The Devils

Movie Information

The Devils is part of a series of Classic Cinema From Around the World being presented at 8 p.m. Friday, April 27, at Courtyard Gallery, 9 Walnut St. in downtown Asheville (enter at Walnut next to Scully's or at 13 Carolina Lane).
Genre: Historical Drama Horror
Director: Ken Russell
Starring: Vanessa Redgrave, Oliver Reed, Gemma Jones, Dudley Sutton, Georgina Hale
Rated: R

Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) is quite frankly one of the greatest films ever made. Period. No qualifiers are necessary. However, before we go any further it needs to be distinctly understood that the film originally carried an X rating—and it had to be cut to receive that. The X-rated version that appeared in the U.S. was two minutes short of the U.K. release print. Even the U.K. version was cut—an entire sequence referred to as “The Rape of Christ” was removed and never shown. In fact, this footage was thought lost until a few years ago. It is the British print with the “Rape” sequence restored that is to be shown on Friday at Courtyard Gallery.

In any version, the film has drawn heat. It has been denounced as pornographic and been outright banned in many places (I wrote the program notes for a screening of it at a film festival in Finland where they showed the film in defiance of the ban). The Devils quickly became one of the most notorious films ever made—and has been a thorn in the side of Warner Bros. since its original release. Despite petitions and its invariable status as one of the top titles in need of a DVD release, they have refused to budge on a director’s cut or indeed any cut at all. (In fact, they seemed quite pleased a few years ago when they announced that their archival print was worn-out and the film could no longer be booked for film festivals.) So what’s the truth? Is the film pornographic? I’d say not in the least, but I would say that it is shocking, though not for its own sake. I would also say that it is very strong stuff—some of it is very ugly stuff—and it is not for the easily offended. It is not even for the moderately easily offended.

To understand what Russell was up to with The Devils, it’s necessary to understand the era in which it was made. The actual events involving an outspokenly libidinous and political priest, Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), being accused of witchcraft by a sexually frustrated nun, Sister Jeanne of the Angels (Vanessa Redgrave), took place in France in 1634; but Russell’s film is a product of 1971. In part, it’s the filmmaker’s reaction to our own desensitized society. It was made as deliberately shocking as possible to jolt viewers who had been numbed by nightly TV-news footage of the Vietnam War into a state of awareness. Moreover, Russell attacked the project from an angle no one had ever really tried with a period drama—he made it modern. Oh, it’s still set in the village of Loudon in 1634, but it’s a wholly created Loudon (the amazing production design is by filmmaker Derek Jarman), peopled with characters who think and act as modern people, speaking in modern language. To top it all off, Russell chose avant-garde composer Peter Maxwell Davies (who Russell once called “the mad king of modern music”) to do the score. The results were—and are—electrifying. There’s no sense of the usual period-film safe distancing here, no feeling of looking at the backwards antics of quaint folk from nearly 400 years ago. It’s all in your face and immediate. It’s happening now—and that gives the film its power, which is the very reason it upsets people.

It’s a blistering, raw attack on governmental misuse and perversion of religion to achieve its own end. While it presents strikingly irreligious imagery, the film itself is not irreligious in the least. Indeed, at the height of perverted insanity of the mass exorcisms, Grandier walks into the midst of it all and says, “You have turned the house of the Lord into a circus, and its servants into clowns. You have perverted the innocent.” It is this that the film attacks, not the Church itself. Bear this in mind if you choose to tackle this remarkable—and for some, remarkably difficult—film. And also bear in mind that the film contains rampant nudity, torture, unbridled hysteria and religious images that many may find offensive. One will also find one of the very small handful of films to which the word “genius” might reasonably be applied.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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6 thoughts on “The Devils

  1. Brian

    You say they used different takes for the U.S. release in some scenes. Which scenes were they? I’ve seen both the British print and the censored American VHS version. I did notice that the VHS version was cut heavily, but I never noticed any of the scenes or dialogue as being alternate takes from the British version.

  2. Ken Hanke

    The one that comes immediately to mind is the visit of the “Duc de Conde” (Graham Armitage) to the exorcisms, but it seems to me that there are a few other instances. It’s not unheard of or unique. You’ll probably never encounter the 109 minute U.S. theatrical cut of THE BOY FRIEND anymore, but it has a different take of the scene with Barbara Windsor on the phone asking about the costume for “Miss Polly Browne” at the beginning of the stage show.

  3. Brian

    Was the sound track ever released on vinyl? I know you can get a Peter Maxwell Davies CD that has “Suite from the Boy Friend” and “Suite for The Devils”, but that runs for about 60 bucks on Amazon last I checked. The vinyl album of The Boy Friend is just the showtunes, I believe.

  4. Ken Hanke

    I don’t think there’s any actual soundtrack. I have the Maxwell Davies CD of the suites (from when it wasn’t 60 bucks!) and that’s all I know ever existed by way of a recording. THE BOY FRIEND part, by the way, is largely built on the Bachanal sequence, which was originally one of the casualties of the U.S. 109 minute print.

  5. kjh.childers

    The Golden Box scene and Reed’s acting while the crowds have gone amok … prior to “Judas” kissing the martyr’s cheek are some of Russell’s greatest moments. I watched this film over the past few days. The imagery still haunts me … even now. Reed coming off the cross … the temperature of the film turning our view into the Sister’s vision/dream, also hauntingly beautiful beyond blasphemous. Hmm.

    Top 3 ever I think.

  6. Christopher Lozier

    This is the only review I’ve read by any critic – ever – who has taken Russell’s film as it was meant to be taken. I first read about “The Devils” when I was about fourteen or so. I had just purchased Roger Ebert’s book “I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie” (which I love), and was reading through it with relish, just aching to discover some horrid film that simply HAD to see. In its pages, I found “Caligula” (the worst film ever made), “Pink Flamingos” (which I find to be an absolute joy), “B.A.P.S.”, “North” (neither worth mentioning, really) and, of course, “The Devils”. Having read his strange review, which sort of reads as a sarcastic non-denunciation while the star rating reads “Zero”, I knew I had to see it.

    To sum things up here, I first bought the 109-minute VHS. I loved it. Then I sold it, along with all of my other VHS (about 2500 total), and moved on the DVD. I searched and searched for ages to find a DVD copy of “The Devils”. Last year, I found it! has an uncut, 111-minute print of the film on DVD! $5 plus S&H. :)

    I love the film, and I loved readind your spot-on review. That was the purpose of my ravings. I thank you for loving Russell’s film as you do.


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