These days, we hear a lot about “crossing the line” in media. The rules of entertainment, of how far is too far, seem to be constantly rewritten both on television and in cinema. In the age of the internet, when everything (good and bad) is available for those who wish to look, it takes a lot to shock us. As rare as it is to be truly shocked by content today, it is even rarer from content that is almost 30 years old. One of the truly shocking films in cinema history is 1979’s Caligula, and now it has been repackaged and stuffed with extras for a new generation to behold. You can review the trailer here.

Ancient Rome has always been a tricky enterprise in film. The majesty of the coliseum and the sheer decadence of the Imperial era are in some ways perfectly suited for Hollywood. After all, if there is a time in history that seems to fit only on a big screen, it has to be this one. However, most of the mainstream films about Imperial Rome find themselves side-stepping or alluding to the harshest aspects of the time. Caligula, the story of Rome’s most famously twisted leader, rushes into the blood and sex of the imperial palace as no film before or since. Malcolm McDowall, who never backed away from controversial or shocking roles, equals his unsettling performance in “A Clockwork Orange” eight years earlier with his portrayal of the emperor. Helen Mirren, now most famous for her Oscar run in “The Queen”, is Caesonia, Caligula’s queen and in many of his appetites at least his equal.

This new edition of Caligula is an improvement in several ways. The commentaries give viewers a look into how current stars like Helen Mirren view their own more daring past projects. Mirren audibly cringes quite often during her commentary, and admits that there are scenes when she looks away from the screen. The high definition transfer of the film, taken directly from vault negatives, is gorgeous. If there is a complaint to be made about the quality, which absolutely blows previous editions out of the water, it is that the picture quality allows the detail on some of the props to look as they really did at the time, which might be disappointing to some modern fans accustomed to recent hyper-realistic sword-and-armor pieces like “Gladiator” and “Lord of the Rings”.

Overall, this is clearly not a film for everyone. It should not be entered into expecting a Hollywood film that happens to feature a little nudity and violence. The violence is severe and the sex is like nothing that you are likely to see in a mainstream studio film. The achievement of Caligula was not only to get a movie with such an unblinking view of Imperial decadence made, but to attach to it a list of stars that are still legends today. McDowall, Mirren, John Gielgud and Peter O’Toole are among the greatest stars in Hollywood history, and they are at their best here. If you can deal with the violence and sex as an integral plot point, you can see film royalty at work here. Many viewers were not able to do so at the time, and I am sure that many will still not see through the “shock and awe” to the quality underneath, but that is their loss.

The film is simply not for everyone, but if you are ever going to watch “Caligula”, this is certainly the edition to watch. The extras are illuminating (instead of just taking up disc space as in so many other new editions lately) and the commentaries are absolutely brilliant. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Overall Score: 4 out of 5 stars

Rating: Absolutely no one under 18 should view this film unsupervised

You can get your own copy of Caligula from Amazon.

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