Malcolm McDowell and Mirella D'Angelo cavort in Caligula

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

24 January

Caligula assassinated, AD41

On this day in AD41, or 41BCE, the Roman emperor Caligula was assassinated.

His name was in fact Gaius Augustus Germanicus and Caligula was his nickname – meaning “soldier’s little boot” – picked up while he was a child accompanying his general father on campaigns.

Caligula arrived as ruler of Rome by a tortuous, intrigue-filled and bloody route and worked hard once in power to increase the autocratic power of the emperor. This did not sit well with those who still saw Rome as a republic. Nor did Caligula’s spending of huge amounts of money on lavish residences for himself.

Caligula became emperor in March AD37 and was initially popular but by October that year he had started on a series of politically motivated murders (first his cousin and adopted son, then his father- and brother-in-law).

The following year he reinstated democratic elections and embarked on a series of tax reductions designed to bolster his popularity. The year after that the money ran out and he was forced into a series of revenue-raising stunts from unorthodox directions – such as auctioning off gladiators at public shows.

A famine broke out, partly due to Caligula’s incompetent handling of Rome’s infrastructure.

He was a contradictory ruler – he built many roads, aqueducts, temples and huge ships and seemed to love audacious civil engineering projects. But it was when he started murdering members of the Senate – who had grown used to ruling alone after Caligula’s predecessor, Tiberius, had retreated from active life – that the conspiracies against the emperor started to flourish.

These only grew in number when Caligula started to dress himself up as a god and claim divinity. He ordered a statue to himself erected in the Temple of Jerusalem (orders wiser heads never carried out). Tales about Caligula increased further – sleeping with sisters, prostituting them, making his horse a consul.

In AD40 Caligula announced he was moving to Alexandria, Egypt, where he would be worshipped as a god. This seems to have provided the spur to the conspirators, who moved quickly to kill the emperor.

Led by Cassius Chaerea they stabbed him to death in an underground corridor while he was addressing an acting troupe. Keen to destroy his line, they also murdered his wife and daughter. They failed to kill his uncle, Claudius, who became emperor.

Caligula (1979, dir: Tinto Brass)

If you have not seen Caligula, I strongly urge you to do so. Not because it is a great film – it really isn’t – but because it offers the sight of illustrious names of film being made a total fool of.

Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud and Helen Mirren are among those lining up for a drubbing in a film ostensibly directed by Tinto Brass, and ostensibly giving us a straight version of the life of the infamous Roman emperor.

Malcolm McDowell plays Caligula, and you couldn’t ask for a better actor to play a megalomaniac going off his chump. The script is by Gore Vidal, prolific writer of lightly fictionalised histories of the American republic. The ideal man, you’d have thought, to tackle a story about the ancient empire all modern empires style themselves on.

As for director Brass… well, here’s where the smudging starts. A talented director, Brass operated at that time in the peculiar territory shared by arthouse and pornography – for reasons to do with censorship and economics most towns could afford one non-mainstream cinema, which had to do double duty.

The reason why I use the word “ostensibly” in relation to direction and plot is because the film is bankrolled by Bob Guccione, the owner of the soft-porn title Penthouse. And once Brass’s work was done, Guccione took control of the film, hired another director, Giancarlo Lui, to shoot hardcore inserts.

Thanks to constant rewrites, budget over-runs, arguments and walkouts, the film was probably already a mess before Lui and Guccione got to work, but what eventually appeared on the screens is through-the-fingers stuff – the continuity is shot away, the film makes no sense and keeps taking pauses so that people who appear to be from another film entirely can disport themselves pornographically.

When they got wind of what Guccione and Lui were up to, Vidal sued, Brass sued, some of the actors sued too (though it must be said that the sensible ones simply chalked it up to experience).

“Shameful trash” the celebrated critic Roger Ebert called it. He’s being kind. If you want to buy the DVD or Blu-ray (its soft of focus either way), make sure to check out the “making of” interviews made before it debuted and featuring Guccione, Brass, Vidal et al. The gap between their windy guff and the leaden reality is a whole new realm of pleasure.

Why Watch?

  • An eye-rolling Malcolm McDowell
  • The high tone cast includes John Gielgud (killing himself)
  • The glory that wasn’t Rome
  • ”Been there, done that” kudos

