Since July 3 was the 81st birthday of filmmaker Ken Russell (who has been known to comment on these pages occasionally), I thought I’d use this week’s column to put forth the case for a full-blown DVD release of a restored version of his 1971 film, The Devils—a film many people consider to be his masterpiece. It’s also a film that Warner Bros. stubbornly—and, frankly, stupidly—refuse to make available on DVD. It seemed that it was about to happen this year. An announcement was made. A mock-up of the cover was displayed on the internet. There was much rejoicing among Russellphiles and cineastes in general. Then came the official studio announcement that no such thing was going to happen. No explanation, mind you—just that no such release was planned.
What’s up with Warner Bros., you ask? Well, that’s an interesting question—one to which there’s no clear answer. A few years back—not long after a huge Russell retrospective in Los Angeles—the studio seemed to actually delight in announcing that the archival print of The Devils was worn out, that there were no plans to replace it and that the film would no longer be available for bookings of any kind. As usual, this brought up questions from film fans of a DVD release. (This has been going on in one form or another since the days of laserdiscs.) Warners said “no.”
Well, then, what about letting a company like Criterion bring the film out? The answer was simple—Warner Bros. doesn’t license their films to other companies. The overall implication was—and is—that we should be thankful they ever allowed the film to be released to home video—in a bad, censored pan-and-scan VHS form—at all. End of subject—at least till this latest episode. For whatever reason, Warner Bros. seems fully determined to suppress the film to the best of their ability (more on that later).
So, what is this movie that Warners want to save us from?
The Devils is Russell’s blending of Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils of Loudun with John Whiting’s play The Devils—filtered, redefined and certainly embellished with his own sensibilities. As with all of Russell’s adaptations, it’s as much about his reaction to the material as it is an attempt to translate that material to the screen. In the case of The Devils, it perhaps goes a little further, since the film is as much a reaction to the time in which it was made as it is a reaction to the story.
The Devils was made when the nightly news—both here and in the UK—was filled with ever more graphic footage from Vietnam. Russell’s contention was that people had become numb through overexposure, that the horrors being shown had “normalized” it all. His reaction to this growing sense of moral apathy was to make a film that would jolt viewers out of their complacency by showing them something that would shock them. (There’s a verbalization of this in a different context in Russell’s 1972 film Savage Messiah where his hero answers a museum guard’s concerns over disturbing the other visitors by proclaiming, “Of course, they should be disturbed! Shocked into life!”) The problem was that he succeeded—only too well.
Understand that this was an era of filmmaking when pushing the envelope of what was and wasn’t permissible was not unusual. The ratings system was only three years old and filmmakers were taking full advantage of depicting things that would never have been possible before the advent of the G, M (later GP and then PG), R and X ratings.
The studios supported this freedom in large part because it allowed the movies to offer something TV couldn’t. And when John Schlesinger’s X-rated Midnight Cowboy (1969) went home with Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, the legitimacy of it seemed unquestionable. (The rating was changed to an R a couple years later.) The X rating didn’t then have the pornography connotation it would soon attain. Michael Sarne’s Myra Breckinridge (1970), Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972) and Paul Morrissey’s two campy horror pictures, Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) and Blood for Dracula (1974) were all released with X ratings. So was The Devils, which became easily the most notorious of all mainstream X rated movies.
Russell had himself been one of the key figures in testing the limits with Women in Love (1969) and The Music Lovers (1970), both of which can only be described as hard R’s. If the sexuality and full-frontal nudity of those films had raised censor eyebrows, The Devils burned the eyebrows clean off their faces—in part because of the subject matter, which was and is both extremely religious and political.
The Devils is the story of an unorthodox (and very sexually active) Jesuit-trained priest, Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), whose parish was in the town of Loudun, France in 1634. Arrogant and proud to a fault, Grandier made many powerful enemies—something that came home to roost because of his political activities. Grandier dared to stand up to the political machinations of Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue), whose vision of a united France (with himself as the power behind the throne) was hampered by Grandier standing in his way concerning tearing down the walls that encircled Loudun. That Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) had pledged not to touch the city guaranteed Grandier’s power—for a time.
What Grandier had not counted on were the ravings of a sexually repressed nun, Sr. Jeanne of the Angels (Vanessa Redgrave), who accused the priest of debauching her and several other members of the convent she headed up by means of black magic. Richelieu immediately seized on these allegations and used them to destroy Grandier, finally having him burnt at the stake as a sorceror.
This is heady material under any circumstances, but Russell’s decision to present the material in the most graphic manner possible took it to new levels. The depictions of the mass exorcisms on the nuns as public spectacles went far beyond anything anyone had ever put on the screen before. Nothing was spared the viewer in these scenes, nor was much left out of the scenes of Grandier’s torture and execution. Russell’s intent was to shock the viewer into a state of awareness through which his message about the abuse of religion for political purposes would penetrate any and everyone’s sense of complacent detachment.
He would go further. Rather than set the film in the usual period realm, he commissioned artist/filmmaker Derek Jarman to create a fantasticated Loudun—an allegorical setting of gleaming white brick that would convey not only the characters’ own sense of their modernity, but make the film itself seem oddly modern. His view was that the citizens of 1634 did not think of themselves as historical figures. They thought of themselves much as we think of ourselves—modern, enlightened and civilized.
