Now that it seems like every great film ever made is now on Blu-Ray or on-demand in sparkling high definition, it is easy to forget that there are still some classics yet to make a bow on DVD even. Ken Russell’s 1971 film THE DEVILS has long been one of the great omissions. This was finally rectified in 2012 with a lavish two disc DVD from the British Film Institute. The BFI’s release presents the film in the original BBFC X rated version, rather than the hideously truncated R rated American release.
It is still frustrating that this is not a Blu Ray release and does not present the director’s cut of the film that has played at a few film festivals and at the BFI Southbank. I’m sure the BFI would have loved to have released Russell’s complete version but unfortunately Warner Brothers would like to pretend they never made The Devils, and I cannot imagine the arm twisting and pleading that must have taken place to allow a DVD release of the BBFC rated cut over the bowdlerised US version. The studio has flat out refused to allow the director’s cut to see the light of day outside of film festivals, and a blu version of this would not be possible as it only exists as an SD Digibeta. In any case Warners whilst willing to allow the release of the X rated cut would only supply the BFI with SD materials thus no Blu Ray release was possible for any version.
How can a film from 1971 remain so controversial that its studio continues to respond “la la la, I’m not listening” any time it’s brought up? It’s often the case that the media and even some horror fans will say that movies are more violent now than they have ever been. This is demonstrably untrue. One need only look at the year of The Devil’s release 1971, sometimes referred to in film censorship circles as “the year of blood”. 1971 saw the release not only of The Devils, but of Sam Peckinpah’s STRAW DOGS and Stanley Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Even more apparently mainstream crowd pleasing thrillers included the likes of Don Siegel’s DIRTY HARRY and William Friedkin’s THE FRENCH CONNECTION. Both films featuring borderline fascist and racist heroes and nihilistic endings. The horror releases of 1971 could not compete with the carnage happening in the mainstream, LUST FOR A VAMPIRE looks positively cozy next to this lot.
But it is The Devils that has taken the longest to be released in digital format. And that surely has much to do with the subject matter of Russell’s film. Based on actual historical events and taking inspiration from in a novel by BRAVE NEW WORLD author Aldous Huxley and a subsequent play based on this book, The Devils takes place in 17th Century France. The country is under the rule of Louis the XIII (Graham Armitage). The king is being pressured by the Catholic Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) to allow for the demolition of city fortifications across France. The stated reasoning for this is to prevent further Protestant uprisings following the Religious Wars. In fact the scheming Richelieu sees the political independence of France’s self governing cities, as an obstacle to his growing power. The King agrees to Richelieu’s proposal, but with an exception, the city of Loudon is not to be touched. The King had made an agreement with its governor and did not wish to be seen to renege on his word.
Upon the death (from plague) of the governor of Loudon power in the city falls to Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), a radical priest with a fondness for the ladies and unorthodox views on marriage. Grandier is smart, popular with the people, but also proud and vain. When Richlieu hears of the Governor’s death he sends his enforcer Baron Jean de Laubardemont (the great Dudley Sutton) to tear down the walls. However he is repelled by Grandier who rallies the city militia and uses signed agreement between Louis the XIII and the former governor to drive him out. Grandier knows that Laubardemont and his men will return as soon as Richelieu turns the King’s flighty mood against them and sets out for Paris to make his case.
Laubardemont uses the priest’s absence to look for leverage to disgrace him and force him to bend to their will. He doesn’t have to look far. Not only has Grandier fathered a child with the daughter of a furious local magistrate, he has secretly married a young woman orphaned by the plague (Gemma Jones), and has upset the head of the cities convent Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) by refusing to become their spiritual leader. Grandier having no time for nuns instead sent his prissy second in command Father Mignon (Murray Melvin). Sister Jeanne is shown early in the film to be sexually obsessed with Grandier, as is most of the convent frankly. When she hears of his secret marriage it drives her into hysteria and she falsely confesses to Mignon that Grandier has been involved in demonic rites at the convent. This is what Laubardemont is looking for, bringing in witch hunter Father Barre (Michael Gothard who looks like a rock star) to exorcise the nuns.
It’s a detailed synopsis, necessary because The Devils is a film that is both narratively and thematically complex. Russell wrote the film’s often quite brilliant screenplay, and he is dealing with weighty themes of faith, politics, sexuality, and the necessity of the separation of church and state. Now if that sounds dry, the director’s approach and style is anything but. The filmmaking is bombastic. Russell on top form could be a brilliant director, but no one has ever accused him of subtlety. Here he utilises a scores of filmmaking tricks, repetitive crash zooms, dream sequences, a shrieking atonal score, all to create a derangement of the senses building to a shocking crescendo of sexual abandonment and torture in the final act.
Russell’s is greatly aided by the stunning production design of filmmaker and artist Derek Jarman. The central cathedral and square of Loudon are a triumph of angular and spare design. The sexual hysteria of the purging of the nuns by the clearly insane Father Barre is heightened by the clinical white tile walls and floors of the convent. The costumes by Russell’s first wife Shirley Russell are sumptuous. The opening of the film, where Armitage’s super-camp King wears a shell bikini to play Venus to an audience of transsexual nobles and a bored Richlieu, strikingly shows off her skills.
At the heart of the film are terrific performances. Redgrave is quite fearless as the physically deformed, sexually hysterical nun who accuses Grandier of devilry and is subjected to horrendous treatment at the hands of the exorcists (including a boiling water douche, and having her stomach pumped and the contents examined for evidence of satanic dining habits). The actress plays her character like the sadistic head girl of a boarding school. Giggling at every mention of naughty things, and then forced by guilt to whip herself in private. Towering above all is Oliver Reed. Reed is an actor whose brilliance has been overshadowed by appearing in too many bad films and by his hell raising reputation. A great pity as his performance in The Devils is not only arguably the best of his career, but is one of the great leading male performances in British film. Reed is a magnetic and physical presence. He is grandstanding, vain (he may spend more time grooming than Richard Gere does in AMERICAN GIGALO), and ultimately broken. He has to endure torture and physical indignity. But always he is resolute in his personal faith telling his accusers he “could never be the Devil’s boy.” It is a performance for the ages.
