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Caligula (1979) - Plot Summary Poster

(1979)

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Summaries

  • Details the graphic and shocking, yet undeniably tragic story of Rome's most infamous Caesar, Gaius Germanicus Caligula.

  • The rise and fall of the notorious Roman Emperor Caligula, showing the violent methods that he employs to gain the throne, and the subsequent insanity of his reign - he gives his horse political office and humiliates and executes anyone who even slightly displeases him. He also sleeps with his sister, organises elaborate orgies and embarks on a fruitless invasion of Britain before meeting an appropriate end. There are various versions of the film, ranging from the heavily truncated 90-minute version to the legendary 160-minute hardcore version which leaves nothing to the imagination (though the hardcore scenes were inserted later and do not involve the main cast members).

  • The perversion behind Imperial Rome and the epic story of its maddest emperor. All the details of Caligula's cruel, bizarre reign are revealed right here: his unholy sexual passion for his sister, his marriage to Rome's most infamous prostitute, his fiendishly inventive means of disposing those who would oppose him, and more.


Spoilers

The synopsis below may give away important plot points.

Synopsis

  • Pagan Rome, 37 A.D.

    Prince Gaius Germanicus "Caligula" (Latin term for 'Little Boots') (Malcolm McDowell) the 24-year-old young heir to the throne of the syphilis-ridden, 77-year-old, half-mad Emperor Tiberius (Peter O'Toole), thinks he has received a bad omen after a blackbird flies into his room early one morning. Shortly afterward, Macro (Guido Mannari), the head of the Praetorian Guards, appears to tell the young man that his great uncle (Tiberius) demands that he report at once to the Island of Capri, where he has been residing for a number of years with close friend, Senator Nerva (John Gielgud), Claudius (Giancaro Badessi), a dim-witted relative, and Caligula's younger stepbrother, Gemellus (Bruno Brive), Tiberius' favorite. Fearing assassination, Caligula is afraid to leave, but his beloved sister Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy) convinces him to go. Macro seeks to curry favor with Caligula, who will be the next Emperor, by tempting him with the promise of sleeping with his wife Ennia (Adriana Asti).

    At Capri, Caligula finds his uncle has become depraved, showing signs of advanced venereal diseases, and embittered with Rome and politics. Tiberius enjoys watching degrading sexual shows, often including children and various freaks of nature in his underground grotto. Caligula observes with a mixture of fascination and horror. Tiberius demands his grandson perform a dance from his youth when he was a mascot in his father's army. At first, Caligula claims to have forgotten, but Tiberius angrily insists. After a few minutes, Tiberius interrupts, and confronts Caligula about gossiping and praying for his grandfather's death. Caligula denies the accusations. Soon, Tiberius warns Nerva to be wary of Macro after his death. Tiberius embraces Caligula, and cautions him that it is a myth that emperors are gods. Tiberius is curious to know if he is missed in Rome, and Caligula assures him that he is loved. Tiberius believes he is not loved but feared. He cautions Caligula that every senator aspires to be emperor, and therefore is a traitor. Caligula denies being intimate with Drusilla, but Tiberius warns him that he knows everything that goes on in the kingdom. Soon, Tiberius greets Gemellus with affection. He offers Caligula a cup of wine, but Caligula passes the cup to Gemellus. However, Tiberius stops Gemellus from drinking, and warns him that Caligula will kill him once Tiberius is dead. A servant drinks the poisonous cup of wine and quickly dies.

    Later, Caligula wakes from a nightmare, and tells Drusilla that Tiberius plots to kill him, but she reassures him he is the only one who can be emperor because Gemellus is too young to rule and Uncle Claudius is not mentally fit. Caligula wants Drusilla to be his empress, but she reminds him that he has been promised to Macro's wife, Ennia. Even Macro agrees with the arrangement.

