Rage is a Trip: Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971)

by James M. Macleod

Ken Russel’s not a man to shy away from the controversial and with his masterpiece The Devils he pushed things so far we still don’t have a proper full uncut release of this film. Based on the Aldous Huxley book “The Devils of Loudon” and a play by John Whiting it is the story of a priest in 17th-Century France accused of witchcraft and the hysteria that ensues. It came out a year after Mark of the Devil, a more exploitation/b-movie vision of the European witch accusations, but has far more on its mind. It is a rabid attack on organised religion and the systems of power that enable and profit off it.

The Devils is in your face, but not just a shock parade. Russell is presenting what actually happened and was written about as well as making his criticisms hard to ignore. Russell was a devout Catholic at this time but his film was called blasphemous by the Catholic Church. Sex, violence, and nudity intersecting with the religious was seen by many as wrong on a base level, though they ignore how the film sees this stuff as awful too. As is often the case with moral objections to films it mainly comes from a place of judging what is shown rather than why it is shown. A visceral reaction to things they don’t want to see without the knowledge or willingness to see why as cinema it is necessary. Even not as cinema. I would say that morally and religiously Russell seems compelled to show what he shows so that his feelings on it all are more clearly conveyed and more importantly, that the truth is told.

From the opening scene (which I go into more detail here) we know who Russell’s sights are aimed at. The King has his fun, the Cardinal plays his part, and its over those two we see the title “The Devils” in red. Russell’s not against belief but those who would exploit it.

To show what I mean I’ll talk about the most controversial scene, The Rape of Christ sequence. It has some of the hallmarks of 70s out-there cinema but ramped up even further. Quick zooms, wild pans, a chaotic score, with the grotesque and lewd spilling out beyond the frame. Such a sad cut as it gets across the core idea of the film so well. What is happening in Loudon is a perversion of the Church’s ideals carried out by the Church. The Church itself has been so perverted that anything it touches degrades with it. We get this contrasted with Oliver Reed’s character, Father Grandier, having communion by a hillside and lake. We’ve seen him be a cad and worse. At first he’s the example of how the power given by the Church can be twisted to ones own personal desires. But now after being on a journey and having confronted who he was, he is able to find redemption and personal spiritual re-invigoration through this religious ritual. This is cross-cut with the chapel in Loudon filled with now-hysterical women, brought to this manic state through torture and intimidation. We see the two sides of religion and by the end of it there’s no question which is more healthy. The side that can make people want to better themselves, to be aware of their faults, and find a way to move on with the spirit of wanting to spread that goodness. Then there’s the side that uses peoples fears and lack of power to distort the world to fit your perverted vision. We get such an impactful representation of the many ways religion can play a part in this world both good and evil.

It is a film that manages to be both gritty and baroque, psychedelic yet palpable. There’s a sweaty heat to so many scenes and an emotionally unhinged element to the performances that makes you believe them even when we’re in such a constructed environment. The grand white walls of Loudon highlights it as the one last purely French state, not besmirched by being governed by anyone but its people. A bastion for independence is only a target in the world of the greedy and sadly that’s where Russell sees us as being. Although the film is about a very specific place and time the very 70's elements to it keep its message felt in the present. We’re at war with controlling institutions and time and time again we’ll lose to them until they don’t exist. Dissent gets you taken down regardless of what type of person you are but you can do all you want as long as you’re loyal. Whether it’s the torture of men and women in the 17th Century or the abuse of children in the 21st Century, these institutions will accommodate evil as long as they’re profiting.

The Devils unflinchingly portrays a moment in history full of the cruel and twisted, and he paid for it by having the film be cut up so much before release. There’s still plenty else to make the film work but his most impassioned points get missed. We still get to see Oliver Reed chase away charlatans with a stuffed alligator and the unique majesty of Derek Jarman’s production design but they took out the fiery passion that makes it hit as hard as it can.

Plenty films can bring up big ideas but few make you feel the anger behind them and the immediacy. And that’s one of the best things about these kind of films. Seeing things we don’t usually see or would rather not see can shake us out of complacency and make us notice. Make us care. Especially in the case of The Devils which deals with what appears to be a long-standing problem. It doesn’t just draw vivid outrage from the past but also reminds us the present’s not much better.

Legacy

After the cut scenes had been lost for years film critic Mark Kermode found them in 2002. He was present at a few screenings of this new uncut print with Ken Russell in tow and it eventually led to a limited UK DVD release. Warner Brothers kept them from putting it out on blu-ray and are still sitting on the property in terms of there being a proper widely released uncut version of the film.

Film critic Richard Crouse wrote a book called Raising Hell, Ken Russell and the Unmaking of The Devils about the troubles on-set and the eventual controversy that would keep it hated or unseen.

Derek Jarman’s only main credit as a production designer is for The Devils and the amazing sets he created, after which he went on to direct his own films and become one of the major experimental filmmakers of his time.