||From Cabiria to Quo Vadis to Spartacus to Gladiator, Ancient Rome has held a fascination for filmmakers ever since the inception of the medium, and throwing a toga onto a star has been a surefire method of getting a hit at least somewhere in the world - usually Italy. The idea of this civilisation being so rich in culture, yet so cruel when it came to human rights (the slavery was a difficult thing to get past) and so aggressive in its drive to conquer as much of the known world as it could means the Romans have had all sorts of treatment, from send-ups like Carry On Cleo or the adaptations of Asterix comics, to more intellectual exercises like the homoerotic Derek Jarman effort Sebastiane, or the feminist reading Agora. But then there were the more extreme takes on the style, which began in the genre of fantasy action.
Peplum, essentially, which had been around in Italian cinema to romanticise its distant past from the beginnings of its industry at Cinecitta, but when American Steve Reeves showed up in 1957 to star as Hercules, there was a boom in inviting foreign body builders over for a nice holiday with pay where they could take the lead in a sword and sandal epic. Even Kirk Douglas showed up in one, Ulysses, before his more celebrated turn as the slave leader of the revolution, but physically he was small fry compared to the likes of Reeves, Gordon Scott, Alan Steel, and many others who would turn up to flex their considerable muscles and take on whatever tasks the screenwriters set them. They were not all called Hercules, there was also Samson, Goliath and Atlas, for example, and as you can see, they were not all wedded to Roman heroes.
In Italy, however, among these umpteen knock-offs that pitted the protagonists against various Roman myths, quite often in their native tongue they would call them Maciste. He was supposedly a Hercules under a different name, that name being lost in the mists of time, but it didn't matter a huge amount when the audience knew what he was there for and what was expected of him: picking up papier mâché boulders and flinging them about. However, in anticipation of the boundaries in taste being pushed in the decades to come, every so often in those early sixties extravaganzas there would be something rather strange served up for your delectation. Mario Bava's Hercules in the Haunted World was usually held up as the most curious of these peplum, but it did have a rival in Maciste in Hell, aka The Witch's Curse.
For the first twenty minutes, you will be wondering if you have the right film, as the setting was seventeenth century Scotland and the subject was witchcraft where the locals are putting various women to death by burning them at the stake. When a returning couple find themselves in danger of suffering the same fate, things look bleak until a man wearing just his pants (in the Scottish climate?!) rides up out of nowhere and determines to put an end to this practice. He was Maciste, played by Kirk Morris (an actual Italian muscleman, not an import), and he did so by descending into the Roman Hades to track down a witch who had already been executed. In its setting of a cave network popular with tourists, we see writhing bodies, a fearsome (i.e. drugged/stuffed) lion, a cyclops, flashback footage to other Maciste films, and a general air of skewed decadence.
That did not go unnoticed among the Ancient Rome aficionados to come. Certainly the excesses of the peplum, which grew ever more eccentric as different variations on the formula were sought, seemed to inform the real daddy of debauched Roman movies: Federico Fellini had been an international star in the realm of direction for over a decade when he decided to adapt the works of an ancient author Petronius into his version of what it would have been like to live in those times. The results were absolutely bizarre to the eyes of audiences in the late sixties, and the film was proclaimed a masterpiece by the cognoscenti, though for the uninitiated it remained a complete mystery. The film was named Fellini Satyricon (the possessive title thanks to a different producer owning the name Satyricon), and it set the seventies template.
This was one to beat, it made A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum look positively prosaic; its influence could be felt in examples such as the BBC's classic serial I, Claudius a few years later. But there was a sui generis air to Satyricon, nothing precisely like it before, and any try at imitating it not really capturing its particular mood or array of grotesque imagery, aside from perhaps one film that enthusiastically endeavoured to top it around ten years after - but more of that anon. In the Fellini, he was set on crafting what he termed the perfect representation of his dreams, and to do so he manufactured what he regarded as a science fiction movie that happened to be unfolding in the past; watching it, you could assuredly say he had wholly succeeded in that ambition, as what played out across the screen did come across as otherworldly.
