Sympathy For ‘The Devils’

the devils

Fifty years on from its troubled release, Max King explores how The Devils represents a fascinating case around the subject of censorship, and the collision of art and business.

“I’m called controversial [because] occasionally I choose controversial subjects.” This is the kind of admission you might expect from an artist dabbling in eyebrow-raising material, not from the director of a film that could lay claim to being the most controversial and troubling in the history of British cinema. The Devils, currently celebrating 50 years since its release in 1971, was a labour of love from a relatively young filmmaker: Ken Russell. Coincidentally, this November will also mark 10 years since his passing. But beyond its technical achievements, this film also represents a fascinating case around the subject of censorship, and the collision of art and business it so often represents. 

“You can’t impose good taste on Ken Russell.”

This was uttered by notorious BBFC [British Board of Film Classification] Secretary James Ferman, from an introduction to a television airing of The Devils. Russell has always been the wild child of British cinema, never once bowing to its unfair reputation as staid and emotionally buttoned-up. I’ll always remember a quote from, of all places, his 2007 appearance on Celebrity Big Brother: as a self-introduction, Russell states that he was once regarded “as the enfant terrible of British films, but now [as] the grand-père terrible.” In a way, that perfectly sums up his diverse spirit. Always vivacious in his approaches, a wildly inventive visual sense reigns supreme, while often tied to works with real darkness at their heart.

Tracking his career from the very beginning, you may not expect to find such explosive work as The Devils. The director began in TV, working on small-scale projects; there was no smooth transition with the sudden veer into features, from which the highly acclaimed D. H. Lawrence adaptation Women in Love was a terrific springboard. However, a scene featuring full-frontal fireside wrestling—which kicked up quite the fuss—was a mere morsel compared to Russell’s subsequent cinematic banquets of carnal excess.

“Hell will hold no surprises for you!”

The reasons behind The Devils’ controversy are evident from even the most basic synopsis. Based on Aldous Huxley’s account of real events, it follows Father Grandier (Oliver Reed), a Catholic priest in 17th century France, who tries to protect his city of Loudun from being destroyed in a wider push for state control by the King and Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue). As a convent of nuns led by Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) fall victim to a hysterical obsession with Grandier, the priest finds himself accused of witchcraft—a tinderbox situation into which the sinister Richelieu enters with his own self-serving motivations.

A film as rooted in religion as this would naturally entail careful handling. Russell, however, barrages through that squeamish idea of tactfulness by turning the narrative into a full-blown horror picture. Torture scenes are intense and gory, while nudity and orgiastic reveries skate the line of taste in order to bombastically expose organised exploitation. With such an overwhelmingly shocking aesthetic, it would be too easy to overlook the film’s achievements—Peter Maxwell Davies’ score and upcoming filmmaker Derek Jarman’s sets (not least those imposing city walls) deserve special mention on this front.

Grandier’s grandeur

Oliver Reed’s unconventional lead presence dominates even in scenes where he is absent. A legend of British screen acting, Reed had a volatile public presence, known for a life of boorish excess—but equally, he made for an innately charismatic figure, especially when used in larger-than-life supporting roles. As pervy psychologist Dr Hal Raglan, he is sprinkled carefully into Cronenberg’s The Brood, like his Bill Sykes into Oliver!, to inject just enough of his sulphurous energy.

Nonetheless, it was with Ken Russell where Reed found his natural pairing. From leading the way in the definitive Women in Love, he went on to pop up (with a rather unconventional singing voice) in rock opera Tommy. But it was in The Devils where he truly shone as a star. That combination of a bullish commitment with a stolidly handsome face sells the role completely, being the simultaneous foil for Jeanne’s Christ-like fantasies and the fiery sacrifice he dedicates to his beliefs.

Trouble with the censors

The ratings board struggled to find ways to make the film releasable—a note from Russell to John Trevelyan, Secretary of the BBFC at the time, is rather revealing, when it begins: “I have cleared up the shit on the altar, slashed the whipping and cut the orgy in 2 [sic]”. 

A scene that proved the most difficult with nervous distributors was dubbed, in an indicative yet brazen move, the ‘rape of Christ’ sequence: a segment of the nuns’ frenzy where the women tear down the crucifix from the wall and involve it in their activities. Interviewed for a documentary on the film, Ken Russell described it as salient in showing how the women are “exploited to the point of […] absolute total blasphemy”. The actual content makes the scene hard to discuss, but more so because of its rarity; cut at time of release, it was only rediscovered in 2002.

The furore surrounding the scene reflects a vying for power depicted in the film itself. Fans and critics have often argued for its reclamation into the film as a ‘director’s cut’; though the term’s use may seem strange given Russell’s death, his utter belief in the power of this one scene should justify it. In Britain, leading film critic Mark Kermode has been a vocal figure in restoring this scene, leading the production of a fully restored cut which has very occasionally been screened. And therein lies the rub: the American distributors Warner Bros still prevent the full release of this version, in cinemas or home media, no matter how tastes may have changed decades after production.

“Got a feeling ’21 is going to be a good year…”

Today, we are left with a  film that cannot be released in its maker’s true vision, but can still be watched relatively intact, in a version that maintains its power to incite conversation. Its relevance has re-emerged of late with the whole fan culture that surrounded Justice League and pushed for the original director Zack Snyder’s version. This was public clamour the likes of which could not have existed 50 years ago, thanks to the pervasiveness of social media campaigns uniting the voice of supporters.

Even with the darkness that Snyder brings to his superhero visions, there was nothing in it to compare with the gonzo freak-out of The Devils. This presents a major problem for Russell’s film: the risk of offending people, which never seemed an issue to the cantankerous director, only worsens the economic prospect in the eyes of the owners. Sadly, it’s unlikely that Oliver Reed’s stand-off against bloodthirsty witch-hunters is ever going to be a more bankable prospect than superheroes duking it out, so releasing a complete cut isn’t really in the studio’s interest. 

But surely this is the one privilege an artist deserves. A cynical observer could certainly take a simple view of proceedings, finding that however ardently the purists try, they cannot best the might of the studios who push to maximise quantity. And with the extremity offered by The Devils too, the balance is tipped even further. What this single example from a history of censorship proves is two things: that there is more to director’s cuts than a money-spinning exercise to pull in custom, and that The Devils has lost none of its power to provoke over 50 years.

Words by Max King

This article was published as part of The Indiependent‘s May 2021 magazine edition.

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