Originally published by Darryl Mayeski in Screem Magazine – www.screemag.com.
“It’s a lost film now. You’ll never see it the way I wanted you to. Never.”
Ken Russell, Total Sci-Fi interview, 2010
Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) was a film brought to its knees. Almost 50 years years have passed since its original release and it remains hobbled in a severely crippled form. Its director has passed away, as has its male star and some of its main adversaries yet still, no one appears willing to resurrect The Devils. It is the leper of modern cinema.
Given the elusive opportunity, this article would have been a review of a new DVD release but, sadly, The Devils is yet to see an official uncut version anywhere in the world, let alone on Blu-ray. For many years, the only version of The Devils available on home entertainment format was the most compromised release of the film – the original US one – and, in fact, that is still the version most widely available internationally.
In 2012, the British Film Institute (BFI) distributed a remastered The Devils onto the UK market – the longest release to date – although an excellent documentary extra on disc 2, Hell on Earth, reveals a significant amount of lost footage unearthed in 2004 is still missing from this cut. UK journalist Mark Kermode underwent a worldwide investigation to hunt down this footage believed, even by Ken Russell, to have been destroyed.
The good news: such a discovery means an unbutchered release of The Devils could be a future proposition. Russell had hoped such a version would eventually see the light of day and travel the film festival circuit, although that day is yet to come. The bad news: Warner Bros – both the rightful custodians of the film and, traditionally, its biggest critics – appear reluctant to do so. While the studio stepped outside the norm to license the film to a third party (BFI), their conditions prohibited a full reconstruction with Kermode’s found footage or a Blu-ray release.
At a master class in Toronto in 2014, filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro had this to say about Warner Bros decision: “There are powers-that-be at Warner Bros that refuse to allow the movie to be seen… The movie has been seen very little. It can only be shown in its entirety in England if it’s booked as an educational experience. It’s not an accident. It’s not because of lack of demand. It’s a true act of censorship.”
In a 2014 poll by BFI, their version of The Devils – presently available as a Region 2 release – was named the favorite BFI DVD/Blu-ray of all time from a poll of 6,500 voters. If such polls are taken as any indication, then it appears that time has done nothing to dissipate the hunger for a more complete version of The Devils.
That The Devils was cut is not a mystery – its subject matter is nothing short of controversial – but Russell’s defense was a strong one: it is based on fact.
Events known as ‘The Loudun Possessions’ took place in the fortressed French town of Loudun, 1634, during the reign of Louis XIII. Curiously, a whole convent of Ursuline nuns fell to mass hysteria, which they claimed was the influence of The Devil. Led by Mother Superior, Jeanne Des Anges, they pointed their collective finger at a local Catholic priest, Father Urbain Grandier, as having raped and infected them with demons. Despite being subjected to unfathomable torture, Grandier maintained his innocence until his burning at the stake on 18th August 1634.
Ken Russell largely referenced author Aldous Huxley’s 1952 book, The Devils of Loudun – and John Whiting’s 1960 play based on Huxley’s book, The Devils – when writing the screenplay for, what he called, his only political film. In defending his vision, he constantly referred to Huxley’s research, stating in commentary on the BFI release, “The book far exceeded anything I could conceive – I just put it on the screen”.
Russell’s cinematic retelling of The Loudun Possessions serves as an inflammatory example of how showing can be far more controversial than saying. If, as Russell purported, Huxley’s book eclipsed his film in its depravity, we could argue it’s a testament to Ken Russell’s skill as a filmmaker that his work evoked and enraged to such a degree.
He even maintained the stylistic elements of the film were solidly based in documented fact. For example, Sister Jeanne’s degrading exorcism was described by Huxley as “the equivalent of a rape in a public toilet” and the aristocratic ladies of the day would have worn white face makeup and lipstick with a hint of green. Apparently, enemas were also de rigueur.