    Meanwhile, Nerva chooses suicide over a natural death by slashing his wrists in a bath. Tiberius discovers Nerva in the midst of his suicide. As Tiberius orders his wounds bound, Nerva admits that he hates his life. Tiberius says he cannot live without Nerva at his side, and promises to kill Macro, but even with Macro gone, Nerva does not want to be ruled by "the reptile" Caligula. Nerva begs to be allowed to die, and Tiberius leaves. Meanwhile, Caligula wants to know what dying is like, and asks Nerva if he can see the goddess Isis. When he cannot, Caligula believes he is lying, pushes him down in the tub, and hastens his death.

    Nerva's death hastens Tiberius' own when he soon collapses from an apparent stroke and is bedridden. Late one night, Macro escorts all the spectators out of the ailing Tiberius' bedchamber to allow Caligula the opportunity to murder his grandfather, but when Caligula fails and falls into an epileptic trance, Macro finishes the deed himself by strangling Tiberius with a scarf. Caligula triumphantly removes the imperial signet from Tiberius' finger and suddenly realizes that Gemellus has witnessed the murder.

    Back in Rome several days later, Tiberius is buried with honors and Caligula is proclaimed the new Emperor, who in turn proclaims Drusilla his equal, to the apparent disgust of the Roman Senate. Afterwards, Drusilla, fearful of Macro's influence, convinces Caligula to get rid of him. Caligula obliges by setting up a mock trial, in which Gemellus is intimidated into testifying that Macro alone murdered Tiberius. Caligula then has Macro's wife, Ennia, arrested for "insubordination" and has her exiled to Gaul, never to be seen or heard of again.

    Macro is then executed in Caligula's public courtyard by a large decapitation machine; Macro and other convicts are buried up to their necks in the earth ground, and the blade-slashing machine, standing over 100-feet tall and wide as a city block, runs over him. At one point Caligula, when booed by the crowd, mutters "If only all of Rome had but one neck..."

    With the powerful Macro gone, Caligula appoints Tiberius' former financial and political adviser Longinus (John Steiner) as his new adviser and right-hand man, and pronounces the docile Senator Chaerea (Paolo Bonacelli) as the new head of the Praetorian Guard. Drusilla endeavors to find Caligula a wife amongst the priestesses of the goddess Isis, the mystery cult they secretly practice. Disguised as a woman, Caligula chooses a candidate from among the shapely priestesses in the Temple of Isis. He is attracted, despite Drusilla's protests that she is promiscuous, to Caesonia (Helen Mirren), an eloquent, sensual divorcee, who becomes his mistress.

    Over the next several months, Caligula proves to be a popular, yet eccentric ruler, cutting taxes and overturning all the oppressive laws that Tiberius enacted. One of Caligula's first duties is to settle a land dispute between two senators. Instead of listening to arguments, he makes an arbitrary decision based on the size of the legal documents. Within a few months, the Roman Senate begins to dislike the young emperor for his eccentricities and various insults directed towards them. Darker aspects of his personality begin to emerge as well. When Caligula eyes a young woman named Livia (Mirella D'Angelo), whom is engaged to Proculus (Donato Placido), one of his most loyal soldiers, Caligula and his entourage crashes Livia and Proculus wedding party where he lures both to the kitchen and rapes both of them in a minor fit of jealousy. Proculus is later disemboweled and castrated in a gory torture-murder by Caligula himself. When asked why he murdered one of his most loyal officers, Caligula's insane reply is: "because I can."

    The much darker side of Caligula begins to show itself as he comes to realize that no one will challenge his absolute power. His terror during a thunder and lightning rainstorm is the first sign of a mental breakdown; his reaction is to run outside and dance naked. As Drusilla is summoned, Caligula tells her that he knows Gemellus plots to kill him. She kisses away his fears, and soon, Caligula is making love to both Drusilla and Caesonia. In another bedchamber, two Isis women, Messalina and Agrippina, watch the threesome unfolding and then engage in lesbian sex with each other.

    A few more months later, Caligula's actions become increasingly senseless. His only confidant is his Arab stallion, Incitatus, which he rides into a banquet where Gemellus is one of the guests. In a macabre mood, Caligula accuses Gemellus publicly of treason and has him arrested merely to provoke a reaction from Drusilla. Caligula defends his increasingly erratic and outspoken actions as he is the Emperor of the Roman Empire and he feels that he can do anything he wants with impunity.

