The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Devils.

criterion logoBanned, censored, and suppressed for years, the director’s cut of Ken Russell’s infamous masterpiece depicts the rise and fall of 17th century French priest Urbain Grandier, tried and executed for a series of possessions in Loudon, France.  Masterful performances by Oliver Reed as Grandier and Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne, Urbain’s hunchbacked nemesis, are matched by Russell’s audacious direction and contributions by Derek Jarman, David Watkin, and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.  Mixing political and religious commentary with transgressive, cinematic spectacle, The Devils is proudly presented here, for the first time for home viewing, as Russell originally intended, restored with previously cut footage and uncompromised by past controversies.

Disc Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New audio commentary featuring filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and film critic Richard Crouse
  • New audio commentary featuring film critic Mark Kermode and editor Mike Bradsell
  • Hell on Earth: The Desecration and Resurrection of The Devils, Paul Joyce’s hour-long, 2002 documentary made for TV and presented by Mark Kermode
  • New interviews with actresses Vanessa Redgrave and Gemma Jones and actors Murray Melvin and Dudley Sutton on the filming of The Devils
  • New interview with composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies on the music of The Devils
  • Video appreciations by David Cronenberg, Alex Cox, Guillermo del Toro, Terry Gilliam, John Landis, Joe Dante, Lloyd Kaufman, and Mitch Davis
  • Excerpts from Saskia Baron’s 1995 made-for-TV documentary, Empire of the Censors
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring selected reviews from The Devils‘ release and a new essay by Russell biographer Joseph Lanza

Director Guillermo del Toro recently slammed Warner Bros. for suppressing Ken Russell’s masterpiece, The Devils, asserting that there are “powers that be at Warner Bros. that refuse to allow the movie to be seen” and calling the studio’s inaction “a true act of censorship.”  Film critic Mark Kermode, a champion of Russell and The Devils, took del Toro’s statement as an impetus to abandon “diplomacy” in favour of a “straightforward demand” for Russell’s director’s cut of the film, stating that the studio has “no moral right to censor” what he calls “a British classic” and keep it from its audience.  Kermode’s patriotic offense goes further when he acknowledges that Russell’s cut of the film has remained on Warner Bros.’ shelves for 10 years and that the studio effectively prevented distribution of Russell’s vision for The Devils during the director’s lifetime (Russell passed away in 2011), however Kermode’s outrage should extend beyond British shores to all fans of cinema as Russell’s film is an audacious and transgressive masterwork in excess, made on a scale that is staggering.  Amid the flesh, gore, and madness of The Devils is a blistering statement against political corruption, religious hypocrisy, and sexual repression, all while glorifying the transformative power of obedience to the calling of love and God.  It is a prestige historical drama (with beautiful, massive sets by Derek Jarman, elegant cinematography by David Watkin, and political and courtroom intrigue) with a literary pedigree (adapted from Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon and John Whiting’s play), the high-mindedness of European art house cinema (including an experimental score by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies), and the controversies of sex and brutality related to cult cinema.  The Devils succeeds most by never taking a half-step, never pulling its punches, and never soft-pedaling its controversies.  Russell’s film is always grand, gory, and Godly, and for that it is glorious.

Russell adapts Aldous Huxley’s true historical account, The Devils of Loudon, with assistance from the screenplay of John Whiting for his play The Devils, to create his film, a jaw-dropping presentation of the tragedy of a 17th century French priest and his fortified city.  Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) is Loudon’s proud and controversial priest who, despite his womanizing ways, remains generally popular among the citizenry.  Grandier acts as interim Governor to Loudon, using his authority to prevent the city’s fortifications from being torn down by emissaries of the conniving Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue), chief minister to Louis XIII (Graham Armitage).  Richelieu seeks to consolidate power for the monarchy and the church, and so, contrary to the direction of the King who swore to Loudon’s former Governor that the city’s walls would remain intact, he schemes to scandalize Grandier as a pretext for disarming Loudon.  His opportunity is found when Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), abbess to the enclosed Ursuline nuns, takes offense at Grandier’s decision not to be their new confessor and alleges that Grandier, with whom she is sexually obsessed, practiced witchcraft upon her and possessed her with demons.  Richelieu’s emissary, Baron Jean de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), enlists the assistance of professional witch-hunter Father Barre (Michael Gothard) and accounts of possessions spread with orgiastic glee throughout the convent.  Meanwhile, Grandier unexpectedly falls in love with a local woman named Madeleine (Gemma Jones) and marries her in a secret ceremony, an experience that brings Grandier closer to God and becomes something of a confirmation of his faith.  When Grandier returns to Loudon, he is promptly accused of sorcery, convicted in a show trial, brutally tortured, and ultimately burned at the stake.  Sister Jeanne is cursorily abandoned by de Laubardemont and the walls of Loudon are demolished, leaving Madeleine to abandon her home and set out across the plague ravaged countryside.

