The Devils


1h 40m 1971

Brief Synopsis

An account of the apparent demoniacal possession of the 17th-century nuns of Louden, climaxing in the burning of their priest as a sorcerer.

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Genre
Adaptation
Drama
Historical
Horror
Religion
Release Date
Jul 1971
Premiere Information
Los Angeles and New York opening: 16 Jul 1971; London opening: week of 25 Jul 1971
Production Company
Russo Productions Ltd.
Distribution Company
Warner Bros., Inc.
Country
Great Britain and United States
Location
London, England, Great Britain; Northumberland--Bamburgh Castle, Great Britain
Screenplay Information
Based on the play The Devils by John Whiting (New York, 16 Nov 1965) and the novel The Devils of Loudon by Aldous Huxley (New York, 1952).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 40m
Sound
Mono
Color
Color (Technicolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.35 : 1

Synopsis

In France of the 1630s, King Louis XIII, a debauched transvestite, makes a pact with Catholic Cardinal Richelieu to merge church and state, thus destroying the Protestant Huguenots and solidifying the power of both leaders. In the town of Loudon, meanwhile, the beloved governor dies of the plague, leaving the lusty head priest, Father Urbain Grandier, in charge of the town, which has a reputation for religious tolerance. As Grandier leads the funeral march, the young nuns of the town's confined Ursuline order lasciviously watch the handsome man. They are interrupted by the Reverend Mother, Sister Jeanne, a severely repressed hunchback who secretly loves Grandier, although she has never met him. Upon spotting him, she falls into a craven fantasy in which she attempts to make love to him, but is mocked because of her disability. Grandier, despite his vows of chastity, regularly sleeps with his enamored parishioners, but upon hearing that his latest conquest, Philippe, is pregnant, he spurns her, advising her to bear her cross with Christian fortitude. As the bodies of plague victims pile up in the town, Grandier is called to the bedside of a woman who has been barbarically "treated" by physicians with hornets and leeches. Grandier throws out the specious doctors, then comforts the now dead woman's daughter, Madeleine. Soon after, Phillipe's father, M. Trincant, arrives in a fury, but Grandier dismisses him, even after Trincant's cousin, Father Mignon, chastises the priest. When Madeleine approaches Jeanne to ask her about a vocation in the order, Jeanne accuses her of hiding lechery with an innocent look and informs her that most of the nuns were "called" only by a need for a place to live, rather than by a love of Christ. Madeleine turns to Grandier, who assures her that she can do more good outside the cloister. At confession, Madeleine admits her love for Grandier, who invites her to meet him later, but then, touched by her innocence, rebuffs her. Later, Jeanne has another fantasy in which she prays before the crucified Christ, who transforms into Grandier and climbs off the cross to embrace her. Grandier and Madeleine continue to discuss the possibility of having an affair, and he soon convinces her that the Bible does not forbid priests from marrying, and that men must have an outlet for their worldly passions. Meanwhile, Richelieu has convinced the king to send his agent, Baron de Laubardemont, to tear down Loudon's fortifications as a way of disabling its independence. When Grandier sees what is happening, he defies Laubardemont, showing him a contract between the late governor and the king ensuring the town's safety. To the townsmen's ovation, Grandier exhorts them to remain strong and to rebel against an authoritarian regime in order to protect religious freedoms. As Jeanne writes to Grandier to ask him to be their new father confessor, the priest and Madeleine marry. Although the ceremony is secret, word soon spreads, and upon hearing it, Jeanne flagellates herself with spikes. While Laubardemont and Richelieu plot Grandier's defeat, Jeanne learns that Grandier has named Mignon as the order's father confessor, and in revenge, accuses Grandier of seducing her in her dreams. Mignon brings this information to Laubardemont, and along with Trincant's accusations and the physicians' reports that Grandier is married, the baron plans to destroy the priest. He hires a "professional witch hunter," Father Barre, to investigate Jeanne. The inquiry is made public, and the townspeople laugh as the nun, now at great personal risk, elaborates how Grandier, an agent of the devil, lustfully took her. Although she might easily be dismissed as mad, Barre is convinced that she is possessed by Satan, and devises various agonizing techniques to flush the demon from her body. Weakened by the procedures, Jeanne continues to insist that Grandier is her tormenter. Grandier is soon called before the king to defend himself, and sure that Jeanne is merely a sexually repressed madwoman, he bids Madeleine goodbye with confidence. While he is gone, Laubardemont rounds up the other nuns in a pit in the forest and accuses them of treason, crimes against God and unrepentant heresy. To escape a sentence of death, all the nuns agree to Barre's statement that they, too, have been possessed by the devil through Grandier. Barre and the doctors perform horrific "exorcisms" on the nuns while the public watches with glee. Louis hears about the festivities and arrives to watch, warning his young lover not to touch the naked, riotous nuns. The king offers a vial of Jesus' blood to cleanse the afflicted, but as soon as Barre ecstatically "heals" the women with the vial, the king reveals it is empty and leaves, laughing. Meanwhile, Grandier writes to Madeleine to assure her that the court remains sympathetic to his cause. On his trip back to Loudon, he feels a renewed sense of purpose to protect and strengthen his flock against oppression, writing to Madeleine that he has been a bad man, but now is good. Upon returning, he discovers the nunnery turned into a "circus" and denounces Laubardemont and Barre for perverting the innocence of both the nuns and the public. As Jeanne raves about Grandier's various offenses, he denies the charges vehemently and gently cautions the nun not to damn her soul. Laubardemont immediately has him arrested for heresy, then tortures Grandier and the nuns to force them to sign confessions. Although Grandier remains steadfast, Madeleine is imprisoned and broken, and Jeanne tries to hang herself. Once rescued, she admits to Mignon that she lied, but Barre asserts it is only the devil speaking through her. A trial is held, at which Laubardemont brings evidence of Grandier's treatise against celibacy, shows the women's confessions and provides proof that Grandier married Madeleine. Although Grandier eloquently defends himself, denouncing Laubardemont's prosecution as a political experiment to destroy the city, he is sentenced to be tortured and burned alive for his participation in devilry, obscenity and sacrilege. Grandier declares: "I am innocent and I am afraid, but I hope my suffering will atone for my vain life." Laubardemont subjects the priest to brutal tortures to force him to confess to his alleged crimes, but Grandier does not back down. Grandier crawls to the pyre and asks God's forgiveness for his tormenters while the townspeople celebrate as he is tied up, chanting "kill him." Seeing Grandier writhing in agony, Mignon realizes that an innocent man is being put to death and prays fervently. As soon as Grandier dies, the town's fortifications are detonated. Later, Laubardemont informs Jeanne that she is no longer possessed and soon, with the town dead, she will be left in oblivion. As Laubardemont hands Jeanne a charred bone from the pyre as a souvenir, Madeleine, released from jail, silently walks over the fire site, through the blasted walls, and out of Loudon.

