Ken Russell's The Devils

Cinema | Ken Russell’s The Devils

Gary Raymond revisits one of Ken Russell’s most controversial films, The Devils, and questions the rights of a censor to curtail the artistic vision.

In May of 1995 Alex Cox presented to the British public the most complete version of Ken Russell’s The Devils available since the early seventies as part of his ‘Forbidden Cinema’ season on BBC 2. Now, seventeen years later, an equally respectful cut makes it for the first time to DVD. Generally regarded as a masterpiece of British film-making, The Devils has a history of censorious turmoil as well as misrepresentation and misunderstanding. As Father Gene Phillips S.J. (Consultant to the New York Catholic organisation, The Legion of Decency at the time of the film’s release) points out in one of the documentaries that accompany this DVD, that the film depicts blasphemy, but is not in itself blasphemous. To the educated that much is obvious, but Russell’s ‘only political film’ has suffered for forty years at the hands of censors as well as Hollywood owners who have always felt the film strayed too far from their own stringent attempts to morally codify the parameters of art.

The Devils (1971) Ken Russell's The Devils
The Devils (1971)
Directed by Ken Russell
Starring: Oliver Reed, Vanessa Redgrave,
Gemma Jones, Dudley Sutton

The story, as told in John Whiting’s 1960 play The Devils, and Aldous Huxley’s sumptuous documentary-novel The Devils of Loudon (1956), is a dramatisation of the actual trial and execution of Father Urbain Grandier. In 1634 Grandier was the acting governor of the walled city of Loudon during the time of Cardinal Richelieu’s surreptitious unification of France and persecution of Huguenots in the 1630s. Grandier, played by Oliver Reed in a career-best performance, stands up to Richelieu, fighting the destruction of Loudon’s walls that give the people their right to self-governance as well as a modern identity. Richelieu and his henchman, Dudley Sutton’s excellently louche Baron de Laubardemont, decide Grandier must be deposed. “Give me three lines of a man’s handwriting and I will have him hanged,” says Laubardemont to the tiresome dismissiveness of Christopher Logue’s Richelieu as he is wheeled about a tooth-white library on a sack trolley by two disappointed-looking Carmelites. In Loudon Laubardemont finds some willing accomplices in a local magistrate whose daughter is carrying Grandier’s love-child and Grandier’s own attendee, Father Mignon (played with Orlokian creepiness by Murray Melvin), who reacts to Grandier’s philandering with extreme disapproval. Thus the wheels are set in motion for the corruption of the few to dismantle the progression of the many.

Reed’s Grandier is a complex figure, and his narrative arc is one that leads to ultimate redemption. His association to Christ, symbolically outside the narrative, as well as inside it to those who obsess over him, is a magnificently bold statement by Russell. If Jesus’ redemption is in annihilation then so is everyone’s, and the brutal torture and execution of Grandier at the stake, as he offers his condemners mercy, is a lesson to anyone who thought the puerile masochism of nonsense like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was a significant statement on the nature of faith and religion.

Grandier is condemned at the point we see the change in him. He is delivered from a life of carnal preoccupations by the love of a pure and righteous woman, Madeleine, to whom he becomes married in the hope of finally reaching God through love and sacrament (the historical Grandier wrote a long treatise on how there is no Biblical requisite dictating that Priests should not marry in 1630, a document from which Russell quotes in his script). As Grandier is delivered, however, the plot orchestrating his downfall is driving Loudon in the other direction. In particular those confined to the Ursuline convent in the city and their Mother Superior, Sister Jeanne of the Angels. The modern interpretation of events, from Alexandre Dumas, père, onwards, is that Sister Jeanne, having become obsessed with Grandier, accused him of possessing her with devils after he refused the convent’s invitation for him to become their Father Confessor. Russell’s dream-like depictions of Sister Jeanne’s obsessions were the first stick in the craw for the censors and critics alike. Alexander Walker said of the film that it was little more than the ‘masturbation fantasies of a Roman Catholic boyhood’. Russell, famously, responded by hitting Walker across the head with a rolled-up copy of the Evening Standard that contained his review on live TV.

