Penthouse Retrospective

by Ernest Volkman Originally Published: May, 1980

The Guccione Legacy | 40 Years Ago This Month

Comparing an X-rated film to Caligula is like comparing the shootout at the O.K. Corral to the Second World War.

Penthouse Magazine - May, 1980Penthouse Reveals the Bob Guccione Legacy

It is difficult to imagine what the citizens of Rome thought in 1976 when they saw the odd goings-on at the Dear Film Studios just outside that city. According to local gossip, there were some interesting events transpiring: a lot of people were walking around undressed and half-undressed, a menagerie of animals (including Tibetan goats) was being brought inside the studios, and a small army of workmen were building Roman baths, a complete Roman palace, and an underground grotto for what appeared to be an authentic imperial Roman orgy.

The neighbors of the Dear Studios had some experience with film extravagance, of course — the Taylor-Burton Cleopatra film had been shot there, with all its attendant controversy — but, as everybody finally discovered, there was no precedent for the latest series of events. For 18 months the studios were occupied with the filming of Caligula, a controversial $17. 5 million — plus epic on the short but memorable reign of the infamous Roman Caesar.

The rumors surrounding the filming turn out to be true: the recently opened film is one of the most talked about in modern cinema history — and one of the most controversial. Lots of beautiful naked women. Lush (and graphic) sex scenes. Stunning sets. Wild Roman orgies. Painfully realistic violence. Awesome visuals. An uncensored spectacle of imperial politics in the Eternal City.

In other words, the first accurate film portrayal of what life was really like in pagan Rome — which is precisely the crux of Caligula and the source of its controversy. For its producers, Bob Guccione and Franco Rossellini, Caligula is intended as a breakthrough film, a serious attempt to reconstruct life in imperial Rome as seen by historians of that period. Sometimes described as the first “fusion” film — a fusion of establishment cinema with underground film techniques — Caligula is, in terms of realism, lightyears ahead of anything else ever attempted in that area.

Controversy has dogged Caligula from the moment the first frame was shot. The controversy rests not only on the film’s explicitness but also on a running series of disputes and disruptions among the people who made the film. They include a raging argument between the film’s original director and the screenwriter (since the screenwriter was Gore Vidal, it’s worthy of more than a footnote), virtual war between the film’s chief producer and the director (which resulted in the firing of that director), squabbles among the actors and the Academy Award-winning set designer, and a whole series of other skirmishes.

How the movie was ever completed remains a minor miracle. But those internecine series of battles on the set by now have been overshadowed by the large public controversy over the movie’s content. Caligula opened late last year, first in Italy where it was closed, albeit temporarily, by the authorities after it had played only six days, on the grounds that it was “morally offensive” — despite earlier clearance by the Italian censors. Whether similar problems will affect the movie in this and other countries remains to be seen, for despite the battalions of extras, a detailed attention to historical accuracy, a big-name cast (Peter O’Toole, Malcolm McDowell, Sir John Gielgud), the talk about Caligula has focused almost exclusively on its explicit sexual content. The film’s producers insist that Caligula is not pornography, an insistence they had underscored by refusing to submit the picture to the Motion Picture Association for rating. Since the M.P.A., they argue, would certainly give the picture an X rating, it would mean that Caligula would be written off with the customary effluvium of the porn market.

But Caligula’s well-deserved reputation for sexual explicitness is sure to generate new controversy, X rating or not. In part, the controversy has been fueled by a continuing series of statements by the movie’s participants, who are still arguing about it. In an attempt to get to the bottom of the controversy, Penthouse assigned regular contributor Ernest Volkman to interview the central figure in the making of the movie-Bob Guccione. Volkman, who has followed the progress of Caligula nearly from its inception, talked with Guccione about the movie during a series of conversations in New York and London.

Sir John Gielgud, one of the world’s most distinguished actors, was quoted in a recent interview as saying, “I’ve just finished my first pornographic film, called Caligula.” Do you think that’s a fair description of the film?

Guccione: Given the relatively sheltered life that Gielgud has lived, in terms of motion pictures, and his exposure to what’s happening in the avant-garde, I would say that he was right, but only if judged in the context of his own experience and information.

But not so far as what you conceive to be the overall purpose of the film? In other words, you’re saying you did not set out to make a pornographic film?

Guccione: No. I don’t see the film as being pornographic, and I certainly didn’t set out to make a pornographic movie. It’s a question of definitions. To me, pornography is a work of bad art, as opposed to good art. And I don’t think that Caligula qualifies under the heading of bad art. It was a huge commercial undertaking, and at the same time we wanted to make a serious statement.

Few of us can imagine a life and then build it to a point when the entire world recognizes, if not envies, it. The Bob Guccione Legacy reached that goal.

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