    After he discovers Caesonia is pregnant, Caligula suffers a severe fever, but Drusilla nurses him back to health. Right after he recovers, Caesonia bears Caligula a daughter, whom they name Julia Drusilla, and Caligula marries her on the spot. He is enraged to learn the child is a girl and insists on calling her "my son." During the celebration, Drusilla collapses in Caligula's arms from the same fever he'd suffered. Soon afterward, Caligula receives another ill omen in the guise of a black bird. He rushes to Drusilla's side and watches her die. Caligula experiences a nervous breakdown, smashes a statue of Isis and drags Drusilla's nude body around the palace while screaming hysterically.

    Now in a deep depression, Caligula walks the Roman streets, disguised as a beggar. When Caligula is dragged drunk and dirty into a prison for causing a disturbance at an outdoor theater, his signet ring is spotted by a giant (Osiride Pevarello) and his true identity becomes known. Caligula is released and has the Giant become his companion and 'flunky'.

    After his brief stay in jail, Caligula becomes determined to destroy the senatorial class, which he has come to loathe. Over the next year, his reign becomes a series of humiliations against the foundations of Rome. He orders the execution of several senators and their families without the slightest provocation.

    Caligula officially proclaims himself a god and awards free games and food to every citizen for one month. When Longinus protests by saying that the economy will never be able to handle such an expense, Caligula shows him how easy it is to replenish the Imperial purse. He builds a large ship in the palace that is to be used as a brothel. Forcing the wives and daughters of his senators into prostitution, Caligula himself collects the fees from citizens eager to sample their betters.

    Afterward, estates are confiscated, the old pagan religion is desecrated, and Caligula initiates an absurd war on Britain to humiliate the army. Caligula orders his officers to attack papyrus growing in the water of a lake so he can claim to have conquered Britain. Back in court, he announces his victory while servants parade the captured papyrus. During a celebration, Caligula orders Longinus to recite a list of citizens who have failed the empire, and they are arrested. His final public act of madness is to proclaim his horse, Incitatus, a senator.

    Having overruled every branch of the government, mocked the Roman gods, humiliated and killed all of the most loyal and trusted members of the Senate, destiny finally catches up with Caligula; Chaerea, Longinus, the Imperial physician Charicles (Leopoldo Trieste), the Chief Executioner, the Roman High Priest, and a few other senators and members of the Praetorian Guard have quietly begun plotting his assassination.

    On the last night of his life, Caligula wanders into his bedroom where a nervous Caesonia awaits him. The black bird makes a final appearance, but only Caesonia is frightened of it. By this point, Caligula is so consumed by his insanity that he no longer exhibits fear or any kind of strong emotions.

    The next day, on a cold January morning in 41 A.D., after rehearsing an Egyptian play, Caligula and his family leave the stadium to return to the Imperial Palace. On their way back, a vengeful Chaerea awaits them in the front corridor. After Caligula teases Chaerea one final time by giving him the secret password "scrotum", Chaerea answers, "So be it!"..... he draws his sword and strikes Caligula on his head. To insure that none of Caligula's line will follow him to power, Caesonia is also stabbed, the child Julia has her head smashed on the marble steps by the Executioner, and the Giant is decapitated by Chaerea. Deranged to the last, the mortally wounded and bloodied Caligula rises to his feet and to which he defiantly whimpers: "I live!" Chaerea responds by stabbing Caligula a final time and he falls to the floor. Caligula is finished off when 10 or more of his own guards, seeing their now-hated Emperor dying, gorily stab him to the marble floor with their spears while the horrified Claudius watches. Begging to spare his life, Claudius is given Caligula's robe and ring by Longinus and the servants who hail him as the new Emperor, proclaiming a new era for the Roman Empire. As the unwilling and dull-witted Claudius is carried away, Chaerea, Longinus, and the other conspirators flee from the scene of the crime.

    As the servants wash the blood off the palace floor following the assassinations, the mutilated and lifeless bodies of Caligula, Caesonia, their daughter, and the Giant's severed head are thrown down the marble steps of the Palace for display to all those in Rome.

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