EDITOR'S NOTE: Press Play's Robert Nishimura video series Three Reasons continues with Ken Russell's The Devils. He feels the disturbing film is a perfect candidate for restoration and release on the Criterion label.
By Robert Nishimura
Press Play Contributor
Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) was doomed from the moment it finished production. The censors immediately gave it an X rating, even after Russell removed over thirty minutes of film. The U.S. poster art is basically a warning to anyone who wandered off the street into the cinema: The Devils is not for everyone. (An actual blow-up of the poster appears below.) It might as well have read: "Watching this film will cause instant miscarriage and paralysis below the waist." Whereas most provocateurs would kill for that type of publicity, The Devils suffered the terrible fate of being banned in several countries and forgotten. It's now unavailable, of course. This year saw it's first actual uncut "premiere" in London, which means a restored home-video release is inevitably in the works.
The Devils was partly based on Aldous Huxley’s 1952 non-fiction novel The Devils of Loudun, as well as John Whiting’s 1960 follow-up play The Devils. Both sources were inspired by the notorious case of supposed demonic possession in 17th-century France, in which a charismatic Catholic priest, Urbain Grandier, was accused of bewitching nuns to commit vile acts of sexual debauchery. Whether true or not, the story was perpetuated by Cardinal Richelieu to King Louis XIII as an excuse to destroy a small village that just so happened to have a large community of Protestants. Russell's film highlights the delirious excess of French patriarchy, the corruption of Church and State and the degradation of religious principles, points that still hold true today. But that's not what caused critics to universally pan the film upon its release as "monstrously indecent." What enraged most critics/audiences/countries is what Russell subsequently edited out, that which only very recently has been restored and replaced: the sweet, sweet sexual debauchery.
A quick search will reveal just what exactly had to be removed, and there's little point in including those scenes here (or in the video) because it has become irrelevant. Like censoring a porno to exclude the money shot, Russell's worldview is loud and clear; we just don't get the satisfaction at the end. Cross-dressing kings shooting Protestants dressed like birds, a nunnery home for wayward nymphomaniacs, barbaric 17th-century medical practices, torture, rape and religious genocide – just some of the family-friendly fun actually deemed "good enough" to make the cut. Maybe if critics had viewed the film as satire, or at least (charred-) black comedy, the scenes they singled out would be unnecessary to excise. Russell so willingly made the cuts because his overall message had remained intact and, luckily, overlooked by the censors.
What makes the film so compelling is Oliver Reed’s performance as the libidinous priest, Urbain Grandier. Russell always recognized Reed's potential as an actor, and there weren't too many directors capable of restraining Reed's self-destructive tendencies long enough to get a great (or sober) performance out of him. Just one year earlier the Academy was practically throwing Oscars at Russell for showing Reed and Alan Bates wrestle in the nude in Women in Love, yet having Reed being burned alive for heresy didn't even get so much as a nod from any award-givers. Another tragically ignored performance came from Vanessa Redgrave, whose portrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots in Charles Jarrott's film of the same name earned her a nomination for Best Actress the same year Ken Russell was nominated for Women in Love.
For the past few years there's been the rumor that Warner Bros. was restoring the film for home release, even going so far as to design a DVD jacket for online retailers. Then, suddenly, poof – the film was pulled without any mention of cancellation or delay. Perhaps when they finally saw the film in it's entirety, they thought better of it. Perhaps when they saw Reed and Redgrave finally "get together" in the film's conclusion, Warner Bros. feared backlash from the same conservative zealots that the film lampoons. Regardless, an uncut print exists in the U.K., which means a release is possible in the U.S. Hopefully, Criterion gets the message and first dibs.
Robert Nishimura is a Japan-based filmmaker, artist, and freelance designer. His designs can be found at Primolandia Productions. His non-commercial video work is at For Criterion Consideration. You can follow him on Twitter here. To watch other videos in his "Three Reasons" series, click here.