Between the lawsuits and the production vitriol, it was public knowledge that the version shown in theaters strayed significantly from the visions of both Vidal and Brass. For this reason, cinephiles for years have dreamed of a better Caligula. The notion of a more artful and authoritative cut of the movie became a kind of mythical beast, with some fans carefully comparing releases from different countries and assessing edits through study of mere seconds of variant material, fueled by romantic notions based on behind-the-scenes photos of gorgeous, lost moments.
Guccione pushed conversations about the raw footage away as he proceeded into other arenas, and with each administrative regime change at Penthouse, knowledge of what had become of the materials diminished. The film world reasonably assumed the original footage never left Rome and had been destroyed long ago.
To understand the mystery surrounding the raw elements of Caligula, we have to return to the volatile end of its contentious production.
Shortly after filming was completed, Brass was shocked to find the locks changed at the studio and his editing bed outside in the snow. Meanwhile, Guccione secretly shot footage of Penthouse Pets engaging in hard-core sex in order to finish the film according to his vision.
Guccione had been sneaking the raw negatives out of Italy from mid-production onward, suggesting his plan to commandeer the film was long-gestating. Unlike in America, the Italian film industry prioritizes the rights of the director as a film’s “creator,” and Brass was successful in receiving an injunction against Guccione’s plan to complete the film without his input.
But by the time Brass won his victory in the Italian courts, all of the negatives had been moved to England. Guccione quickly turned to the British courts, who decided in Guccione’s favor, stating that any materials would not be returned to Italy until the settlement of any appeals.
After this temporary win, Guccione’s associates began relocating the negatives in an attempt to stay ahead of any seizure. (One of the first things I noticed when opening the film cans was that they were all recycled from earlier movies, with many of them bearing a confusing handwritten label of “My Son, My Son.” I learned later that this was deceptive coding meant to discourage any examination during transport.)
The legends surrounding the move of the original film materials ranged from Guccione claiming to have carried them all in suitcases (physically impossible) to the negatives being smuggled out of Italy wrapped around the legs of trusted couriers (even more impossible). The truth was far more mundane: Through a combination of palm-greasing and sleight-of-hand, the footage was spirited from England to New York City. Penthouse then reached a legal resolution with Franco Rossellini’s Italian production company, allowing Guccione to complete the film.
The 96 hours of raw footage, the location sound tapes, and other production material eventually made their way to Los Angeles, where for decades they sat in a film-storage facility gathering dust.
The timing of their rescue was nothing short of a miracle — credit for saving the cache goes to Ranjit Sandhu, the academic behind Caligula.org, who tipped off German researcher Alexander Tuschinski in 2018 to where the materials were stored. Tuschinski in turn notified Penthouse, whose new administration were shocked to learn the materials still existed. When the storage facility was contacted, it emerged that the entire collection was literally days away from permanent destruction for unpaid bills. If not for this eleventh-hour exchange, the Caligula footage would have been lost forever.