The 1970s may well go down in the annals of British film history as the most heavily censored decade of any. Ken Russell's The Devils, first screened in 1971, was the first of four major early seventies films to suffer at the hands of the British Board of Film Classification (the other three being Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, also released in 1971, William Friedkin's The Exorcist, in 1973, and Pier-Palo Pasolini's Salo in 1975). In terms of how censorious British classifiers were, the figures from those years speak volumes: in 1971, 20.6% of films submitted for classification required cuts, or were banned, in 1973 30.7% and in 1975 30.4%. The year that required the most cuts to films was 1974, where 33.9% were cut in some form. Compare that with the past couple of years and the trend is revolutionary: in 2002, 3.4% were cut, in 2003 1.9% and this year (so far) just 0.6%*.
The Devils differs from the other films I mention in that it did not suffer an outright ban. But it did require cuts, though even today those cuts are surrounded by confusion. The United States release of the film was more savagely censored than the UK release, something that Mike Bradsell, the film's editor, believes to have been caused by concern from American financiers appalled by Russell's depiction of depravity and blasphemy. In contrast, the UK release, at least on Warner Bros. video in 1997, had many of the US cuts reinstated, and is the most complete version to have (there is no UK DVD release). The screening of the film at the BFI on Tuesday went one stage further by restoring the two most controversial scenes which Russell cut from The Devils in 1971: the 'Rape of Christ' scene, an orgy of maniacal blasphemy that begins with the tearing down of a crucifix and ends with nuns masturbating and copulating over it, and the 'charred bone' scene at the film's close which shows Vanessa Redgrave's Sister Jeanne kissing a bone from Father Grandier's burnt body and then masturbating with it (off screen). Minor frame cuts – to Grandier's torture, and to certain scenes of nudity, for example - have not been restored because they have been irrevocably lost, but what we now see is as perfect a vision of Russell's film as is likely to be the case.
Thirty years on the film is still able to shock, and its contemporary relevance has remained undiminished. Russell, who later called The Devils his only political film, created less an image of religious blasphemy, rather one that really showed the corruption that existed between state and church. It is easy to see, in retrospect, that Father Grandier's death has less to do with his own shortcomings as a priest and more to do with the fact that Loudun, under Grandier's rule, is a political problem for Cardinal Richelieu's policy of tearing down the defences of any town that poses a threat to the Catholicisation of France. At the beginning of the film the bricks of the town's walls are being torn down one by one; at the end of the film the walls are literally blown to pieces, the destruction of priest and Loudun now complete, the triumph of church over state. A superficial triumph, as Russell sees it.
Based on Aldous Huxley's 1953 book, The Devils of Loudun, Russell's film remains, at least in terms of fact, quite close to what Huxley recounts. Yet, the film itself – its production values, its photography and its direction - seems more influenced by Huxley's later book, The Doors of Perception, written in 1954, describing Huxley's own experiments with the drug mescaline, and the transcendental and psychedelic effect the drug had on him. In one sense, Russell is able to keep us on track with his dispassionate analysis of the religious frenzy which grips the town of Loudun (and it is hard not to see that Russell may in some way have been influenced by Arthur Miller's The Crucible, since the characters of Trincant in the film and Reverend Parris in the play are remarkably similarly characterised); but in other ways, Russell's vision of how events unfold – the centrepiece of the film being the nuns' desecration of the cross of Christ – seems intent on giving us a Brechtian sense of detachment, deflecting attention from the real theme of possession. William Friedkin was to view possession in The Exorcist slightly differently from the way Ken Russell does in The Devils, with Russell eroticising it and Friedkin demonising it.
In part, this is why The Exorcist has never caused difficulty for audiences or censors in the United States and Russell's film has. Just as Derek Jarman's sets give us an image of spectacular decadence in the convent, especially with the arrival of the King (just before the Rape scene), so Russell optimises that on screen decadence with scenes of lesbianism, self-flagellation, masturbation and nude orgies. The question Russell asks of his viewer is not to see his vision as blasphemy, but for us to see what he is portraying as blasphemy. The subtlety is important, since when you see the public blasphemy of the nuns (and the priests who masturbate at the image of it – Father Mignon, for example,) simultaneously against the private communion of Grandier, the sensitivity of Russell's direction falls into place. The challenge Russell throws up by eroticising the possession of Sister Jeanne and the nuns is one that goes beyond a period-bound religious fundamentalism, and that is what makes the film so relevant 30 years after it was made. Seventeenth century religious extremism can seem almost identical to twenty-first century religious extremism: the Catholic terror that Richelieu supplants to Loudun is identical to the Islamic terrorism that fundamentalists supplant to Western democracies. Is this partly why, in a post 9/11 USA, Russell's The Devils is still viewed as disturbing and unpalatable?
