The story of 1971’s The Devils is an unpleasant one. Based on Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils of Loudun and a play by John Whiting, the film details an episode of alleged demonic possessions and exorcisms — and the innocent priest who was executed for heresy — in 17th-century France. And that’s just the plot line.
The real story of The Devils took place behind the camera, in the movie’s production process and its reception among censors, critics, and audiences. The intensity of the shoot cost director Ken Russell his marriage and tested the nerves of its stars, British screen legends Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave. Later, after facing numerous cuts from the British Board of Film Censors for material deemed inappropriate (or, according to the Catholic Church, blasphemous), The Devils received an abysmal response from critics, was banned in several countries, and basically vanished for three decades.
In recent years, though, the movie’s seen a bit of a resurgence. Fan sites are popping up and bootleg copies with fewer cuts have surfaced (Russell lamented that a fully uncensored version simply doesn’t exist); critics, for their part, have begun to see the film in a different light, hailing it as a provocative masterpiece in league with A Clockwork Orange.
In light of this renaissance, Canadian film critic Richard Crouse has written a book about The Devils, tracing it from conceptualization to its disastrous wide release to today’s renewed interest. With endorsements from a litany of notable directors — Terry Gilliam, David Cronenberg, Guillermo del Toro — and first-hand testimony from many of the principal players, Raising Hell offers a comprehensive look into the making of this brutally controversial film. In our conversation, Crouse (who has seen The Devils nearly 200 times) talked about Ken Russell’s blistering visual style and his never-ending battle with Warner Brothers, and why this movie could only have been made in 1971.
RICHARD CROUSE: I think that those films were really geared to shock people. The filmmakers behind them wanted to get a reaction, and get headlines in the newspapers. And I think that Ken Russell wasn’t setting out to do that. Ken set out to make a film that told a true story, and the subject matter — he converted to Catholicism, and was a very devout Catholic — the religious angle of it, really interested him. It was about someone who was an outsider, someone who was a very powerful but nonetheless an outsider, and I think that probably really struck a chord with Ken Russell. So you bring all these elements together, and you don’t have someone who’s just simply trying to shock us and titillate us. You have a filmmaker who’s trying to make a serious statement, in an entertaining and provocative way. I think that’s the difference between The Devils and a lot of the other films that it often gets lumped in with.
Do you think that the story could’ve been told without the graphic nature of some of the scenes?
I think that the film works quite well without the more shocking scenes that have been missing since almost the very beginning. Even the X-rated version of this movie that was released in Britain, and then later on in the U.S. with even more cuts, never contained the scenes that people were so shocked by — the mass orgy in the church and that sort of thing. Those were all gone by the time anybody saw the movie. And the movie still holds up really well without them. I think with them it’s even more powerful, but he’s crafted a movie that you can take two major scenes out of, which total about three and a half minutes, and you still get a film that is provocative and will stay in your memory for a very long time after you’ve seen it.
What do those scenes add to the film?
I think that Aldous Huxley, when he wrote the original book, called The Devils of Loudun, which was one of the source materials for this movie, someone came to him years before Ken Russell and said, ‘You know what, we want to make a movie of this.’ And he said, ‘Don’t do it. Don’t make a movie out of this.’ Because it’s too much for people. People won’t be able to handle what happened here, particularly the mass orgy in the church. He thought, there’s just no way that that could be presented in an entertaining way without really short-circuiting people’s minds. And as it turns out maybe he was right. I think that Ken Russell simply took what was in that book, The Devils of Loudun, what he’d read about, researched, and knew to be true from a historical point of view, and visualized it. Now, the difference between Ken Russell visualizing something, Ken Russell as a master filmmaker, means that what you have is a theme that in real life and on paper was shocking and memorable. When you visualize it, it’s irrefutable, and it really will burn itself into your memory. I just don’t think that Ken set out just to shock people for shock’s sake. I think that he really thought that he was making a statement by filming this scene in the way that he did. It just so happens that he filmed it in such an effective way that really affected people in a way that went far beyond what he might have imagined originally.
