Ken Russell's The Devils, about demonic possession in Loudun, was released in 1971 with a key scene cut. Mark Kermode wants this 'rape of Christ' restored
When Sight & Sound recently published its polls of the top ten films of all time, two correspondents (one film-maker, one critic) cited Ken Russell's dark 1970s masterpiece The Devils as one of the ten greatest achievements of cinema history. The first was Alex Cox, director of such cult classics as Repo Man, Sid and Nancy and Highway Patrolman, who had been instrumental in presenting the longest available version of The Devils to the British public via BBC2's 'Forbidden Cinema' weekend in May 1995. The second was myself, a critic who had long argued against the censorship of extreme cinema and who was now engaged in a crusade to reinstate the censored scenes cut from Russell's film prior to its 1971 release. Working with Paul Joyce's Lucida Productions, I had spent two and a half years researching and filming the Channel 4 documentary Hell on Earth, during which time I had made a discovery which Russell and his former editor Mike Bradsell would hail as "a magnificent find": a reel of previously unscreened censored footage, featuring restorable versions of key sequences from The Devils including a lengthy segment known to fans of the film as the 'rape of Christ'. Described by Russell as containing "some of my finest work", this sequence had long passed into legend, surviving only in stills archived at the British Film Institute, in the pages of Tim Lucas' indispensable Video Watchdog and in Russell's animated descriptions of a "quite dazzling and disturbing montage of images which brought things to a shattering climax." Wresting this footage from the darkened vaults and placing it in the glare of the public gaze where it rightly belongs has been a tortuous process which stands as a testament to The Devils' continuing power to shock and startle.
A story about brainwashing
The story The Devils tells is an engrossing one, based on the extraordinary real-life events that climaxed in the public burning of Father Urbain Grandier in the French city of Loudun (aka Loudon) in 1634. In Russell's movie Grandier (magnificently played by a brooding Oliver Reed) is a handsome, charismatic and womanising priest whose common-leadership qualities put him at odds with King Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) and Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) over their planned destruction of Loudun's fortifications. When the increasingly demented Sister Jeanne of the Angels (Vanessa Redgrave) claims she has been visited by an incubus named 'Grandier', Father Mignon (Murray Melvin) calls for the church's chief exorcist Father Barre (Michael Gothard) to perform torturous rituals on her body and soul, which intensify her lustful ravings. Soon an entire convent of Ursuline nuns are claiming seduction by Grandier's black magic and indulging in spectacular blasphemous orgies which attract tourists from as far afield as Paris and seal the accused priest's fate as an emissary of the Devil. As Grandier is tortured and burned at the stake, he calls for his people to look to their city, the walls of which are destroyed even as he succumbs to a lingering, infernal death.
Despite their apparently fantastical nature, the historical facts behind The Devils are well documented in everything from Trollope's 1878 Sketches from French History to recent translations of Michel de Certeau's The Possession at Loudun. Most celebrated of the accounts, however, is Aldous Huxley's 1952 classic The Devils of Loudun, which is credited on Russell's movie - alongside John Whiting's stageplay The Devils (first performed by the RSC in 1961) - and which had already provided the inspiration for Jerzy Kawalerowicz's respected Polish film Mother Joan of the Angels (1961). Introduced to the project by his producer, Russell remembers being "knocked out" by Huxley's book and wanting his film to inspire a similar reaction in audiences. Using dialogue from Whiting's play and detail from Huxley's historical account, the director set about mounting what he would later call "my most, indeed my only, political film". For him (as for Huxley), this was "a story about brainwashing"; despite having converted to Catholicism a decade earlier, Russell was confident that the events at Loudun had nothing to do with demonism or the supernatural and everything to do with the corrupt marriage of church and state. Inspired, he penned a screenplay which would put his passion for this theme first on page and later on screen - with hell-raising results.
Shot at Pinewood on awe-inspiringly pristine sets designed by fledgling artist Derek Jarman to evoke Huxley's image of "a rape in a public toilet", The Devils was a controversial project from the outset. Initially written for United Artists, for whom Russell had already directed three successful movies (Billion Dollar Brain, 1967; Women in Love, 1969; The Music Lovers, 1970), The Devils was promptly dropped when "somebody at UA actually read the script" and was subsequently picked up by a rival studio. Even before shooting was complete, salacious stories began to appear in the British press of naked nuns being sexually assaulted by drunken extras during the filming of the demonic orgy scenes, and of underage performers being present during the rehearsals for a scene involving nudity. Lengthy negotiations with the British censors resulted finally in the granting of an 'X' certificate, which was promptly overturned by many local councils (which simply banned the film outright) and vociferously opposed by Festival of Light spokesman Peter Thompson, who called for the certificate to be withdrawn and for new chief censor Stephen Murphy to resign. Meanwhile, the howl of critical outrage that greeted the film's release in the summer of 1971 came to a head when an apoplectic Russell physically attacked Evening Standard writer Alexander Walker live on national television, striking him about the head with a copy of his own review in a confrontation that has gone down in the annals of British television history.