Russell's way of visualising erotic possession challenges the boundaries of Catholic tonality today, as it did in 1971, but so many of this groundbreaking film's master-strokes are to do with the expressionist way in which it is made. Derek Jarman creates a blanched, pure beauty in the form of the town of Loudun – white walls hint at a place untouched by religious intolerance, and they are seen to be both internal and external, of the soul and of the flesh; only at the end of the film do we see it for what it really is: a holocaust of smashed bodies, crushed, grey brick and defeated faiths. Rather than crucifixes lining the Apian Way, Russell shows us instead a landscape of windmill-like wheels with bodies crucified upon them. The opulence of the court – with Richelieu dressed in Cardinal red – suggests that the devils of Russell's title may not be the devils we are actually seeing in the convent, and this is implicitly confirmed during the exorcism itself when it is shown to be what it is – an act of deception. Father Barre's belief that the phial contains Christ's blood is seen to be an illusion, the driving of the devils from the nuns nothing more than a hollow religious rite. Filmed as it is, with gyrating camera angles, and crash-zoom shots, Russell sweeps us into a vortex of frenzy which matches that of the hysteria of the nuns; only the natural beauty of Grandier's communion separates God from Godlessness, and only in the uncut version of the film does this all finally make sense. Similarly, the moment when Sister Jeanne picks up Grandier's charred bone and caresses and then kisses it – before finally masturbating with it – do we genuinely see an emotional penitence in her character that has hitherto been missing. In the cut version of the film, her lack of penitence leaves the ending of the film unsatisfactorily incomplete.
Matching Jarman's and Russell's vision of plague mysticism, exorcism and torture is Peter Maxwell Davies' incendiary film score. Both violent and brooding, it catapults between extremes, often within the same scene: Sister Jeanne's vision, for example, is frenzied, yet resolves itself into medieval chant; the exorcism is accompanied by music of extreme violence, and concludes in prayer and Grandier's execution (by burning) is hysterical and torturous, and ends with a solitary postlude on flute. The sound generated by Maxwell Davies' scoring belies the orchestral forces used: the instrumentation is minimalist, often single instrument, and principally woodwind and percussion including suspended cymbals, temple gong, wood blocks, chains, bamboo whistle, thunder-sheet, tam-tam, marimba, grater, rubber plunger in water, large bass drum, cycle wheel, blackboard (scraped with fingernails), knife and plate. It is this which gives the film the added terror that Russell's visual images only partly convey. The changes of mood and timbre, achieved as much by varying the recording technique as they are by the players of The Fires of London, reflect closely the isorhythms of both composer and director.
Russell's films can be validly criticised for their director's lurid sensationalism, but as with so many of his films (The Music Lovers, Mahler and Women in Love, for example) the acting can often be seen as a virtue. Russell gets outstanding performances from both Vanessa Redgrave, as the hunch-backed Mother Superior, and Oliver Reed as the tortured (metaphysically and literally) priest, Father Urbain Grandier. The supporting cast is also excellent – Dudley Sutton's Baron de Laubardemont, Gemma Jones' Madeleine, Georgina Hale's Phillipe and a sublimely comic performance from Brian Murphy as Adam. Michael Gothard's Father Barre send shivers down the spine.
The new cut of the film, lasting now for some 111 minutes (against the previously known longest running time of 107 minutes,) has been cleaned up well, with the only noticeable deterioration being in the final scene of Sister Jeanne where the quality of the celluloid is rather speckled. Sound-wise it is still spectacular. Part of the purpose of this screening (which was only announced as the uncut version by the curator of the BFI's two-month long horror season, Mark Kermode, moments before the film began) was to 'test the water' with the public to see whether there was any antipathy towards it. Greeted with cheers at the end, it seems finally that Ken Russell's masterpiece of horror may finally see a UK DVD release as it was always intended to be viewed.
*Figures from BBFC.
Yet more Devils (or a lack of them):
The longest version of The Devils is the widescreen video release that Warner Bros. issued in the UK in 1997. Currently unavailable, it can nevertheless be requested from Amazon. Readers should avoid the currently available US version (whether on video or DVD) since it is heavily censored.
Aldous Huxley's The Devils of Loudun is also currently unavailable, although Vintage are to publish a new print in April 2005. Despite being unavailable, Amazon has a number of copies of the book available second hand.
Krzysztof Penderecki's 1969 opera The Devils of Loudon does not appear to have been commercially recorded either, although live recordings from several international premieres may exist.
An excellent resource for information on both film and director is Savage Messiah.