I can definitely see why members of the church were not pleased with it.
I mean, nobody was pleased with it when it was released. People on the British censor board – the half that weren’t horrified – said, ‘Listen, Ken Russell is a master filmmaker, we understand that, but we just can’t pass this movie in the form in which he’s handed it in. So we’re going to have to make some cuts.’ So it was sort of a 50/50 split there. Critics didn’t like the movie when it first came out – I think it was just too much for them, too much of a visual and aural sensation for people. And then the Roman Catholic church condemned it. They weren’t happy with it when it came out. But later on, some Jesuits taught this as part of course in Jesuit universities. So like Ken Russell has said a number of times in interviews, this was a deeply spiritual and religious movie. It just happens to have some very provocative parts. But it really is a spiritual film.
Can you talk about the set’s distinct, a-historical look?
Well, it is based on one line in the Aldous Huxley book, the whole look of the film. There’s a scene where Sister Jeanne, the Vanessa Redgrave character, is forcibly irrigated with holy water. It’s a pretty grim scene. It’s something that actually happened in real life. And Aldous Huxley described that as ‘a rape in a lavatory.’ Meaning that it was in this sterile environment where this vile, awful thing happened. And Ken Russell, when he was planning the look of the film, came across this line, and it apparently became the flashpoint he used when he was working with Derek Jarman, who designed the set. He said it was such an evocative phrase, let’s see if we can bring it to life on screen. And that’s why the whole set is made of that white subway tile. It’s impossible to shoot on. I mean it looks amazing in the film, but shooting against a white background like that apparently is nightmarish. So it caused a lot of problems. It looks fantastic in the movie, but it’s Ken Russell’s statement about the crazy things that were happening inside this sterile-looking environment.
It’s also cool that Father Grandier [the protagonist, played by Oliver Reed] is not wholly sympathetic by any means.
This is one of the reasons that people at the time had such a problem with this movie, because now I think we’re a little more used to seeing characters who aren’t entirely good or aren’t entirely evil. But at the time, you have to imagine that that was a new thing. You had Dirty Harry, which also came out that year – he was a cop with an agenda. You had Jimmy Doyle from The French Connection – he was also a cop with an agenda, and he was sort of an antihero. He broke the rules. But people at the time sided with those characters because it was an extremely violent time. Not only with the Vietnam War, but New York City was falling apart, and people were sick and tired of it. So they looked at those characters, who were not entirely good, but they’re hurting the bad guys so nobody cared. Whereas in The Devils, it’s completely ambiguous. The religious figures aren’t particularly admirable; the nuns certainly aren’t, in the sense that they are going along with this really elaborate hoax. So no one steps away from this story without a little bit of mud on them. I think that was something that audiences had a really hard time digesting.
It’s amazing that a film like this was released by Warner Brothers.
This movie would never have been made before 1971, or maybe after 1971. It came at a very specific time. It was a time when the studio system was falling apart, and the major studios just didn’t know what movies to make. So they were crazily green-lighting all sorts of crazy movies. And this was one of them. They looked at the track record of Ken Russell. Women in Love had been a huge hit; you have the edgy content that the studio felt the young people would want and would get them going back to the movies again. So they hired this guy, and it wasn’t until the boys in Burbank actually read the script that all hell broke loose. And that was about halfway into production. All of a sudden there were people from L.A. on the set in England all the time, and things were changing. Edits were being insisted on, and that kind of thing. Some of the power was taken away from Ken, even though he was fighting desperately to hang onto it. But he was also an artist who was willing to work with the money people because he wanted to continue working. But in this case they were just a little unreasonable.
What do you think inspired this resurgence of interest in the film?
I think for a lot of people, this movie is like the white whale, that’s really hard to see. You can read about it in my book and if you go online you’ll find a ton of stuff written about it. But in an era where everything is so easily accessible, the idea that there’s a movie out there that people don’t want you to see, and it’s going be really hard for you to see it, even though everyone tells you it’s great, is a huge draw. They’re looking for something that is a little different, something that wasn’t test-marketed half to death. A film that will make them feel something. And this is that movie.