Caligula – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014


Jodie Whittaker and Peter O'Toole in Venus


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



15 December



Soviet spacecraft Venera 7 lands on Venus, 1970

On this day in 1970, the Soviet Union landed a spacecraft on Venus. The Venera 7 had been launched from Earth on 17 August 1970 and arrived in the proximity of Venus nearly four months later. At this point the spacecraft began its descent, retaining the rocket that had powered it to Venus to use as a heat shield until the atmosphere was dense enough for the use of a parachute, at which point the rocket was jettisoned. At 60km up the parachute deployed, but it failed. The probe hit the surface at a speed of 16.5 metres per second (about 36mph) and was damaged. The scientists initially believed that the probe was kaput but in fact it was still transmitting data, albeit rather weakly. However, after 23 minutes it did fall silent. The only data it sent back were atmospheric readings (97% carbon dioxide) and the surface temperature (475ºC). As the name suggests, Venera was the seventh of a total of 16 probes to Venus, the first having been launched in 1961 and the last in 1984. Ten landed on Venus, the first being the ill-fated Venera 7. Other firsts included the Venera 4 (first man made device to enter the atmosphere of another planet, 1967), Venera 9 (first to return images from another planet, 1975), Venera 15 (first to perform high-resolution radar mapping of Venus, 1983). Because of the incredibly high temperatures of the surface of Venus, the life of a probe on the planet’s surface can be measured in minutes, though by the time the USSR was launching the final probes, a couple of hours had become the norm. If, like me, you find yourself astonished by your own ignorance of one of the greatest space exploration programs ever devised by humans, this website is a mine of useful information




Venus (2006, dir: Roger Michell)

What happens when an old guy fall for a young girl? Not a middle aged guy and a 20something, but a properly old man and a girl young enough to be his grand-daughter? That’s the story that Venus tells, with a great degree of subtlety and facing up to the charge that it’s in dirty old man territory. Peter O’Toole is the old guy, a man taken aback by his feelings for the gutter-mouthed great-niece of an old friend (Leslie Phillips). Jodie Whittaker plays the girl, a teenager who sucks up the warmth that the old guy is giving off, increasingly aware that it’s more than just affection, and advancing towards it because she’s been starved of love by her family. He wants sex, of course, though he’s probably too old to do it; and after a while she stops feeling disgusted and starts to realise that in fact she holds all the cards. And how she makes him sweat, and ache. This is what the bulk of the film is about, the dance around the possibility/impossibility of it all, with O’Toole laying on the pathos in great big actorly slabs – he’s playing a vain old actor, appropriately – while Whittaker does that amazing thing that great actresses can do, regularly pulling off emotional 180º about-faces to confound him, and amaze us. It’s a comedy, with dark pools. Writer Hanif Kureishi and director Roger Michell had been here before, with The Mother, the 2003 drama about an older woman (Anne Reid) and a younger man (Daniel Craig). And the duo would complete the thematic threesome about love among the wrinklies with 2013’s Le Week-End, about a married couple (Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan) raking over the embers of their passion in Paris. And in all of them Roger Michell’s ability to get credible emotion out of his actors – not that any of those names actually have a problem there either – provides an extra wallop. And in this film especially, whose subject matter is wandering perilously close to uncomfortable territory, that really helps.



Why Watch?


  • The great support cast – Leslie Phillips, Richard Griffiths, Vanessa Redgrave
  • The director of Notting Hill working with less photogenic material
  • O’Toole’s eighth Oscar nomination and his last great role
  • Because Whittaker is so good


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Venus – at Amazon






Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton in Becket


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



10 November



Richard Burton born, 1925

On this day in 1925, Richard Walter Jenkins was born, in Pontrhydyfen, Wales. Richard was child number 12 and his mother later died giving birth to child number 13; his father was a coal miner, drinker and gambler.

A star athlete, young Richard adopted the name Burton after his drama teacher, Philip H Burton, de facto adopted him, and it was Philip Burton who worked on the young man’s voice, turning it from a tinny nasally thing into the sonorous boom that was to make him (along with his Roman god looks and acting ability) his fortune.

Eventually nominated seven times for an Oscar, though he never won one (a record), Burton arrived in the world of film having already conquered the London and Broadway stage, his first film being the British production The Last Days of Dolwyn, for which he got good notices. His first Hollywood movie was 1952’s My Cousin Rachel and it made him an international star.

Through the 1950s and early 1960s Burton alternated London theatre, Broadway musical (he was a smash hit in Camelot) and Hollywood movies, pausing to also conquer radio with his recording of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, still definitive.

In the 1960s he became famous for marrying Elizabeth Taylor, appeared with her in her best film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and descended with her into alcoholism.

By the 1970s his drinking was so bad that it was affecting his career and his strength; his body was wasting away. Still, he was still outwardly in good enough shape to make The Wild Geese, the creaky British action drama in which Burton starred alongside Roger Moore and Richard Harris as the world’s oldest, fattest crack team of go-anywhere troubleshooters.

In 1984, having just made the film adaptation of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, he died of a stroke, aged 58, an old man.



Becket (1964, dir: Peter Glenville)

Great in so many ways, Becket is the film for seeing two titans of the screen at their absolute prime.

Richard Burton is Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Richard O’Toole is King Henry II. Both are friends who have become increasingly distant with the years, the film catching them at the point where it becomes easier for Henry to get rid of the “meddlesome priest” rather than have to argue with him again about whether God or the King is pre-eminent, and whether the indigenous Saxon is being too keenly oppressed by the Norman invader (of whom Henry II is one).

Apart from the performances, titanic as already said, Becket offers a complex play that is at least in part about the conquered French people’s relations with the Nazi victor – to collaborate or not? – which still works all these decades later, even if Jean Anouilh (the writer of the original play) has to torture history slightly to make events fit. And Anouilh’s injection of a homosexual subtext is also a distortion of real events, though it does add a spark to what is, after all, a love story gone bad.

