The Devils is a 1971 horror film directed by Ken Russell. It stars Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave. It is based partially on the 1952 book The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley, and partially on the 1960 play The Devils by John Whiting, also based on Huxley's book. Derek Jarman was responsible for the film's production design. It tells the story of Urbain Grandier, a 17th century French priest executed for witchcraft.
Vanessa Redgrave ... Sister Jeanne
Oliver Reed ... Urbain Grandier
Dudley Sutton ... Baron De Laubardemont
Max Adrian ... Ibert
Gemma Jones ... Madeleine
Murray Melvin ... Mignon
Michael Gothard ... Father Barre
Georgina Hale ... Philippe
Brian Murphy ... Adam
Christopher Logue ... Cardinal Richelieu
Graham Armitage ... Louis XIII
John Woodvine ... Trincant
Andrew Faulds ... Rangier
Kenneth Colley ... Legrand
Judith Paris ... Sister Judith
Both Aldous Huxley's book and Ken Russell's film are historically based. However, Russell took significant liberties with his depiction of the Loudun possessions, their chronology, and circumstances; the depictions of King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu do not resemble the historical figures. Louis XIII is depicted as an effeminate homosexual who amuses himself by shooting Protestants dressed as birds. Richelieu is borne in a chair by servants. Father Grandier, whilst a real figure who was indeed burnt at the stake, was in fact acquitted on the charges of bewitching nuns he is executed for in the film; he later spoke out against Cardinal Richelieu, who appointed a special commission to renew the charges of witchcraft, resulting in his execution. Certain figures present during the real Loudoun possessions are not present in the film, notably Father Tranquille, Father Lactance and Father Surin, in charge of the exorcisms at Loudun (in the film, Barre performs the exorcisms and torture).
Since the time of its release, the film has caused enormous controversy. In the United Kingdom it was banned by 17 local authorities, and everywhere attracted many scathing reviews. Judith Crist called it a "grand fiesta for sadists and perverts", while Derek Malcolm called it "a very bad film indeed." However, it won the award for Best Director-Foreign Film in the Venice Film Festival, despite being banned in the country. The United States National Board of Review awarded Ken Russell best director for The Devils and his next film, The Boy Friend. In 2002, when 100 film makers and critics were asked to cite what they considered to be the ten most important films ever made, The Devils featured in the lists submitted by critic Mark Kermode and director Alex Cox.
The film's combination of religious themes and imagery combined with violent and sexual content was a test for the British Board of Film Censors that at the time was being pressured by socially conservative interest groups.
In order to earn an "X" certificate, Russell made minor cuts to the more explicit nudity (mainly in the cathedral sequences) and removed some violent detail (notably the crushing of Grandier's legs). However, the biggest cuts were made by the studio itself, prior to submission to the BBFC, removing two scenes in their entirety, notably a two-and-a-half-minute sequence of crazed naked nuns sexually assaulting a statue of Christ and about of half of a latter scene with Sister Jeanne masturbating with the charred tibia of Grandier after self-administering an enema. However, even in its released form, the film was considerably stronger in detail than most films released prior to that point.
Its fate in the United States was even more stringent, with a further set of cuts made to even more of the nudity with some key scenes (including Sister Jeanne's crazed visions, exorcism and the climactic burning) shorn of the more explicit detail.
All of this material was presumed lost or destroyed until critic Mark Kermode found the complete "Rape of Christ" sequence and several other deleted scenes (including the fuller version of Sister Jeanne's masturbation scene as well as additional sequences of naked nuns lounging around the convent and a bawdy dance performed by travelling players mimicking the bizarre events whilst Grandier is being lead to his death) in 2002. The artist Adam Chodzko made a video work in which he traced and interviewed many of the actresses who had played the nuns during the orgy scene. Although some material may have been lost forever, the NFT was able to show The Devils in the fullest possible state in 2004. This uncut version premiered at the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film in March 2006.
The British version remains the most complete one in circulation, although there are long promised plans to release the uncut version on mass-market DVD. On April 25, 2007, The Devils was shown for a second time in its fullest possible state to a group of students and staff at the University of Southampton, followed by a question and answer session with the director, moderated by Mark Kermode. It was the first significant event to take place during Russell's tenure as a visiting fellow at the University of Southampton in the English and film departments, April 2007 to March 2008.
An NTSC-format DVD edition on the Angel Digital label appeared in 2005, with the so-called "Rape of Christ" scene and other censored footage restored, and featuring a documentary by Mark Kermode about the film, as well as interviews with Russell, some of the surviving cast members, and a member of the BBFC who participated in the original censorship of the film.
DVDActive.com announced on February 28, 2008 that The Devils would finally be released on DVD by Warner Home Video in the U.S. on May 20, 2008, in the uncut (111 min) version, but without additional material. However, a day later, a DVDActive forum post asserted that the release had been dropped from Warner's schedule.
Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists
1972 Won Silver Ribbon Best Director - Foreign Film (Regista del Miglior Film Straniero) Ken Russell
National Board of Review, USA
1972 Won NBR Award Best Director Ken Russell Also for The Boy Friend (1971).