The Devils WarningCertainly others, like Mark Kermode, Paul Joyce, and Richard Crouse, have elaborated on the various elements that make The Devils so special – Russell’s fearless depiction of faith, sex, and gore; Derek Jarman’s astounding sets; Oliver Reed’s imperious bearing; Vanessa Redgrave’s daring and selfless performance; Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ unconventional music; and a host of excellent supporting roles – and so we’ll leave those as stated.  While the brilliance of The Devils is often asserted, the treatment of Russell’s film as a daring masterpiece has the effect of muting just how strange is the film’s tone, something like Monty Python’s period-set films if they intended to take themselves earnestly serious.  The Devils is full of darkly reckless absurdity, from Michael Gothard in John Lennon glasses strutting and shouting like Mick Jagger on stage to Graham Armitage’s cross-dressing king leading the country like a carnival, from its crocodile-prescribing doctors to de Laubardemont’s giant, peasant-powered, wall-tearing hamster wheel.  Russell had maintained that all communities feel modern and progressive, no matter their era or location, and expressed a desire to infuse this sensibility into his vision of Loudon.  Russell does this, in part, by embracing this strange tone and letting his taste for bad jokes go unfiltered.  The effect of The Devils‘ over-the-top performances and sets is disorienting as it sidesteps the usual mannerisms of historical content.  Russell seems to constantly wink at the audience and the audaciousness of his work seems to have overwhelmed some viewers, causing them to see the sincere political and social message Russell intended as undermined.  The singularity of The Devils‘ tone no doubt crippled its initial reception by audiences, critics, and certainly its studio, Warner Bros., but we would suggest that audience sensibilities have caught up with The Devils and that the film’s seriocomic tone has become embraced with the passage of time.  In fact, it is the extravagance of Russell’s storytelling that has, in part, made The Devils memorable despite its absence from TV and movie screens.

Discussions of The Devils tacitly connect the film’s tale of a tragic priest destroyed for political expediency with the film’s own suppression.  With the legacy of the studio’s affront and the multitude of cuts that culminated in the shelving of Russell’s final version, the film has come to function as a metaphor for its own demise.  Russell becomes Grandier, a devout and controversial iconoclast silenced by capital and dubious moral authorities, and The Devils becomes Loudon, a grand edifice razed in hopes of being forgotten.  The Devils turns into a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, reenacting with each rare screening its tragedy by critical and commercial punishment and mythologizing its own suppression.  This process of merging the martyrdom of Grandier and Russell is ever present in discussions of the film, but is never openly acknowledged as intended or constructed.  Still, Russell’s cut of the film is treated like Loudon’s priest, all but incinerated from existence, or Sister Jeanne, abused publicly and then shut away forever.  For fans of The Devils, Warner Bros.’ refusal to release the director’s cut is doubly aggrieving, as it commits the very harms that the film rails against.  Still, we must believe that those that stand in the way of The Devils will eventually move on and that Russell’s film, unlike the walls of Loudon, will still be there, waiting to see the light of day as the director always intended and with Oliver Reed’s smirk offering a final comment on its concluded troubles.

Jakub Rebelka Hen OgleddWhat Warner Bros. seems to need is an intermediary to buffer its relationship with The Devils, and we could see other labels, like Drafthouse or Arrow, also doing justice to Russell’s film.  It’s easier said than done, as the film has been reconstructed and restored, shown at special screenings, yet still withheld from home release.  Hopes for a Criterion edition of The Devils have even led some to wonder if the pyre on the Collection’s 2015 “Wacky New Year” drawing might allude to Russell’s film (although conventional wisdom seems to suggest Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is the intended reference).  Who can say if we ever will see a quality edition befitting Russell’s great film, but the only way it will happen is if fans of the movie continue to express their demands for that release.  Once upon a time, we imagined Vania Zouravliov as the artist best suited to designing a Criterion Collection cover illustration for The Devils, but with her already contributing the design for the new edition of The Hidden Fortress (Akira Kurosawa, 1958), it seems appropriate to consider a new artist.  We have a feeling that Jakub Rebelka is the right fit for this commission.  Rebelka’s fantasy and science fiction art contains within it a lived-in feel and a germ of decay that would nicely compliment Russell’s contemporary feel to his period film and the theme of corruption that permeates the picture.

Credits:  The commentary between Guillermo del Toro and Richard Crouse is inspired by their interview that concludes Crouse’s book on the film, Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of the Devils.  The commentary between Mark Kermode and Mike Bradsell is inspired by their extensive work together to restore the film back to Russell’s original vision.  Joyce’s documentary is essential viewing for fans of the film, even if it is somewhat rose-coloured in its view of the production.  Baron’s documentary was included as a special feature given that it deals with The Devils and that it has been a longstanding extra on bootleg editions of the film originally created by Wayne Maginn.  Video appreciations were inspired by Richard Crouse’s extensive discussions with various filmmakers and their coincidental overlap with the Collection’s library.  Lastly, we conclude this post with the great Robert Nishimura and his 3 Reasons video for a Criterion edition of The Devils.

#FreeTheDevils

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3 thoughts on “The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971)

  1. Paul Sutton April 8, 2016 / 3:27 am

    If you want to read exclusive interviews with 23 people who worked on the film, including Ken Russell, read my book ‘Talking about Ken Russell’. The deluxe edition has sold out, but the standard edition is now available.

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