But The Devils – as a masterwork of not only British but also world cinema – is very much a sum of its parts. Russell’s fortuitous meeting with Derek Jarman that lead to him conceiving the film’s signature modernistic (almost German expressionistic) sets; the casting of Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave in two challenging, career-defining roles; the deep, rich cinematography of David Watkin; the deranged atonal compositions of Peter Maxwell Davies; and the intuitive editing by Michael Bradsell, who did his utmost to protect the film from wholesale slaughter; all of these elements came together in a cinematic perfect storm to make The Devils what it is today. And, bear in mind, we have never seen it as it should be seen, which means the best is yet to come.
Back in 1971, Ken Russell was a practicing Catholic, having come to the faith as an adult rather than through family lineage*. Russell saw his film as anything but an attack against Catholicism – it was an attack against the perversion of Christianity, and what Kermode describes as “the unholy marriage of church and state”. Many others concurred with Ken Russell’s view, including some unlikely defenders, such as Jesuit Catholics in the U.S. who Russell said used The Devils as an example of a good Catholic film when teaching cinema to students.
Before The Devils, Russell was primarily known as a creator of art documentaries, although he had come to critical and public attention in 1969 with an adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love starring Glenda Jackson, Oliver Reed and Alan Bates. He wrote The Devils screenplay with his two literary references (book and play), a pen and Prokofiev’s music from The Fiery Angel (an opera about possessed nuns) as inspiration. It took him approximately three weeks to commit the entire thing to paper.
Russell claimed Warner Bros were given the screenplay for approval before even a single frame of footage was shot, although he speculated that no one of influence had likely read it from the shocked reaction to the footage: “Although they had the script and I actually shot the script – there was nothing in the finished film that wasn’t in the script – they were appalled by it,” stated Russell in Hell on Earth.
The proverbial shit hit the fan when Russell, his producer Roy Baird and editor Michael Bradsell sat down with studio executives at a preview screening in Mayfair to run through a first cut. In recalling the event in Hell on Earth, Bradsell remembered muttering and note taking within ten minutes of the screening, and then it only got worse from that point onwards: “We crept out in the dark. We left them with no one to argue with when the lights came up.”
Russell showed the then Secretary of the Board of the British Board of Film Censors, John Trevelyan, a rough cut of The Devils before the film was officially submitted for review. Trevelyan made some suggestions because he anticipated the film would not meet the approval of his board. Central to those changes was the removal of a final scene where Sister Jeanne masturbates with Grandier’s charred femur bone (her only physical contact with the priest she accuses of raping her) and the removal of ‘The Rape of Christ’.
The Rape of Christ, as it has become known, is the climax to the orgiastic mass exorcism scene, where the nuns – more than likely forced into joining this ecclesiastic order – take full advantage of their so-called possession by demons, and rise to such a heightened state of hysteria they pull down an effigy of Christ on the cross and simulate sexual activity on his crucified loins. It is a scene of amplified debauchery, and a scene that many believe is the thematic heart of The Devils.
Not surprisingly, The Rape of Christ raised the eyebrows of the British censors but maybe even more surprising was the reaction of those who had financed the film. Upon viewing this scene, the studio immediately demanded its removal regardless of the censor’s decision. Surprisingly, one of the supporters of its inclusion was an American priest, Father Gene Phillips, who was then Consultant Legion of Decency for the Catholic Church and a good friend of John Trevelyan.
“Since I saw the film for the first time with that [Rape of Christ] in there, to me, it has always been there,” Father Phillips said in Hell on Earth. “And, although I saw the film subsequently when it was released commercially without that scene, I still see it as being there. My point is this: if I had seen the scene for the first time then it were put in, it might seem like interpolation. But since, in my memory, it’s always been there, I simply cannot imagine the film without it.”
Father Phillips went on to say, “The scene portrays blasphemy but it is not a blasphemous scene. I believe it is integral to the film because it is part of an entire sequence that intercuts the blasphemous behavior at the exorcism with a very religious and richly spiritual scene [of Grandier taking communion by a river]. It portrays blasphemy, in this sense of the word, against a true spiritual enrichment, and plays one against the other. If the scene were done completely by itself without the intercutting of Grandier saying mass, I honestly do not know what I’d say.”
