In 1971 three infamous films were released. Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange an adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel, a fascinating political commentary on violence and youth withdrawn by Kubrick for a period of 27 years, although it could be purchased from Europe and from 2000 freely available in this country again uncut. The psychological thriller Straw Dogs directed by the legendary Sam Peckinpah was accused of the debasement of women because of the prolonged rape scene that is at the centre of the film. But the most famous release of that year, and one that’s probably coursed more controversy than the other two put together, is Ken Russell’s masterwork The Devils. Not only was this film cut by the BBFC but also on the insistence of Warner Brothers the studio that had created it. In its uncut state it would have never been released but the cuts that were made before it could be released in America ruined it completely. Thanks to the BFI we can at least now view the original British X-rated version in the comfort of our own homes, perhaps one day we will be able to see the full directors cut with the complete rape of Christ scene reinstated.
Russell based his film on two source’s, Aldous Huxley’s 1952 historical narrative The Devils of Loudon which it self was based on actual events and the 1960 play by John Whiting The Devils, which took Huxley’s researches as it basis. In 17th century France in the town of Loudun an entire convent of Ursuline nuns came to believe that they had been overwhelmed by witchcraft and sorcery, resulting in mass exorcisms which climaxed in the public burning of the priest Urbain Grandier who was accused of seducing the nuns and being in league with the devil. The accepted version of events, at least in Russell’s movie, is that the nuns affliction, said to be caused by an LSD like chemical ergot found in the nuns bread, were deliberately whipped up by politicians and priests to unseat Grandier who was encouraging the citizens of Loudun to stand firm against centralised government. Cardinal Richelieu wanted to eliminate Huguenot fortified strongholds. It was Grandier who rallied both Catholics and Protestant residents to stand up to Jean de Laubardemont when he arrived in Loudun to oversee the demolition of its walls and castle. When this was reported back to the Cardinal he set out to remove Grandier at all costs.
|The Nuns !|
The Devils is Ken Russell’s only political film, made as a bold attack on the marriage of church and state. He has affirmed publically that he never intended it as a sacrilegious film. Along with his wife Shirley, Ken had converted to Catholicism in the late 1950’s therefore confirming that ‘he knew a bit about the background’ but this did not stop socially conservative pressure groups such as the Festival of Light, a semi Fascist organisation concerned about the new found sexual freedoms of the late 1960’s, from lobbying the BBFC.
|Sister Jeanne licks Grandier's wounds.|
But whatever the controversy you can’t get away from the fact that this was a ground breaking piece of work that tackled political, sexual and religious corruption head on. A film of imagination that brought together the skills of a director at the height of his talent, British cinematographer David Watkins who was among the first directors of photography to experiment with the usage of bounce light as a soft light source, the fledgling Derek Jarman who designed the wonderful fortified Protestant town in its entirety in Pinewood studios and the current master of the Queens Music Sir Peter Maxwell Davies who composed and conducted the score. The two main leads are Vanessa Redgrave who played Sister Jeanne the deformed erotically obsessed nun and Russell regular Oliver Reed as Father Urbain Grandier in what I would suggest was the best performance of his career.
|The Authorities finally get their own way.|
As Mark Kermode says in his introduction to the new release ‘it remains a genuinely breath-taking work, the jewel in the crown of Russell’s magnificent career; a film which was a head of its time forty years ago and which (like its creator) never lost the power to enthral and enrage in equal measure’ and I would add that its never lost it’s visual style or its ability to shock.