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Caligula uncut: Guccione's x-rated DVD goes on sale

Despite a script by Gore Vidal and a stellar cast, the original version of 'Caligula' was a critical flop. Then the publisher of Penthouse got involved, but his efforts were judged too hot for the censors – until now.

When it was produced in 1979, the film Caligula was meant to be the most lavish historical drama of its day, designed for an art-house audience with star casting and spectacular sets.

The cream of British cinema was enlisted, including Helen Mirren, John Gielgud, Peter O'Toole and Malcolm McDowell, as well as a Hollywood budget of £17.5m and the scriptwriting talents of the acclaimed novelist, Gore Vidal.

It was supposed to chronicle the last four years in the life of the power-mad "viper in Rome's bosom" whose brief reign as emperor ended with his murder in AD 41. The only fly in the ointment was that the film's financier, Bob Guccione, who was also the open-shirted, gold-chain-wearing Penthouse publisher, felt it lacked a certain something.

So two years after the 115-minute R-rated film was released, Caligula's "uncut" version was produced after an hour of hardcore pornographic action which had been secretly filmed by him in 1979, was reinstated into the drama, ranging from lesbian sex to incest and implied bestiality and starring his bevy of "Penthouse Pets".

To lovers of pornography, the move was a stroke of genius. Not so for the critics, the actors, or the art-house audience. The original "sanitised" version had been a critical flop. This second "unexpurgated" version was not even allowed to feature on the big or small screen after being banned by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) and deemed by many as "insanely pornographic".

It is only now, nearly three decades later, that the British censors have capitulated. The longer, Imperial Edition of Caligula, will feature the explicit scenes after censors labelled the uncut film as being of "historical interest". The uncut DVD will go on sale with an 18 certificate in high-street shops.

Alex Agran, from the film's distributors, Arrow Films, said the reclassification came as a surprise, even to them. "When it came back uncut, we were stunned." But Sue Clark, of the BBFC, said: "Given that Caligula is a film of historical interest, we felt we could pass it uncut." When Mirren and McDowell finished shooting the film in which they played leading roles, neither imagined it would make its name as one of cinema's great "epic porn films".

Four years ago, McDowell expressed his outrage over the editing process and script changes: "I'm proud of the work I did in Caligula, there's no question about that. But there's all the raunchy stuff, the blatant, modern-day porn that Bob introduced into the film after we'd finished shooting. That to me was an absolutely outrageous betrayal and quite unprecedented. Frankly, it showed that Bob had no class whatsoever."

McDowell said he took the role on the strength of Vidal's original script, saying: "When Gore told me it was Bob Guccione, I asked, 'Isn't he a pornographer?' Gore said, 'Malcolm, just think of him as one of the Warner brothers. He just signs the cheques!' Well, of course that wasn't true."

Mirren, by contrast, remembers the film with surprising fondness, even if making it was like "being on an acid trip", she said. She has reportedly called it a blend of "art and genitalia", adding: "It went in where angels fear to tread. In many scenes you're going, 'Oh my god, I can't believe we're actually going to shoot this.' It was sort of horrific, but it was also wonderful."

Film legend has it that she had to excuse herself to vomit after first seeing the huge set populated with naked people, but apparently said she far preferred the openness of the sex to the sniggering British sex comedies of the 1970s.

Originally released in America, the film caused a stir. Star-studded and theatrically staged, it shocked audiences with its occasional decapitation and hardcore sex scenes. In its attempt to capture the decadence of ancient Rome during Caligula's reign – and the lucrative "erotica" audience – it proved to be too graphic.

When it was released, the reviews were devastating. They did not cast aspersions on the virtuosity of its actors or its sumptuous set design – its production designer, Danilo Donati, was also behind the sets and costumes for Federico Fellini's Satyricon, Roma and Amarcord, but it was slated for its "horrific violence" and its "wall-to-wall sex scenes" as well as what some condemned as inane dialogue.

Few could have imagined that Guccione's financial involvement would have affected its outcome quite so dramatically as he had already invested in critically acclaimed films such as Roman Polanski's Chinatown.

It was originally to be called "Gore Vidal's Caligula" but the first sign that all was not going to Vidal's plan was when Guccione hired the Italian director, Tinto Brass, whose "vision" appeared at odds with Vidal's storytelling.

Brass barred Vidal from the set and changed the film's focus, after which the writer withdrew any further involvement. Guccione's coterie then locked Brass out of the editing room in order to transform the action into something far more lascivious.

A lengthy interview with Brass some years later catalogued his regret of what was done to the film. He said he had wanted the epic to be about the orgy of power, not about the power of the orgy.

Brass and Vidal unsuccessfully demanded to have their names taken off the credits at the time, and Guccione directed some sequences himself, with Toni Biggs, his elder daughter, contributing to the soundtrack.

No distributors would pick up the film, so Guccione rented a theatre on Third Avenue in New York and opened it himself. In spite of the critical mauling, it played all over America, and in a Vanity Fair interview decades later, Guccione said that he was still proud of his creation.

It has, after all, remained Penthouse's most popular DVD, having sold an average of 3,000 each month since its release. While it may now be deemed relatively tame when compared to contemporary "hardcore" offerings, the film is entrenched in pornography's hall of fame, currently featuring among the top-five titles in the movie website, IMDb's "best adult films ever" – just below the cult classic, Deep Throat.

What is historical about this flop?

By David Lister, Arts Editor

The British Board of Film Classification is having a perplexing summer. After delighting Warner Bros, but surprising most film-goers, by awarding Batman a 12A certificate, it has now decided to allow the release of an uncut version on DVD of a seventies cause célèbre, Caligula.

With Batman it decided that the violence was in the main off-screen, never mind that it was described on screen in graphic detail for the 12-year-olds. In the case of Caligula, it has decided that the film is of "historical interest".

Caligula certainly has a history. Extra sex scenes were shot, after the filming was completed, by its producer, the Penthouse owner Bob Guccione. Malcolm McDowell, who played the title role, has spoken of how he was directed to look in admiration at his horse, but when the film came out he was looking at two lesbians making love.

Caligula is an interesting example of the memory playing tricks, and a movie attaining the status of cult classic when in fact it was a dismal flop at the time of its release.

The BBFC said: "Given that Caligula is a film of historical interest, we felt we could pass it uncut."

But what exactly does that mean? If adults should be free to choose their own entertainment within the law, then what does it matter if the film is of historical interest or not? And what does historical interest mean in terms of films? A discredited flop whose cast and scriptwriter were appalled by the final product? What film renowned for excessive sex, violence and bestiality is not of "historical interest"?

Adults should indeed be free to choose their own entertainment within the law. And the BBFC would do best to leave it at that, and not dream up spurious rationales.