To further this sense, the dialogue—in part after the manner of the Whiting play—was not written in a faux period style, but in a naturalistic, contemporary style. Add to this a variety of pop-culture references—“professional witchfinder” Fr. Barre (Michael Gothard) in John Lennon glasses, references to pop songs, an evocation of Crosby and Hope doing a “patty cake” routine from a “Road” picture, etc.—and a very modern score by Peter Maxwell Davies, and the results were a film of unusual immediacy. Yes, the actual events happened in 1634, but they feel like they’re happening now, imbuing the film with a relevance to a modern audience unusual in a period piece.
The resulting film brought down a firestorm of criticism and censorship. “I consider this to be a nauseating piece of filmmaking. Whatever the deeper meaning intended by Ken Russell, it comes to the screen with such elements of sadism, pornography and blasphemy, it will appeal chiefly to the prurient,” wrote—in part—the British censor at the time the film was submitted. Cuts were demanded and there was even talk of the film being banned outright. (The likelihood of a film by as important director as Russell, coming out from a major studio actually being banned was slim, though The Devils was indeed banned in some parts of Great Britain where local censor boards have the right to overrule the British Board of Film Censors.)
Cuts were made. (Despite what people tend to believe, an X or NC-17 rating does not mean that a film wasn’t cut to receive those ratings.) It made little difference to the film’s reception. What did make it onto the screen was amazingly powerful—so much so in fact that the critic Alexander Walker railed against scenes in the film that did not exist, and never had existed. When Russell confronted Walker on a TV talk show about this, Walker refused to back down. As a result, Russell whacked the critic over the head with a rolled up copy of his own newspaper. (Years later, I asked Russell if he’d learned from this outburst. He admitted he had, and if the opportunity ever arose again, he’d make sure there was an iron bar in the paper.)
The controversy over the film became so legendary that a reference to it found its way into Graham Greene’s novel The Honorary Consul where the consul has to travel to another city for a film festival because “the British entry by some fellow named Russell had been called pornographic.” Warner Bros. hated the film from the onset and didn’t really seem to know what to do with it. Their original one-sheet for the American release consisted in large part of a long disclaimer calling The Devils “not a film for everyone,” but saying it was a serious work by a distinguished artist, but one that was likely to shock some viewers, and finally expressing their “hope that only the audiences who can appreciate it” would come to see it.
The studio probably only worsened the situation by slapping an introductory title on the film—“This film is based upon historical fact. The principal characters lived and the major events depicted in the film actually took place.” That’s true enough—certainly, it’s far more true than the “based on actual events” claims that so freely festoons a lot of new releases these days. The problem is that this title is followed by one of the film’s more outrageous and playful scenes—a staging of Boticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus as a drag show at the court of Louis XIII, with Louis himself as Venus. Well, the title does say “major events.”
The strange thing about all this—as Russell has pointed out—is that Warner Bros. had read the script and accepted it, and there was nothing in the film (except, of course, the immediacy of the image over the printed word) that wasn’t in that script. This would not be the last time the studio agreed to a script and an approach, only to turn around when they saw the finished film and act like they had no idea that anything of the sort was being made. Much the same thing happened (for different reasons) with John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) and with Paul Schrader’s Exorcist: The Beginning (2004), the latter being actually shelved and reshot by the more studio-friendly Renny Harlin.
The film did have its supporters, chief among them Time movie critic Jay Cocks. It also became part of a course on film given by Fr. Gene D. Phillips, S.J. at Loyola University in Chicago. Moreover, even its detractors couldn’t deny that it was visually brilliant and that Vanessa Redgrave and Oliver Reed gave shatteringly powerful performances. Over the next few years, the film gathered more and more adherents, though it often played in some pretty peculiar venues. (I first saw The Devils in 1975 at a midnight show in a porno theater in Tampa, Florida.) It also became a staple of the college film circuit—in some part because it was something of a badge of honor to have made it all the way through this disturbing movie.
And it is a disturbing film. That was—and is—part of the point. It’s the story, in Russell’s words, of “a sinner who becomes a saint.” The sinner and saint, of course, is Grandier, and one of the things that makes the film so uncomfortable is that he is not destroyed by his sins. Rather, he is destroyed by his reformation, by his attempts to “do the right thing.” One wonders if he had been destroyed for his sins if the film would have upset as many people as it did.
The film—named on the Sight and Sound list of the greatest British films ever made—has been written about in great detail in a number of books, including my own Ken Russell’s Films (1984). Fr. Phillips wrote an in-depth analysis and defense of the film in his Ken Russell (1979), while film scholar Joseph A. Gomez devoted almost a quarter of his book, Ken Russell: The Adapter as Creator (1975) to it. I even once provided the programme notes for The Devils when it made its first appearance at a film festival in Finland. (I saw the translation. God knows what I actually said in Finnish.)
