Why X-rated masterpiece The Devils is still being censored

Fifty years ago, Ken Russell's historical drama shocked the world with raw violence and mass orgies.

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Fifty years ago, Ken Russell's historical drama shocked the world with raw violence and mass orgies. It is a tour de force that deserves to be seen in full, writes Adam Scovell.

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The late film director Ken Russell was the embodiment of outrageous cinema. From his early documentaries and biopics about famous composers for the BBC to feature films such as Women in Love (1969), The Music Lovers (1971) and Tommy (1975), Russell became one of Britain's most unique screen artists.

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Today, one film of his above all others is still considered controversial: 1971's The Devils. Based on real events that occurred in a 17th-Century French town, it caused more than a few sleepless nights for the censors.

The Devils follows the fate of Loudun, a self-governing town under the temporary protection of the debonair, womanising priest Father Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed). Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) plots with King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) to take control, but their men, led by Baron De Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), face strong opposition from Grandier.

However, the obsessive lust for Grandier held by the town's abbess Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) leads to the nun making a false accusation that he has possessed her, which the establishment exploit in order to oust him. Hysteria then unfolds among Loudun's Ursuline nuns, leading to a mass orgy, a chaos for which Grandier is blamed. Charged with heresy and cavorting with devils, he undergoes a show trial which will only ever go one way.

Russell became aware of the filmic potential of the story of the so-called "Loudon Possessions" through a 1960 play by John Whiting based on the same historical events. "He first saw it when it was on the London stage," Russell's partner Lisi Tribble Russell tells BBC Culture. "It inspired him to immediately research the text that the play was based on: Aldous Huxley's [novel] The Devils of Loudun." Impressed with Huxley's detailed interpretation, Russell started work on his script. Writing to the soundtrack of Krzysztof Penderecki's opera, based on the same events (as well as Sergei Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel, another work about religious hysteria) he adapted the story with equally fiery aplomb.

Reminders of certain reviews would make Ken bitterly wince for the rest of his life – Lisi Tribble Russell

Fifty years on from its release, The Devils is a film rightly celebrated for its artistry. Its startling array of performances, in particular Reed and Redgrave's, are some of the best British cinema has to offer. The film's score by British composer Peter Maxwell Davies is unique and haunting, and especially great considering it was his first. The visual style of the film is also stunning, in particular the sets designed by a young Derek Jarman, inspired by the Huxley line about Sister Jeanne's exorcism being akin to a "rape in a public lavatory". The Devils is a white-walled nightmare of a film with a horrifying wipe-clean aesthetic.

Yet it was the theological, political and sexual content that landed Russell in hot water. The film's mixture of demented sexuality, raw violence and religious imagery was a heady mix, even by Russell's standards. Scenes of torture and death linger long after viewing, as does the pervading nihilistic atmosphere. Sex and death become so intertwined with the film's theological imagery that they feel inseparable by the end. And this is before considering the film's portrayal of the allegiance between the state and the church in achieving their violent, greedy aims. Fifty years on, the film still shocks, such that the Warner Bros studio has never released the full director's cut.

Even in its censored state, the London Evening Standard critic Alexander Walker famously decried the film, as looking like the "masturbatory fantasies of a Roman Catholic Schoolboy." Such was the vitriol of Walker's review that he ended up on the BBC alongside Russell to discuss the film, only for the director to roll up a copy of Walker's own review and hit him over the head with it.

As in the UK, The Devils was panned in the US. Roger Ebert wrote one of his most sarcastic reviews, giving the film zero stars. "Ken Russell has really done it this time", he sneered. Pauline Kael, another critic of Russell's work, was equally scathing in the New Yorker. Lisi remembers Russell's reaction. "He was stoic (with effort) in accepting that the critics attacked it, but reminders of certain reviews would make him bitterly wince for the rest of his life."

A profound political statement

Russell's frustration is understandable. Beyond the controversy, the film is a profound piece of work. The Devils is about many things but is chiefly a critique of power. Russell described the film as a conscious political statement. Its political zeal is also what saved it from an outright ban, the censors in the UK at least recognising the creative and intellectual aspects of the film. Darren Arnold, author of the monograph Devil's Advocate: The Devils, agrees that it is a work of real intellectual value. "Russell liked a bit of mischief and wasn't afraid to push a few buttons," he tells BBC Culture, "but, amidst the mayhem, The Devils contains a powerful and sincere message." The message is that outrage and heresy can be easily weaponised by the powerful. The film, however, ironically became a meta-comment on its own hysterical treatment as a blasphemous piece of work.

The threat of violence towards any who disagree with the state authorities leads to many characters' collusion, pretending Grandier deserves his subsequent torture and public execution. It is a story of the gullible descending into a mob. "You have seduced the people in order to destroy them," shouts Grandier to the court when facing his charges. Truth is a scarce commodity in times of strife.

As the film shows, death was already normalised in the town at the time of these events: Loudun was weakened by plague, inoculating people to the suffering of others. "There was death in the air, death, decadence and destruction," as Russell suggested in a 2012 DVD commentary on the film. It laid the way for a more organised political violence.