I first encountered Ken Russell’s dizzyingly shocking The Devils on the big screen in college. The University of Arizona had several outlets for the education of a young cinephile in those days (1979-1983), but the one I most regularly attended (about three nights per week on average) was the Gallagher Theater (long ago demolished) where second-run and art films played for the cost of admission of $1.25. This medieval wide screen epic has gory images of the plague in full fury and Catholics behaving badly (lusting after each other, having wild orgies during a mass hysteria that purports to be a demonic possession, and a priest getting married in secret). What I didn’t know circa 1980 was that Warner Brothers had messed with this film by having the director edit out the most salacious moments, gave it a soft release without much promotion, and essentially buried the film for decades. After having made one of the notorious films of the 20th Century (and arguably the most excellent notorious film), Ken Russell died in 2011 without ever having been given the opportunity to do a fully restored director’s cut.
There is still no restored, quality DVD or Blu-Ray of this film out there, although I suspect that the day is coming. The deleted footage was rediscovered a few years ago and spliced back into the film, which has been available in its full, original version for streaming since about 2017. The Criterion Channel is currently streaming the film in a beautiful print that was restored by the British Film Institute (but without the few minutes of the most shocking footage). The featured image on this post is a DVD cover of what I assume to be a pirated copy from the streaming of the uncut version, because the Dalenberg Library copy does have the deleted footage.
When I was in college, and because I was and still am something of a medievalist, I was most impressed by the film’s vision of the Black Plague with bodies being dumped in mass graves, maggots writhing around in hollow skulls, and corpses on breaking wheels raised aloft on poles that dotted the landscape. But on re-watching the film with more mature eyes, it stands out as a rich indictment of government hypocrisy as an innocent priest is persecuted and ultimately burned at the stake, not for his actual crimes, but as part of a government conspiracy to neutralize his opposition to the federal and ecclesiastical corruption that is bent on destroying the city he loves and serves. Oliver Stone’s character, the priest Urbain Grandier, emerges as one of cinema’s great anti-heroes, a man who has committed many sins, but whose heart is in the right place, forced into unspeakable torment by corrupt powers bent on his destruction. Vanessa Redgrave turns in one of her greatest performances as the lustful hunchbacked nun Sister Jeanne who sets in motions Grandier’s destruction. The notorious scenes that got the film an X rating in 1971 (it’s a solid R by today’s standards), and that caused Warner Bros. to bury the film, are not absolutely essential, but they do underscore that this is probably the most pornographic mainstream film of its era where the pornography augments the story (as opposed to Caligula , a vastly inferior film where the pornography was folded in between scenes to sell tickets and adds nothing to the story.)