Vanessa Redgrave, also in the performance of her life as the hunch-backed repressed – indeed demented – Sister Jeanne, dreams of Grandier on the cross wearing a crown of thorns. He floats down from the cross and toward her. She is notably free of habit, and her luscious red hair has a Pre-Raphaelite fullness to it.  They kiss passionately, before Sister Jeanne sinks to her knees and begins licking the stigmatic spear wound in Grandier’s side, a crowd of baying Jews and centurions gathered around them as they roll to the ground and make love. The scene is extremely powerful now just as it must have been in 1971 on the film’s release. But it pales into comparison on what lay in store for the previewing censors.

Ken Russell's The Devils
“Vanessa Redgrave – in the performance of her life
as the hunch-backed repressed – indeed demented
– Sister Jeanne”


As history documents, Sister Jeanne, after her bitter accusation, was subjected to heinous bouts of physical abuse at the hands of Richelieu’s clerics out for Grandier’s head. Her primary examination at the hands of Inquisitor Father Barre (played in the film as a kind of Nazi pervert by Michael Gothard) was described by Huxley as no less than ‘rape in a public lavatory’. Ken Russell’s film has this description very much in mind when depicting these initial events. The result of the torture of Sister Jeanne was that the other inhabitants of the convent, made up not of devout young girls dedicating themselves to God, but of ‘noble women who have embraced the monastic life because there was not enough money at home to provide them with dowries, or they were unmarriageable because ugly or a burden to the family’, also accused Grandier of infesting their sanctuary with demons and devils. Mark Kermode’s curiously dated documentary Hell on Earth, which can be found on the second disc of this DVD production, spends a little time on the psychological connotations of the ‘possessions’ and the months of public exorcisms that followed. Mass hysteria is the most plausible explanation, caused by the releasing of a valve of almost unimaginable tension in a group of harshly repressed young women, most of who were discarded by their fathers before being forced into man-worship at the cusp of their sexual awakenings.

The exorcisms themselves appeared to have been little more than orgiastic theatrics that not only helped destroy Grandier (who was cleared once of the accusations in a court-of-law before Richelieu convened his own court), but provided local businesses with a throbbing tourist trade.

It is the climax of Ken Russell’s wild visualisation of these public exorcisms that proved the downfall of the movie where its financiers and the censors-at-large were concerned. As the debauchery of the nuns reaches its natural and entirely appropriate conclusion – an en masse sexual molestation of a torn down figure of Christ on the cross – Russell intercuts images of Grandier and his wife Madeleine taking Mass on a bleak country roadside. As Grandier is cleansed and achieves a genuine spiritual enrichment, connecting to God through love and sacrament, casting off the sins of his past, the image of Christ is torn down and raped by the instruments of Richelieu’s corruption and rottenness. The statement could not be clearer, and could not be more profound.

In this welcomed release on DVD of Russell’s masterpiece, the scene now known simply as ‘The Rape of Christ’ is still missing, and with Russell’s death last year doing nothing to rescind the exclusion (which is the will of the American owners; Russell himself was always vehement in his support of the inclusion of the scene) it seems this may be the closest the public will get to a respectful edit of Russell’s grand vision. That you can see ‘The Rape of Christ’ in close to its entirety in the included Hell on Earth documentary renders this frustrating set of circumstances all the more ludicrous.

One of the problems may have always been that Ken Russell’s telling of this true story is highly stylised. With an enormous set designed by a young Derek Jarman, the cinematography of David Watkins, and the chaotic, visceral compositions of Peter Maxwell Davies, Russell assembled one of the finest teams of visionary film-makers of the era. The film is a dazzling piece of theatre; Wagnerian, Shakespearean, Fritz Lang twisted into a provincial soap opera.

The public reaction at the time to The Devils included the picketing of cinemas and some exemplary critical hatchet jobs. It was perhaps understandable given that its release came at the beginning of a decade the end of which saw the banning of The Life of Brian, a rather tame satire in comparison. Ken Russell’s film is still a harrowing experience, despite its immense rewards. Perhaps the other famous cut scene, from the end of the film, where Sister Jeanne masturbates with the charred femur of Grandier as the city walls are blown down, is still taking the grief of Bob Peck in Edge of Darkness (which did not cause controversy for another fifteen years) to extremes of debauched poignancy. But who are we to curtail genius, the product of which this film most certainly is? Who gives the right to the American religious censors to snip and claw at it? The film, and this DVD, the most important release of recent times, stands tall. But it also stands wounded by ignorance. That it is available at all is something to be grateful for, but always remember that this release also stands as a testament to the power of ignorance over art.