“My most, indeed my only, political film,” is how Ken Russell described The Devils (1971), an adaptation of John Whiting’s play of the same name and Aldous Huxley’s non-fiction novel The Devils of Loudun. Rooted in historical fact, it revolves around the figures of Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), a well-liked priest in the French town of Loudun, and Sister Jeanne des Anges (Vanessa Redgrave), a neurotic nun whose unrequited sexual infatuation with Grandier will lead to his downfall. It is a powerful, provocative piece of work, an examination of madness, lust and corruption, filled with flesh and blood.
To say it was controversial upon release would be an understatement.: Tthe Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano called for the resignation of Gian Luigi Rondi, who had shown the movie as part of that year’s Venice Film Festival; Roger Ebert gave it one of his rare zero-star reviews; and Alexander Walker, then the critic for the London paper The Evening Standard and notoriously vitriolic when it came to Russell, hated the film so much that a live debate between the two was organized by the BBC. As film critic Mark Kermode notes in his book Hatchet Job, no footage remains of the event, which culminated in Russell smacking Walker on the head with a rolled-up copy of the newspaper where the review was first published (“I wish it had been an iron bar,” Russell said in a 2011 interview).
Even more strenuous was the director’s relationship with the censors, as well as the studio that agreed to distribute the film: Warner Bros., whose executives, per the booklet that accompanies the 2012 UK DVD edition of the film, described the film as “disgusting s**t” when they first saw it. Given the content, Russell was fully aware of the problems he might have with the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification), and discussed the subject of cuts with the then Secretary of the Board, John Trevelyan, before formally submitting the film. According to Craig Lapper, a Senior Examiner at the BBFC who contributed to the booklet with a complete breakdown of the different versions submitted to the censors, the process began on February 9, 1971, and lasted until May 19, when the film was granted an X certificate for theatrical exhibition in the UK (it was released in British cinemas on July 25).
Russell was fairly amenable to most suggestions, albeit with a sense of humor: in a note to Trevelyan, cited in Lapper’s essay, he mentions having “slashed the whipping”, referring to one of the film’s more violent moments. Particularly contentious was the back-and-forth regarding the sexual content, which was severely toned down (a scene where it is implied a nun masturbates with a charred femur remained on the cutting room floor). On top of the BBFC’s requests, the director also had to deal with additional demands by the studio, which demanded more cuts to secure an R rating stateside. This US cut (a few minutes shorter than the UK release) became the de facto official version of the film, especially on home video.
As of 2012, the original UK theatrical cut is available on DVD through the British Film Institute (per the updated BBFC guidelines, the certificate is now 18, for “strong violence and sexualised (sic) nudity”). This edition includes the aforementioned booklet, plus documentaries and commentaries detailing the film’s troubled production history. It is still not the uncut version, though, despite prints existing: Kermode, one of the movie’s most ardent supporters (in 2012, he listed it as one of his ten all-time favorites in a Sight & Sound poll) located and reinstated the missing footage in 2004, and screenings have occurred at film festivals and special one-off events (though less so after Russell’s death ten years ago).
In a 2014 installment of his now defunct video blog for the BBC , Kermode responded to viewers’ questions about the possibility of releasing Russell’s original, unadulterated cut of the film. As far as the UK is concerned, the BBFC would have no issue granting it a certificate (they attended the 2004 premiere of the uncut version and said as much after the screening), and there’s been interest from both the BFI and – for the US – Criterion to acquire a license to distribute the full version on disc. However, Warner’s official stance is that the film’s content remains an issue, particularly the much-discussed “Rape of Christ” sequence. And yet, with the 50th anniversary looming, one can’t not wonder if something might finally change. After all, if WarnerMedia and AT&T were willing to spend 70 million dollars to complete a film they had once left to die, why not release a cut they already own and have been actively sitting on for almost two decades?
“The Devils” is currently streaming on Shudder.