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Genre
Adaptation
Drama
Historical
Horror
Religion
Release Date
Jul 1971
Premiere Information
Los Angeles and New York opening: 16 Jul 1971; London opening: week of 25 Jul 1971
Production Company
Russo Productions Ltd.
Distribution Company
Warner Bros., Inc.
Country
Great Britain and United States
Location
London, England, Great Britain; Northumberland--Bamburgh Castle, Great Britain
Screenplay Information
Based on the play The Devils by John Whiting (New York, 16 Nov 1965) and the novel The Devils of Loudon by Aldous Huxley (New York, 1952).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 40m
Sound
Mono
Color
Color (Technicolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.35 : 1

Quotes

Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights.
- Jeanne
Hold my hand. It's like touching the dead, isn't it?
- Grandier
Sin can be caught as easily as the plague.
- Barre
Anything found in the desert of a frustrated life can bring hope. With hope comes love. With love comes hate. So I possess her. May God help her in her misery and unhappiness.
- Grandier
What fresh lunacy is this? A crocodile?!
- Grandier
They always spoke of your beauty, and now I see it with my own eyes and it is true.
- Jeanne
Look at this thing that I am and learn the meaning of love.
- Grandier

Trivia

This film was banned from Italy and its stars Redgrave and Reed were threatened with three years' jail time if they set foot in that country. 'Reed, Oliver' described this as his best performance ever.

Derek Jarman's sets are modeled on the sets of 'Fritz Lang' 's Metropolis (1927). 'Ken Russell' wanted to avoid the cliched look of period films and insisted on anachronistic, even futuristic, design.

The role of Sister Jeanne was originally offered to Glenda Jackson, who turned it down because she was tired of playing sexually neurotic leads in Ken Russell movies. Judith Paris is listed as Sister Judith in the credits, but is referred to as Sister Agnes in the film.