Given the absence of an official release with The Rape of Christ in tact, bootleg copies are now in circulation, and they serve to reveal exactly why The Devils is a handicapped masterpiece without this scene. It is, quite literally, the natural crescendo of the most pivotal section of the film, after the androgynous King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) – having exposed exorcist Father Barre (Michael Gothard) as a fraud – gives his permission for Sister Jeanne and her posse to “have fun”.
On this command, the nuns’ carnal antics kick into overdrive and, helped along with Peter Maxwell Davies uniquely loopy score, they go completely, utterly insane, ripping the statue of Christ from the wall and writhing around on it in their nakedness, lifting the robes of a priest to grope at his member, and simulating all manner of sexual fornication including pleasuring themselves on large phallic candles.
As the scene climaxes, so does onlooker Father Mignon (Murray Melvin) whose jerking off motion is simulating by the camera in a throbbing in and out motion. It all ends when the supposed culprit, Grandier, and his new wife arrive somewhat unexpectedly, like parents busting their kids having an unsanctioned party, calling a sudden halt to the lunacy.
Just as Father Phillips inferred, once The Rape of Christ has been seen, it cannot be unseen. But not for the reasons people may expect. To consume the film with the inclusion of The Rape of Christ is to finally witness The Devils in full narrative flight – when it really makes sense – and to realize that cutting such a scene was akin to ripping the heart out of it. Truly, the only shocking thing about The Rape of Christ is that he has not been reinstated within the film, despite the passing of four decades and the depiction of far more controversial religious scenes in cinema (Mel Gibson’s sadomasochistic The Passion of the Christ being one such example).
Even Father Phillips recalled what is arguably a far more graphic example from a famous contemporary of The Devils: “I’d say there is a scene in The Exorcist that comes closer to the rape of Christ, when we have the girl using a crucifix as a dildo.”
The usual suspects hit out at Ken Russell when The Devils debuted in 1971, even in its truncated form. UK Festival of Light activist Mary Whitehouse was one of those who attacked the film on moral grounds, while Evening Standard newspaper critic Alexander Walker gave it a scathing review citing a number of reasons, a couple of which Ken Russell disputed as being based on things Walker made up. In a television interview, Russell famously rose from his chair and bopped Walker on the head in frustration with a rolled up copy of the Evening Standard newspaper.
Call Ken Russell what you will – his obituary in The Guardian named among his titles “the wild man of British cinema”, “the apostle of excess” and “the oldest angry young man in the business” – but he was undeniably a filmmaker who liked to kick his viewers in the crotch. With The Devils, he displayed very little ambiguity; it was quite clear that Urbain Grandier, despite being a lothario, was not a conjuror of The Devil. At any point in the film where the audience may think supernatural forces are at play, Russell resolutely quashes this possibility, such as when King Louis produces his fake vessel of Christ’s blood.
Like Father Grandier, Russell was a lover of women. And, similar to Grandier, he was a man of immense pride and vanity. A moderate Jesuit, Grandier enraged the Church with his incessant philandering and failure to concede to the Crown when he refused to allow Loudun’s walls to fall. Somehow, his reluctance to see his imminent downfall was his greatest sin. The same could be said of Russell. Whether justified or not, some might argue it was arrogant of Russell not to expect his film to be slaughtered by the censor’s knife.
In the finale of The Devils, Grandier’s wife, played by Gemma Jones, climbs over the rubble of Loudun’s toppled walls to descend on a desolate, bleached out landscape; the corpses of Protestants strapped to towering wheels on stakes stretching out into the distance. This is the only crane shot of the film, and a fittingly poetic yet apocalyptic end to a film that itself, like Gemma Jones’ character, would languish in a climate of uncertainty and persecution when released into the wider world.
We can only hope and pray that, as a posthumous salute to Ken Russell, someone will see fit to make The Devils whole again. Amen.
*Interestingly, in the BFI DVD commentary, Russell claims to have been introduced to Catholicism through “intercourse” with a nun but, when questioned directly about this, fails to clarify whether the so-called “intercourse” was social or sexual.