The Devils (1971) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Considered by many to be a neglected masterpiece, The Devils is an astoundingly flamboyant and visually creative interpretation of the political machinations of early 17th century France (1623-34), based upon Aldous Huxley's historical novel, The Devils of Loudon.

There were three reasons why Cardinal Richelieu needed to crush the independence of the city of Loudon at that time:

  1. Richelieu, the real ruler of France in all but name, was attempting to unify France by using the power of the Catholic Church and the central power of the monarchy to crush the autonomy of the various fortified city-states which had endured from feudal times. The city of Loudon stood in the way of Richelieu's master plan. 

  2. Unlike most of France, Loudon had managed to establish a peaceful and prosperous co-operation between the religions, and Richelieu saw this as a challenge to absolute Catholic hegemony.

  3. The stubborn and proud local priest, Father Grandier, had also criticized Richelieu in public.

The Cardinal knew that he could break Loudon's will if he could somehow undermine the strong-willed priest who was the virtual ruler of the city and was respected by Catholic and Protestant alike. Richelieu went about looking for a chink in Grandier's armor, and soon found it. Father Grandier was a man who did not believe in the celibacy of the priesthood. Handsome and vital, Grandier had seduced many local women, and was desired by many more.

Among the women who lusted for the priest were the local nuns. It is essential to understand that the convents of the time were not filled with pious women with a religious vocation. There were some of those, to be sure, but most of the girls were perfectly normal, sexual creatures who were not marriageable for some reason. Perhaps they were younger daughters of families who were not prosperous enough to provide dowries for more than one girl. Perhaps they were deformed in some way, or just unattractive to men.

Cardinal Richelieu exploited an incident of mass sexual hysteria among the nuns of Loudon by associating the madness with Grandier (a reasonable supposition), and then using the Church's inquisitors to accuse Grandier of having seduced the nuns with witchcraft and satanism (a complete scam, but a ruse necessary to strip Grandier of his moral authority). So the witch hunters arrived and persuaded the nuns that Grandier had bewitched them. Grandier never did break down and confess, even though he was tortured and burned alive.

Playwright Peter Whiting adapted Huxley's novel to the London stage in 1961, and his play, The Devils, also ran on Broadway in 1965-66. Somewhere along the line, the play caught the attention of filmdom's Ken Russell, a flashy director whose specialty was rococo historical revisionism spiked with visual pyrotechnics often viewed as meretricious. Russell had caught the world's eye in 1969-70 with his interpretation of D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love and his lurid Tschaikovsky biopic, The Music Lovers.

Whiting's play and Huxley's novel provided handy and heady source material for Russell - a powerful combination of crackling dialogue and thorough scholarship with the kind of salacious historical story that Russell enjoyed pictorializing. To bring the story to visual realization, Russell called upon Derek Jarman to be his production designer. Jarman was a painter who had gone into stage design, and who would later direct his own idiosyncratic films. Between Jarman and Russell, they decided to conceive the France of the 1620's as something surreal, as if in a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Instead of dark gothic cathedrals and filthy streets, Jarman created a Loudon almost entirely in sterile, polished white bricks, with the occasional black column, and virtually no colors to be seen disturbing the black and white aesthetic. The resulting film is an impressive work in many ways.

There is no doubt that the film's surrealistic aesthetics are marvelous, and there is no doubt that Russell can justify the narrative excesses of the story with valid historical and literary antecedents. Of course, the aesthetics and the history don't always mesh seamlessly. The story itself is historically accurate, and even its most hyperbolic details are reasonable recreations of what really happened. The period details, however, make no effort at historical accuracy. I began to get a little suspicious when they performed Gregorian chant with banjos and saxophones. (OK that didn't really happen, but similar things did.) The production design is conceived to make a maximum visual impact, and to take the story out of ancient France and locate it in a universal time and place, since the foibles of human nature portrayed in the film have not been significantly different in other times or places. We invariably conceive of ourselves as modern and civilized, and we invariably betray our inherent brutish natures, just as the people of Loudon did in this imagining.


Georgina Hale does frontal nudity, and Gemma Jones shows her breasts.

Various nuns expose themselves during the insanity sequence. This footage is graphic and even includes open-crotch shots and simulated masturbation.

The Devils is thus a historical costume drama set in a modernist or sci-fi setting, the oil and water mixture of David Lean and Godard, Versailles and Alphaville. Whether you care to see the movie depends on your tolerance for that kind of flamboyance. I guess I'm all in favor of letting artists try to find the truth in their own ways. It seems to me that Dali's interpretation of Christopher Columbus gets to the importance of his voyages to the world, whether or not it sticks to precise historical details. Russell's take on The Devils can be viewed the same way. As long as people understand that the details are not meant to be historical, I don't really see any problem.

The film is certainly an experience like no other of its time, maybe any time. There are 12 minutes of footage consisting of naked nuns acting nutty and exposing their genitalia to the cameras, and there are several nuns masturbating themselves on a giant crucifix. One naked woman sits on Christ's face. Vanessa Redgrave masturbates herself with a candle, and later with the late Father Grandier's fire-blackened and phallic-shaped bone. There are bizarre scientists treating the plague with hornets and crocodiles. There are open sores and rotting corpses and on-camera enemas. There is a duel between a man with a sword and another wielding the ever-present crocodile. You get the idea.

There is also a surprisingly measured performance from Oliver Reed as Father Grandier. Reed was normally known for his own baroque and excessively pugnacious performances, but he must have realized that he needed to play this role as a counterpoint to the excesses in the film, so he stripped Grandier down to some raw emotional truths. The viewer ends up liking and admiring Grandier by the end of the movie, even though he seems callous and arrogant at the beginning. Grandier's religious faith seems simple and unaffected compared to the cynical manifestations of faith used by Richelieu and the witch-hunters to further their personal ambitions, and Grandier exhibits genuine regard for the people of his city, Catholic and Protestant alike. (By opposing Richelieu, Grandier was sheltering his town's Protestants from Richelieu's pogroms.)

VHS info from Amazon

Not recommended. Missing 15 minutes of footage. Wait for the restored version on DVD.

Scenes in this film have often been parodied. Mel Brooks's interpretation of Louis XVI in History of the World is taken almost verbatim from Russell's portrayal of Louis XIII in this film, right down to the king's tone of voice and his shooting peasants for amusement. (Louis shoots a man clad in a bird suit, then bids him "bye-bye blackbird".)  Monty Python's "I'm not quite dead yet" scene in Holy Grail is altered very little from the "bring out your dead" scene in The Devils.

Parody, however, is a tribute more than a slight. Yup, Ken Russell made a bold, strange, film which people love to mock.

But people don't forget it.

Some examples of the film's dazzling and original visual sense:

The Critics Vote

The People Vote ...


The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a classic C+. In many ways, this is a work of great genius, and was one of the most powerful films of its time. It is not a film that will appeal to mainstream viewers, but its aesthetics, its ideas, its shock value, and its sheer audacity make it an unforgettable experience. (Although some people will wish they COULD forget it.)

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