Language was Burton’s first love and Edward Anhalt has done a brilliant job with Anouilh’s play, turning Becket into another example of the joustingly witty historical drama that the 1960s seemed keen on (A Man for All Seasons, Spartacus), a feat which has eluded the decades since. To even up the balance sheet a bit, it is an amazingly stagey film and seems to propose a medieval England lit with arc lamps (this, too, was a 1960s thing) and a king’s crown clearly made of cardboard. But when the rest of a film is this good, it seems almost rude to point things like that out.



Why Watch?


  • Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole
  • An intelligent, funny, genuinely dramatic script
  • A great supporting cast including John Gielgud, Sian Phillips and Donald Wolfit
  • Nominated for 12 Oscars, won one – a record number of near-misses



© Steve Morrissey 2013



Becket – at Amazon





The Lion in Winter

Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Anthony Hopkins as Richard the Lionheart in The Lion in Winter




A movie for every day of the year – a good one



03 September



Richard I of England crowned at Westminster, 1189

On this day in 1189 one of the most famous English kings was crowned in Westminster Abbey in London. Known as the Lionheart, because of his great courage in battle, he is often viewed romantically, especially if seen through the prism of the Robin Hood stories, in which his half brother John always gets the bad guy role and Richard is the paragon of virtue. Richard spoke French, not English (he was also the Duke of Normandy, Aquitaine, Nantes, Anjou, Gascony and so on – the idea of monarchy and nation being coterminous is something Richard wouldn’t have understood), he spent only six months of his reign in England, and while there initiated a great pogrom against the Jews. After which, ironically, he headed off on the Third Crusade to expel Saladin the Muslim from Jerusalem. No lover of England – “I would have sold London if I could find a buyer” – he was reputed to have had a homosexual affair with Philip II of France. Not quite the figure you meet in the movies then.



The Lion in Winter (1968, dir: Anthony Harvey)

This was only director Anthony Harvey’s second film, after a career as an editor (for Kubrick on Lolita and Dr Strangelove, among others). And what a theatrical beast it is – a literate costume drama focusing on 50-year-old Henry II’s decision-making over who was to succeed him. The candidates are oldest but faintly idiot son John (Nigel Terry), warlike Richard (Anthony Hopkins) and gentle Geoffrey (John Castle). To oil the wheels he’s released his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn), from house arrest where she’s been languishing for ten years – he’s that kind of a guy. Meanwhile Philip II of France (Timothy Dalton) is complicating matters, wondering just which of the three lads is going to become king, so he can strategically marry his sister off to the lucky winner. But never mind the plot, look at those names. I forgot to mention that it’s Peter O’Toole playing Henry II, putting in a burning, intelligent performance that should have won him an Oscar (Hepburn did win one). Adding further heft is John Barry’s typically plaintive score (medieval 007 – it’s fantastic) and the cinematography is by Douglas Slocombe (everything from the Lavender Hill Mob and The Italian Job to Raiders of the Lost Ark).



Why Watch?

  • Hopkins, Hepburn, O’Toole – enough said
  • Like A Man for All Seasons, an unapologetically stagy drama
  • A rare example of a costume drama with great box office
  • Epic on almost every level



© Steve Morrissey 2013



The Lion in Winter – at Amazon





Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell

Peter O'Toole as Jeffrey Bernard





A night at the theatre in London’s West End is not always an evening of total entertainment: the ticket price, the discomfort of the seats, the warm G&T at the interval. But here’s an easy way to experience a play that was murder to get a ticket for when it was playing at the Old Vic.

An affectionate tribute to professional drunk Jeffrey Bernard, it is the ultimate “stagey” film – as in we are literally watching the performance on the stage of the Apollo (where the play had its London debut), with a live audience, boomy acoustics, the lot.

It’s perfect for fans of high-grade thespianism, louche yarns, ridiculous japes and, of course Peter O’Toole, playing Jeff – infamous Soho boozer and, between 1975 and 1997, writer of the “Low Life” column for the magazine The Spectator, which would print the one line apology “Jeffrey Bernard is unwell” when he was too drunk to file, which was often.

What we’re watching is the lightly fictionalised string of events leading up to one of these one-liners, a night when Jeff finds himself accidentally locked in the Coach And Horses, the infamous Soho pub where he held court.

Over the next 90 minutes, during which O’Toole holds the stage with a cigarette in one hand, a drink in the other, and with help from a handful of support players – fleshing out the stories being spun from memory and imagination – we’re treated to rambling from an almost incoherent old soak well into his anecdotage.

It’s not everyone’s idea of fun. Yet star O’Toole, stage director Ned Sherrin and writer Keith Waterhouse turn what is potentially torture into a joyous and very funny affirmation of the indomitability of the human spirit. Well, some kind of spirit, at least.

And when O’Toole finally grinds to a halt after one of those performances that remind us again how important theatre is to the craft of many British film stars – command is the word – there’ll probably be a smile on your face and a song in your heart. Whether there’s a drink in your hand is entirely up to you.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell – at Amazon