has taken up too many years, has started too many arguments, has ended friendships, has prevented me from pursuing other activities, and has resulted in too many emotions. On top of that, it has cost me all my savings and then some. I’m tired. I am tired beyond description. This is a worthless endeavor. I hereby cut my losses.

In case you’re wondering, I confess: I am not a fan of this film. I think the world of Gore Vidal. I think the world of Tinto Brass. In numerous interviews, Malcolm McDowell expressed his conviction that, buried beneath the mess, there is a great movie struggling to get out, if only it were to be edited properly. Until recently, I agreed. I was wrong. Sorry. There are wonderful things in the movie, yes, I admit. There are some stunningly beautiful images. The absurdist comedy sometimes works. The thick, unreal, dreamlike atmosphere sometimes works. The Pyramid of Power makes the whole rest of the movie worth enduring. As much as I love everything Gore wrote, I must correct myself: I love everything else Gore wrote. Yes, his final draft of the script was quite strong, and, superficially, it would have made a compelling single-viewing drama, but the history and psychology were rubbish. The shooting script, by the way, had little to do with Gore’s final draft. As much as I admire all of Tinto’s movies up through and including The Key from 1983, I exempt this one. (Well, Salon Kitty has lots of probs too. All the rest lie on the scale between exceptional and extraordinary.) There were two problems with Caligula. First, there were too many cooks. Only an acute case of too-many-cooks could have resulted in Tiberius’s torture-ward, pool, and terrace scenes. Those were jaw-droppingly stupid, embarrassingly stupid, ghastly stupid, staggeringly stupid, almost as bad as The Deer Hunter. Second, nobody — not Gore, not Tinto, not Danilo, not Franco, certainly not Bob — had a clue about the true story. The real story actually has some potential for insightful drama — a dunderheaded egomaniacal sadist raised by sociopaths, elevated to top position in a government that we would now classify as proto-fascist, finds that the group-think bureaucrats have no choice but to humor his every whim, and sets about running the government into the ground for his own amusement. (Why does that remind me of somebody?) The real story has never been told on stage or screen, and it was certainly not told by Suetonius or Cassius Dio. For the real story, check out Philo’s Φλάκκος and Τῆς πρεσβείας πρὸς Γαίον, together with Seneca’s De ira, De constantia sapientis, and De brevitate vitæ.

Curiously, despite the ludicrous onscreen results, there is something addictive about Caligula. Even some of the worst scenes have a marvelous moodiness, sometimes bordering on dreamlike. What fascinated me, personally, was the puzzle. The writer and director were initially cordial and worked together splendidly. The friendliness evaporated in a single moment, and the two sued each other. When they were through, both disowned the result. Beginning on 4 October 1980, and for the next three and a half decades, I watched the movie probably well over fifty times, analyzing every last detail under the microscope, trying to discern what had been cut out, rearranged, rewritten in the dubbing; I was endlessly trying to imagine what the movie was supposed to have been like. That is why I was addicted. No longer. If the film were ever to be restored to Tinto’s intentions, I’d watch that restoration — only once. Enough.

In the meantime, now that this massive tome has been transmogrified into a doorstop, why not look at the attractive advertisement that announced the beginning of the filming? As with nearly every contemporary press item about Caligula, it was a lie:

Originally I had some pages on this site devoted to analyzing the film. They were beyond erroneous. I junked them. So stroll around through the links below. Have fun.

You’ve Been Wondering
for Four Decades:
The Mythical
210-Minute Version

The Multiple Versions

Opinions about the Movie

Audience Reactions

Press Cuttings

The Mysterious Death
of Anneka di Lorenzo

Tie-Ins, Promotional Items,
and Other Such Phenomena

The Other
Franco Rossellini

The Other

The Writer
Who Disowned
the Movie

You’ve Been Wondering
for Six Decades:
Gore Vidal’s Ben-Hur

The Director
Who Disowned
the Movie

Stuart Urban Remembers
Working on Caligula

The Posters and
Print Advertisements

You Know More
Than We Do

Alan King’s TV Special
on Caligula

The Cast and Crew

Every Screening and Booking We Have Learned About

Bob Guccione’s Flirtation
with Thermonuclear Fusion

Incredibly Difficult Translations That Gave Us Mountains of Migraines

Oodles and Oodles
of Caligulas

The Real Caligula Gaius

The Real Reason Why
You Could Never Learn
Greek and Latin
(Hint: No, They’re Not Hard, and No, You’re Not Stupid)

Interesting External Links


As far as I am now concerned, the movie is not the story. The story is the decade and a half of behind-the-scenes intrigues and legal battles. Those are much more worthy of study. You have never heard about most of those behind-the-scenes dramas. They were never published. Not even the people who lived through the legal actions understood what they were doing or what was being done to them or why. No judge could make head nor tail of the arguments and exhibits. In its totality, the Caligula saga is a horrifying example of how the law works, both in the US and in Europe. The story is truly demoralizing. It will weaken, and possibly end, your hope for humanity. Writing that story took me from 2009 to 2014, and I was discovering the story as I was piecing it together. It was a painful process. When I re-read those chapters I cringe. We need to take these lessons to heart. We cannot fix a problem until we understand it. My wish was to reveal this story in all its corruption, suspense, pain, terror, and agony. That story was Part Five of my book, Chapters 28 through 40. I knew, from the time I penned the first sentence of Chapter 28, that this would be the section of the book that readers would skip. You won’t like these chapters, not at all. They’d bore the enamel off of your teeth. So be it. These chapters are dull, tedious, detailed, filled with contractual language and ledger sheets and legal terminology and so forth. They’re my favorite chapters — mine and nobody else’s. A great highlight of my life was when one of Franco Rossellini’s relatives read these chapters and approved them without amendment. So, okay, here goes: 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, and 40. For good measure, here’s the opening of Part Six: 41. That’s it. No more. Until a recent series of devastating events, I wanted this book to be complete and to be published by a university press, as a real book with paper pages sewn between cloth covers, sold at retailers at a reasonable price. I have to be realistic. That will never happen. So this is all you get. I’m not trying to be mean. I would simply rather die than go through the agony of rewriting the coauthored chapters. Over this past year or so my emotions have been twisted around so many times that I really never want to think about Caligula again. I give up. It would be madness to continue. It is time to stop — for good. There really does come a time to walk away. I have waited long past that time. I have now walked away. Now I’ll spend more time with my cat. There’s never been anybody in the world I’ve loved half so much as I love my cat. Time with her is my priority. She doesn’t twist my emotions around. I am now also freed to pursue other quests that have been on the back burner for over a decade. Hoorah!