Notes

The film begins with the following written statement: "This film is based on historical fact. The principal characters lived and the major events depicted in the film actually took place." After a depiction of "Louis XIII" performing in a play as a tranvestite Venus and agreeing with "Cardinal Richelieu" to merge the state and church of France, the opening title credit appears, reading: "Ken Russell's film of The Devils." All other credits appear after the film has ended.
       When "Sister Jeanne" fantasizes about "Father Urbain Grandier," much of the sequences appear in black-and-white. Although Jeanne has a hump in the film, during the fantasies she is a lovely, young woman with no deformity. The film includes strong sexual content, nudity and graphic violence.
       The Devils was based on Aldous Huxley's novel The Devils of Loudon and John Whiting's theatrical adaptation The Devils. Both depicted the true-life events of 1634, when Father Urbain Grandier was convicted of witchcraft on the testimony of a group of Ursuline nuns. The play opened in New York in 1965; when it opened in Los Angeles in April 1967, it marked the premiere presentation of the Mark Taper Forum. Russell stated in an April 1971 New York Times article that he admired Whiting's play but found it "too sentimental" and so plumbed Huxley's book for more material. The writer-director also added some elements that appeared in neither source, including the details about the plague, which were supplied by Russell's brother-in-law, a French scholar, according to a September 1970 Today's Cinema article.
       After the play's New York opening, as noted in a November 1965 New York Times news item, producer Alexander H. Cohen planned to adapt it to the screen, and stated that he made a formal offer to Huxley's estate. That deal was never finalized, however, and in August 1969, Hollywood Reporter reported that United Artists had signed a deal with producer Robert H. Solo to produce the film version of The Devils. While Filmfacts noted that UA subsequently dropped the project because of budget constraints, modern sources state that the studio backed out after reading the controversial screenplay. By March 1970, Warner Bros. was announced as the new distributor and financial backer.
       When the project was in its initial stages, in September 1969, Richard Johnson, who played Grandier on the London stage, was announced as a possible star. Glenda Jackson, who played Jeanne on the New York stage, stated in a February 1971 New York Times feature that Russell pursued her for the film, but she did not want to play another "neurotic, sex-starved lady." Jackson starred in Russell's earlier films Women in Love (1970, also starring Oliver Reed) and The Music Lovers (1971, see below for both) as well as Russell's The Boy Friend, a December 1971 releass. Although during filming Reed announced to the press that he would retire after making The Devils, he did not. As noted onscreen, the film was shot at Pinewood Studios in London, and an August 1970 Evening News and Dispatch news item stated that some scenes would also be shot at Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland.
       The Devils marked set designer Derek Jarman's feature film debut. Jarman went on to direct such experimental films as 1978's Jubilee. Russell's then-wife Shirley created the costumes for the production, and his son Alexander appeared in the film as a child at the royal court. Although a September 1970 The Evening News news item adds Patricia Varley to the cast, her appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. Modern sources add Robin Browne (2d unit dir of photog) and Gordon K. McCallum (Sound Mixer) to the crew.
       The film's violence and sexual content garnered much controversy both before and after its release. Numerous contemporary sources reported various outrages taking place on the closed set, asserting that Russell was filming lewd and depraved acts; a laboratory destroyed footage after declaring it obscene; and, according to a November 1970 Daily Record article, several young actresses reported that they were assaulted while being forced to walk naked through the crew, resulting in a demand by Actors' Equity that their representative be present during production. The fact that the nudity and sexual content of the film revolved around religious figures deepened the concern of its critics, who took further offense at Catholic convert Russell's description of himself as "a sinning Catholic," as noted in an April 1971 New York Times article. In an October 1972 New York Times article he stated, "I'm astonished that not everyone could see that The Devils was a religious film."
       Russell, who was considered an extremist by some critics, edited the film multiple times for several releases. The April 1971 New York Times article described how Russell was attempting to edit the footage himself to appease the censors. Despite what he described in the October 1972 New York Times article as extensive cuts, the MPAA awarded the film an X rating and, as noted by Daily Variety in July 1971, Warners chose not to appeal the decision. The cuts made by English censors, as noted in Filmfacts, included a sequence in which the nuns pull down a life-sized crucifix and masturbate with it, dubbed "the Rape of Christ scene," and the seduction of Christ by Sister Jeanne. American censors retained those edits and cut additional footage. The British version ran for 111 minutes, while the American version, released at the same time, ran for 108-109 minutes.
       Russell discussed his frustration with the edits in various sources, stating in the October 1972 New York Times article that British censors "killed the key scene" [the Rape of Christ] and in a July 1972 New York Times article that "Warner Brothers cut out the best of The Devils." The MPAA upgraded the film's rating from X to R in 1979, as noted in a May 1979 Daily Variety article and confirmed in MPAA records, and Warners released another edited version on video in 1981; that version, which had a running time of 109 minutes, was the print viewed. A July 2, 1980 Variety article stated that the American version had grossed only $2 million when first released theatrically, while the European version made $8-9 million.
       Despite the modifications, the film was still much maligned by various audience watchdogs. As noted in a September 1971 Los Angeles Times article, the Vatican denounced the film after it was shown at the Venice Film Festival on August 28, 1971, calling for the resignation of the festival's director. Notwithstanding this and generally poor reviews, The Devils won the Best Foreign Film award at the Venice Film Festival and won the National Board of Review award for Best Director, in conjunction with Russell's The Boy Friend (1971, ).
       As noted in the October 1972 New York Times article, footage of the Rape of Christ sequence, which was edited from the film, was stolen from Pinewood Studios. In November 2002, film historian Mark Kermode discovered the footage and included it in his documentary, Hell on Earth. On November 23, 2004, the BFI ran the restored, uncut version of The Devils at the National Film Theatre. That version, which ran for 111 minutes, included the Rape of Christ scene, as well as footage of Sister Jeanne masturbating with a bone from Grandier's burned body.
       Other adaptations of Huxley's and Whiting's works include an opera by Krzysztof Penderecki entitled The Devils of Loudun, which had its world premiere in Hamburg in 1969; and Polish filmmaker Jerzy Kawalerowicz' feature Matka Joanna od aniol√≥w or Joan of the Angels?, released in 1961 (see below).

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States 1971

Released in United States 1994

Released in United States May 1994

Released in United States 1971

Released in United States May 1994 (Shown in Los Angeles (Nuart) as part of program "Dancing on the Ledge: The Films of Derek Jarman" May 12-16, 1994.)

Released in United States 1994 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "Derek Jarman 1942 - 1994" March 25 - April 14, 1994.)