in

The Devils

*****
1971

‘…The Devils is not the hysterical mess that causes critics to blow a gasket at the time, but a sobering and thoughtful depiction of the corrupt nature of power…’

There’s nothing cements a films place in cinematic history like getting banned; A Clockwork Orange, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you couldn’t see any of them when I was a kid with a curious attitude, since they were unavailable on VHS for varying reasons. They’re all easy to find now, but the full version of Ken Russell’s The Devils, however, is still impossible to locate on any streaming service in 2022; there’s an urban legend that Apple had it in their iTunes store for one day before Warners yanked it away, but that’s hard to verify. A cut version has been shown on the BBC amid considerable media backslapping and self-congratulation, and yes, there’s truncated versions on DVD and Shudder, but seeing the full, uncut version of The Devils is really the only way to go.

Ken Russell’s notorious film is a serious-minded adaptation of two texts, Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon and John Whiting’s play The Devils. Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave are on top form as the priest and the abbess set against each other by an inquisition into the behaviour of 17th century nuns. Reed plays Father Urbain Grandier, a complex figure who pretty much bends religion to be whatever he wants it to be to justify his less-than-holy actions. He’s riding for a fall, and when King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) takes an interest in what’s going down in the town of Loudon, Grandier’s days are numbered. The pivot comes in the form of Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), who is obsessed with Grandier, and accuses him of witchcraft and various other HR sack-able offences, leading to a sticky end for all.

Seen with the missing sequence restored (and you’d have to cobble this edit together yourself from pieces scattered online), The Devils is not the hysterical mess that causes critics to blow a gasket at the time, but a sobering and thoughtful depiction of the corrupt nature of power. Yes, the film applies a razor of reason rigorously to the brand of Catholicism depicted, but which has a wider and more potent meaning if audiences can see beyond the sensationalism. This isn’t either for or against any creed, but defends religious belief against the self-seeking, destructive nature of government, seen largely through the king’s garish playboy excesses and the populist puritanism of Pierre Barre (Michael Gothard); there’s a great scene in which King Louis fakes the possession of a powerful witch-hunting relic and the shallow Barre falls for it, hook, line and sinker.

 

Derek Jarman’s sets are extraordinary, white brick asylums and extravagant demolition machines that look astounding even today. With the gibbering nuns turning up in the fresh lunacy of Space Jam 2, maybe Warners might finally loosen up the reins on this notorious film; The Devils is probably Russell’s best work, and one that is in danger of being forgotten until the original cut can be legally screened; the film DOES require the missing scenes to be fully appreciated. As the trailer says, The Devils is not for everyone, but we should at least have the option of seeing it or not.

Ken Russell’s original 1971 film The Devils can’t be seen anywhere in the original version.

Comments

Leave a Reply
  1. Fabulous, even handed, informative review once again! recall it being quite graphic, so am wondering if I saw director’s cut in art house showing? Seems serendipical that you spoofed Caligula a few days ago…I also live in Loudon (not Loudun but close enough). You hit a bullseye in describing the weaponizing of frenzied and repressed sex impulses, gratuitous violence, and religious and other icons. This town in early 1600s was sick indeed–plague, dysentery, bloated gov’t and religious officials… UG was educated by Jesuits, but a worldly and lustful man. By 1630, his amorous scandals got him arrested. His allies bailed him out. A rival confessor priest persuaded the sex and food starved nuns they were possessed by Asmodeus & Zabulon. Enter despicable Cardinal Richelieu and the return of Inquisitions. At his trial, evidence was disregarded and a (forged) pact with the horned man produced. Post guilty verdict, he was tortured in hopes of naming others. His courage was extraordinary. Post death, possessions continued for four more years. Jeanne, one of the most frenzied of the nuns, allegedly developed stigmata. As you comment, the messages here are timeless!

    • Wow, that’s a great summary of events, and one that closely matches the action of the film. As a teenager, I was verycurious to see this film, which was still a notorious piece of work, but could be seen in VHS. It is, as you say, quite graphic, even for 1971, and was rightly put out of reach of passive viewers on tv. We’re living, hopefully, in more enlightened times now, but few seem interested in exhuming a story of religious believers being persecuted by the governent. A couple of weeks ago, the Scottish government apologies to those accused of witchcraft, which is the right move IMHO; we’re finally dragging outselves out of the 17th century. But how the govt manipulates religion to get what they want could be and still is a hot button topic today, and that’s one of the reasons that I see The Devils as a timeless classic. I may be alone in this, but that’s where I’m coming from! I’d be keen to do more reading on this…

  2. Banned in Glasgow so took me a while to see it. It certainly has more going for it than sensationalism. It is strange there’s not a version on DVD with the complete uncut version. As a footnote, its banning in Glasgow ensured that Ryan’s Daughter, which it was due to replace in roadshow, was kept on and managed a whole year at the ABC2.

  3. Grrrr……..I hate the idea that this may never been seen. It doesn’t even sound like a film I’d like all that much, but that’s my business. I find it interesting that a film mocking religion today would still be seen a so controversial. I can (unfortunately) see films on certain topics being banned today, but religion not longer seems sacred. Do you think that it is really still being actively banned or that there’s just not enough perceived interest to justify someone going through the effort to release a full cut?

    • It’s not for everyone; in a strange way, it’s remarkably even-handed at skewering corruption in religion and in government alike. The Space Jam 2 thing is notable because if these characters are worth digitally re-animating and putting in a kids blockbuster, there’s clearly interest in the film. The original cut would draw crowds on the arthouse circuit, and have a strong streaming life, if only to justify the ‘film they authorities didn’t want you to see…’ tag. But it’s really hard to see why Warners are still toeing a line from 1971 on this; times have changed, and we should have moved on from making films unseeable because of their political content…whether we like the film or not, it’s an obvious case for a restoration….

  4. Yeah, I still haven’t seen this, for the reasons you mention. It’s sort of like Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Still not sure what the hold-up is in getting it out there. But someday it’ll happen.

    • Looking for Mr Goodbar is specifically a music clearance rights issue as far as I’m aware, but when it’s pretty much anything goes anywhere, it seems a shame that this film is still unshowable unless cut. A real shame because it’s a timeless story told in a striking way, and gets to the heart of the abuses of power carried out before and since…

Leave a Reply

Loading…

0