If you could imagine Ancient Rome as another planet, you would have some way in to the drama that told of the student Encolpio, played by Martin Potter, a pretty boy handpicked for the task of embodying the spirit of the age of millennia past. Which meant, basically, his character took a bisexual approach to life: when we meet him, he is fighting his best friend Ascilto (Hiram Keller) for the ownership of a boy slave they both covet. But this was an episodic experience, and while you would never see Steve Reeves in a gay relationship (much as some of his fans might have wanted him to be), that transgressive styling appealed to a more modern sensibility as Fellini drew parallels between the corrupt, hedonistic world of the past and the way society was going in its future. And you know what? He didn't seem to have a problem with that.
Roger Corman, exploitation flick supremo, made his own contribution to the cycle with a film that mixed the sexual content of Satyricon with the action of the peplum, and came up with a female take on the genre with The Arena in 1973. If there was one aspect to have the diehard trash fan salivating, it was the presence of Joe D'Amato behind the camera: listed as cinematographer, rumour had it he was largely responsible for the direction as well, despite Steve Carver listed in that capacity in the credits. However, though this has its fans, it does come across as more a Carver movie than a D'Amato one in light of the paths their respective career took, and for that reason it never really takes off in the manner that it might, despite a few notables in the cast who would have stepped up to bring the material to life if they had half the chance.
Nevertheless, it was more likely the drive-ins and grindhouses of the world would have shown The Arena than Satyricon, especially with Pam Grier second billed behind Margaret Markov, the duo having recently starred in Black Mama, White Mama the previous year, and potentially a fruitful double act for these sort of shenanigans. However, Markov would retire soon afterwards to settle down with this film's producer Mark Damon, and that collaboration was not to be, so at least you can enjoy them both battling in the gladiatorial arena as two slaves turned fighters - though they are actually on the same side. With nudity, violence and a sex scene or two, the Corman formula was adhered to, and Italian fans would appreciate Rosalba Neri as the slave-owning villainess, but it was all rather one note as a story, and as an action piece. It needed to be a lot more outrageous.
Which can only bring us to the most notorious Roman scandal of them all. In 1979, after a production schedule reportedly lasting four years, Caligula was released, an apparent attempt to outdo the madness that Fellini had concocted through the best efforts of gentlemen's publication Penthouse's film arm and its head honcho Bob Guccione. Though revered author Gore Vidal had penned at least an early draft of the screenplay, he rejected what Guccione and director Tinto Brass did with it, basically removing most of the homosexuality and instead of making the power go to Emperor Caligula's head to make him insane, they had him as insane from the off, cutting to the chase, as it were. What made it even more notorious, as if all the money spent on it was not enough, was the presence of some top British thesps.
This casting looked to be an emulation of the hit BBC television serial I, Claudius, which in the mid-seventies had pushed the envelope of what was permissible on the small screen about as far as it could go, yet got away with its excesses thanks to its classical roots passing for education of the masses of what happened in Ancient Rome. John Hurt had essayed the Caligula role there, and it was the making of his career in some ways, but Malcolm McDowell in this Italian project had no such luck, and whenever asked complained bitterly that the end result was far from the movie he signed up for. Also present: Dame Helen Mirren as the ultra-promiscuous Mrs Caligula, Peter O'Toole giving perhaps his worst performance as the previous Emperor Tiberius, and Sir John Gielgud as an advisor who wisely kills himself early on. That said, Mirren reputedly likes the film.
And dear Johnny Gielgud loved it so much he went to see it twice in the cinema. It does have its fans, there's no argument, and even taking Fellini into account there's very little as excessive in the annals of movie history, but even if most were not put off by sleazy sex and brutal violence, the woozy, near-druggy tone is difficult to attune to, or even get used to as its two-and-a-half hours plus staggers on. Guccione is the man most blame for making a mess of Caligula, re-editing it to his satisfaction which meant adding hardcore lesbian scenes to the threesome between McDowell, Mirren and Teresa Ann Savoy (as Drusilla, Caligula's sister) and inserting equally hardcore shots where the Senators are forced to make their wives into prostitutes in the Senate itself. None of what was on show here was factually accurate to any great degree, but the feverish nature of a huge wall of decapitating blades or the temple of the virgins where said ladies are shagging each other in an orgy were indelible images, maybe unfortunately. A shortlived craze for Roman exploitation followed, but Caligula was impossible to beat for sheer confoundedness. They'll never try that again.