I had the treat of experiencing the rarely shown director’s cut of the film at the BFI South Bank with a Q&A featuring editor Michael Bradsell, and actors Gemma Jones, Georgina Hale, Dudley Sutton and Murray Melvin. The director’s cut contains several sequences removed from the film even before it was subject to the scissors of the BBFC. This includes what is known as the “rape of Christ” scene, in which there is a pretty full-on orgy featuring nuns and a few priests. The nuns are shown ecstatically pleasuring themselves on a statue of the Redeemer. This is one of the scenes that seems to have led Warner Brothers to find their own film to be immoral and blasphemous.
Of course, like MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN and THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, The Devils isn’t blasphemous at all. In fact at its most powerful this is a film that shows how a man, even a flawed man like Grandier, is willing to endure the most shocking and hideous physical torment rather than renounce his faith. The Devils is certainly a film that is highly critical of organised religion, but it is not a film critical of faith. Extreme yes, but blasphemous it is not.
Actor Dudley Sutton summed this up very well in the post screening interview, “In my experience anytime anything addresses religion in a serious and responsible way is accused of blasphemy.” Sutton blamed the general puritanism of society for the failure of the film on its original release. “Nobody went to see it, they said ’Oh I don’t go to that sort of film’”. However despite the troubles of the film post production, all four actors shared very happy memories of shooting the film and of their director.
Georgina Hale who plays the noble woman Grandier gets “with child” shared several sex scenes with Reed. Russell was quite the gentleman with the young actress promising that all scenes of nudity would be shot on a closed set in a maximum of two takes. Although Sutton did later say that there were crew members drilling peepholes in the set.
Like all the actors Hale clearly has a lot of affection for the late director, “when you worked for Ken he made you feel that you were the only person who could do it and that is why he chose you. He allowed you to bring your special quality to what he was doing. There would be days when you would never question anything, and other days where you could say. hmm, don’t wanna do that. He would say ‘okay, fine, show me what you want to do.’ He trusted you to do the job.”
They were also warm in reminiscing about working with Oliver Reed, described as professional on set at all times, no matter what happened out of hours. Sutton tells a particularly fine anecdote “the day that he had his hair cut… my dressing room was just down the passage and… this is a long long time ago… I was a hippie so I was on the weed. There was a great smell of hashish coming from my dressing room. The day he had his hair cut he came knocking on my dressing room door, this little head came around and said ‘do you think I could possibly have one of your space age cigarettes?’ It was like Sampson losing his hair.”
Of course the actors were spared the agony of the film’s post-post production. The film’s editor Michael Bradsell was in the thick of this. “This was the third film I cut for Ken, and the funny thing was that despite the harrowing subject matter, and the subsequent censorship problems of various kinds, it was one of the easiest, calmest, post production periods I’ve ever spent.”
Bradsell says that Russell took the brunt of the pressures of The Devils extensive period of tinkering to reach a version that would please the censor and the studio. He remembers early meetings with the BBFC “I did go to some of the initial meetings with John Trevelyan which were of a very general nature. Quite frankly, John was a nice old guy, but he seemed to enjoy parading his namedropping rather than getting on with the job.
“It was a sort of war of attrition, a little bit here and there… Can we leave a few more frames of the insert of Ollie’s legs being crushed if we take out something somewhere else… lots of little bits had to go. I think the only serious one from an aesthetic point of view was the one I mentioned just now, the insert of Ollie’s legs being crushed. It was very difficult to shape the scene around that if that shot wasn’t there… in fact if it wasn’t there at all it was open to misconception. Alexander Walker and some other critics who reviewed the film were under the impression that Grandier’s testicles were being crushed. If you can’t see exactly what is happening to him, it can lead to all kinds of wrong thinking.”
However frustrating, Bradsell describes the process of reaching a BBFC approved X certificate as generally genial “I think John Trevelyan if he could have gotten away with it would have passed it uncut. He often said that he was hoping that one day his job would not exist anymore.”
Ironically things were worse with the studio that had financed the film: “there were various Warners executives around during shooting and who had seen rough cuts of the film, we thought we had gotten away with it. Then three people came over from Burbank. Ken and myself and Roy Baird the associate producer sat at the back and when the lights went down we were hoping there wasn’t going to be too much trouble.
“These three executives had a secretary with them who had a notebook and a light up pen. Within five minutes in the dark this light was on, and we thought what on earth are they worrying about already? And then gradually through the next two hours the light was on more frequently, and then by the time it got to the burning it just stayed on.
“Roy Baird said to Ken and myself ‘let’s get out of here and go have a drink’. So we left them to it, and when the lights went up there was nobody they could argue with. When we got page after page of the notes they had compiled, some of them were predictable… but [others] weren’t just prudish, they were absolutely preposterous… it was artistically damaging. There are times when you can’t remove something, because what is either side of it literally does not fit together.”
Ultimately however Bradsell finds the film so powerful that it can survive the cuts and tinkering, in fact even the “director’s cut” is not the full version as Russell intended it, some footage being forever lost. Bradsell: “the strength of the thing is so great it didn’t destroy the basic concept.”
A version of this article was previously published in the seemingly now defunct FrightFest e-Zine in spring 2012 (I think, I’m not checking).