1971 was a good year for the easily offended. Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs had Britain’s self-appointed moral guardians (egged on by the Daily Mail and Mary Whitehouse) whipping themselves into a “Ban This Filth!” frenzy.
But no film got the legions of decency more worked up than Ken Russell’s The Devils – and few films have been so mutilated by censorship snips and chops.
Even now, 40 years on, we still can’t see the whole film, but this two-disc set from the BFI gives us the nearest-to-complete version yet for home viewing. Russell’s film (“my most, indeed my only, political film,” he claimed) was inspired by his reading of Aldous Huxley’s 1952 ‘non-fiction novel’ The Devils Of Loudun.
In the 1630s, Louis XIII of France, urged on by the Machiavellian Cardinal Richelieu, was levelling the fortifications of all provincial towns that might resist his centralised rule. Loudun, a small town some 150 miles south west of Paris, held out, led by parish priest Urbain Grandier.
Conveniently for Richelieu, a local convent of Ursuline nuns began exhibiting hysterical symptoms – blaspheming, cavorting naked and screaming that Grandier had seduced them with the help of devils, by whom they were now possessed. Grandier was put on trial, found guilty, tortured and burnt alive.
The walls of Loudun were demolished. To Russell, lifelong enfant terrible of British cinema (he died last November, aged 84), the story’s mix of religion, sex and politics proved irresistible. Controversy was nothing new to him; he often deliberately courted it.
His TV documentary on Richard Strauss, Dance Of The Seven Veils (1970), so enraged the composer’s family that they took out an injunction preventing it ever being shown again. His D.H. Lawrence adaptation Women In Love (1969) featured a nude wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed – the first-ever male full frontals in mainstream British cinema.
And his Tchaikovsky biopic, The Music Lovers (1970), dwelt far more on the gay Russian’s eventful sex life than on his music. These had aroused protests, outrage and questions in parliament. But even Russell wasn’t prepared for the shitstorm that erupted over The Devils.
It wasn’t only the British censor who imposed cuts, nor the US censor, who demanded still more. (“I was instructed to cut out every pubic hair,” Russell claimed.) The film’s backers, Warner Bros, were horrified to see what they’d financed, “venting their spleen” (his term) on the hapless director and insisting on a sanitised version.
Particular exception was taken to the ‘Rape of Christ’ sequence, when the nuns tear down the life-size effigy of Christ from a crucifix and writhe lasciviously all over it. Russell resisted as best he could, fighting over every inch of condemned footage.
Finally, an X-rated version was released in the UK and a much shorter version, shorn of most of the female nudity, in the US. When the film eventually emerged on VHS, it was the US version and, until now, that’s all that’s been generally available. In 2004, Russell prepared a ‘director’s cut’ that incorporated the Rape of Christ, but that still hasn’t been authorised by Warners.
What we have here is essentially the UK release version. So – given that nothing’s quite so tepid as yesterday’s scandal – how does it stand up? Surprisingly well.
As Grandier, Oliver Reed gives a career-best performance, convincingly moving from the preening libertine of the opening reels to something gentler in his love for the widowed Madeleine (Gemma Jones), even as the shadows of his horrendous fate darken around him.
He’s well-matched by Vanessa Redgrave as the hunchbacked Sister Jeanne of the Angels, lusting vengefully over the priest’s tortured body.
Working as usual from his own script, Russell assembles a rich supporting cast – John Woodvine, Murray Melvin, Max Adrian, Andrew Faulds, Georgina Hale – who gratefully seize their opportunities, especially Dudley Sutton as Richelieu’s cynical envoy Laubardemont (“Give me three lines of a man’s handwriting and I will hang him”), poet and occasional actor Christopher Logue in a saturnine cameo as the cardinal himself, and Graham Armitage (“a leading transsexual”, according to Russell) as a gloriously effete Louis XIII.
The towering, geometric production design – white tiles everywhere, apparently inspired by Huxley’s line about the interrogation of Sister Jeanne being “like a rape in a public lavatory” – marks the first-ever film work of the young Derek Jarman.
True, the scenes of naked nuns are now more likely to inspire giggles than shock, and Russell’s trademark visual flamboyance occasionally (well, more than occasionally) goes seriously OTT. But then the subject matter hardly calls for restraint.
And for every silly moment (the king taking pot-shots at scampering Protestant prisoners dressed up in grotesque bird costumes, murmuring as he fells one, “Bye bye, blackbird”) there’s another whose extravagance strikes just the right note.
Richelieu, escorting Laubardemont through his huge store of confidential files (think Stasi), doesn’t walk like an ordinary mortal but is wheeled around in an upright trolley by a flunkey.
Historically true? Almost certainly not; but it sums up the film’s portrayal of the Cardinal to perfection.
Extras – which include Russell’s charming early short, Amelia And The Angel – are lavish and informative, though anyone who absorbs the lot may suffer Mark Kermode overload.