For all of this, controversy has followed The Devils. When the Asheville Film Festival honored Russell in 2005 and I told the powers that be that we’d be screening one very rare film that we could only list as a “surprise,” I was taken aside and quietly asked with some concern, “It’s not the one with the nuns, is it?” (It wasn’t. Owing to the lack of a good copy of the film, The Devils was never even considered.)
To their marginal credit, Warner Bros. did release the film on VHS, but it was a 101 minute cut (the original US version ran 109 minutes, while the British print ran 111). It was also horribly done in a full-screen pan-and-scan format and (presumably in an effort to obscure detail) printed much too dark. Anyone seeing The Devils in that form, saw only a pale shadow of the film as it was released—and almost no one ever saw the film that Russell intended, owing to the censorship demands from 1971.
While many little cuts were made in the film in order to get it released, the most notorious cut in the film was a sequence—actually, the end of a sequence—that came to be known as “The Rape of Christ.” The sequence is the culmination of the exorcism scenes and was to come when full-scale hysteria breaks out following an incognito visit by Louis XIII. Louis presents the exorcist with a supposed “holy relic from the King’s own chapel,” the presence of which immediately speeds the demons from the bodies of the “possessed” nuns. The King then reveals that the box containing this relic is, in fact, empty, resulting in the vast amusement of the spectators. Outraged, Fr. Barre asks, “What sort of a trick have you played on us?” “Oh, reverend sir, what sort of a trick are you playing on us?” asks the King.
At this point, any vestige of order breaks down into an orgiastic frenzy that, in part, involves the nuns ripping down a larger than life crucifix and…well, doing what the sequence’s title says. It’s a difficult scene to watch—not merely from the shocking imagery, but from the building of a frenzy of camerawork, editing and music that becomes almost unbearable. Yet, as Fr. Phillips put it in an interview for the documentary Hell on Earth, “The scene portrays blasphemy. It is not a blasphemous scene.” He elaborates that what makes the scene work is that it is cross-cut with scenes of Grandier in the wilderness celebrating communion with simple dignity. As a result, “It portrays blasphemy against a true spiritual enrichment.”
None of this cut any ice with the censors of the time—nor did the fact that the film is obviously the work of a very religious man. At the time the film was made, Russell was a practicing Catholic. His reaction here is that of a man who has been outraged over the perversion and debasement of a faith that he holds dear. A later scene ought to make this clear when Grandier walks in on a public exorcism and cries out, “You have turned the house of the Lord into a circus, and its servants into clowns! You have perverted the innocent.” (Circus is a good term for the events when we find such carnival-level huckstering as evidence against Grandier including “the voices of real devils coming from the mouths of Ursuline nuns.”) The intent of the film—both religious and political—is abundantly clear for anyone who bothers to actually watch it rather than simply be offended by its depiction of the perversion of religion for political ends.
For years, the sequence in question was considered lost—possibly destroyed. I would occasionally pester Russell with questions about it. Did he think it was possible that maybe the film’s editor, Michael Bradsell, had held onto the cut footage? Was there any chance—an even longer shot—that cinematographer David Watkin had squirreled the missing scenes away somewhere? He got tired of me bringing it up, I think, and ultimately told me, “It’s gone. You’re not going to see it—and it wasn’t that hot anyway.” I suspect this was mostly to get me to shut up about it.
Enter film historian Mark Kermode, for whom the film was something of an obsession. He wasn’t accepting the idea that the footage didn’t exist—a bit of stubborness that ultimately paid off when a can of film containing the “lost” sequence and other censored bits of the film was finally located. As Kermode put it in Hell on Earth, this was the holy grail for Russell fans. Russell himself, upon seeing the sequence, took a somewhat different attitude than he had when it was supposedly lost—“Yes, well, I can’t think why they cut that except that it’s one of the most mind-blowing sequences ever censored.”
Warner Bros. saw it differently. They didn’t want the footage shown at all. They finally relented and agreed that it could be shown once in the Hell on Earth documentary. Under no circumstances, however, was it to be edited back into the film—or so the story went. That appears to still be the attitude being taken now.
Of course, there’s an irony to all this. While Warner Bros. continues to sit on the film in any version, some enterprising soul (perhaps more than one) combined the “Rape” sequence with a TV transmission of the film (yes, folks, in Great Britain both the film and the notorious scene have been shown on television) and cobbled together something roughly akin to a complete version. The quality isn’t the best (it’s watery and obviously taken from a VHS original), and it’s further hampered by the fact that the broadcast version of the film itself is letterboxed to about 2.0:1, rather than its actual ratio of 2.35:1, meaning that the sides of the frame are still cropped. (The “Rape,” on the other hand, is the full widescreen format.) This version has been burned to DVD and is sold freely on the internet.
Every bootleg copy sold is a copy that Warner Bros. could have sold. Even at that, I doubt there’s a single cineaste or Russell fan who wouldn’t still buy a pristine official studio release of The Devils were Warners to break down and offer it. In terms of film culture, their refusal to do so is little short of criminal. As I wrote in the Xpress when the film was shown locally, The Devils is “one of the very small handful of films to which the word ‘genius’ might reasonably be applied.” It probably won’t make a huge difference—based on the studio’s apparent attitude—but a letter-writing campaign couldn’t possibly hurt.