But for all the public agitation The Devils provoked, it has only ever been seen in versions which dilute the unfettered excesses of Russell's intentionally ferocious vision and which temper the on-screen extremities the director had worked such magic to conjure. Twice butchered in America by its own distributors (for both 'X'- and later 'R'-rated US releases), the most complete version remains the British 'X'-rated edition which BBFC records log as having been trimmed by 89 seconds prior to the film's UK release. Yet my own investigations have revealed that somewhere between four and five minutes of footage which Russell intended for inclusion was slashed from The Devils prior to BBFC submission, consigning entire sequences to the cutting-room floor, most notoriously the orgiastic centrepiece that has become known as the holy grail of Russell's black mass: the 'rape of Christ'.
In Russell's original vision this sequence was to be both the thematic and visual climax of The Devils, bringing the various threads of political, religious and sexual corruption together in a scene of spectacular perversion. In the original assembly this sequence immediately followed an act of deception by the king, who visits the carousing nuns of Loudun in disguise to see for himself the "miracle" of their alleged demonic possession. Handing Father Barre a holy relic which he claims to be a phial of Christ's own blood, the king watches in amusement as his gift swiftly drives the demons from the gibbering nuns before being revealed to be nothing but an empty box. Spurred to new heights of hysteria, the nuns batter Father Barre to the floor and unclothe a priest before charging the altar where hangs a vast statue of an anguished Christ. Tearing down the crucifix and laying it on the floor, the nuns proceed to engage in a maniacal ravaging of the statue, watched from on high by a masturbating Father Mignon whose breathless exertions are matched by a series of eye-popping crash-zooms from an overhead view of the blasphemous orgy.
Although the sequence sounds almost ludicrously over-the-top, its true meaning is revealed by the subtle intercutting of sombre shots of Father Grandier. Depicted on his return journey from Paris taking a humble roadside communion with his beloved Madeleine, Grandier - who is blamed for all this madness - is seen in almost dreamlike tranquillity breaking bread and blessing the communal wine amid the natural beauty of God's creation. Even for those of a particularly small-minded and prurient bent, it's impossible to view this sequence without appreciating the stark contrast between Grandier's private act of faith and the nuns' public charade of blasphemy. No wonder the Reverend Gene Phillips S.J., who has long taught The Devils at Loyola University in Chicago, considered the sequence to be justified when he viewed it in rough cut back in 1970, concluding that although it portrayed blasphemy, it was not in itself blasphemous.
Sadly, however, the Reverend Phillips was to be one of only a privileged few who were allowed to make up their own minds about the 'rape of Christ', since the sequence was slashed in its entirety from The Devils for reasons that are now cloaked in confusion. According to Russell, outgoing BBFC chief John Trevelyan had seen the movie in rough cut and made some unofficial suggestions for trims prior to submission to the censors. Russell clearly remembers Trevelyan, who had fought to get Women in Love through the board with its naked male wrestling intact, viewing the 'rape' and telling him the sequence would have to go in toto. "The point is," recalls Russell, "he had conceded on a number of other points and although I thought this sequence was important he felt strongly that the point had already been made, and no matter how much I argued he just said no."
Editor Mike Bradsell, however, insists that while Trevelyan may indeed have objected to this scene, the real problems came from the film's American financiers, who were simply appalled by what Russell had put on screen. Bradsell remembers very clearly the ill-fated screening of The Devils during which three US studio executives started muttering disconcertedly from the opening frames of the film, and in the middle of which Russell's associate producer Roy Baird suggested that they retire to a nearby pub since things "clearly weren't going well." Later, in a room at the Dorchester hotel, Russell recalls that, "They really let me have it." Cuts were promptly ordered, with the greatest objections being voiced about the 'rape of Christ', which Bradsell remembers being nixed in its entirety at the request (read demand) of the studio.
Whether it was the censor or the studio who had the final word remains unclear. Although Russell defers to Bradsell's memory for detail, it seems likely Trevelyan would have both seen and objected to the sequence, perhaps realising it was exactly the sort of material to which his colleagues at the BBFC would react with dismay. Certainly by the time The Devils was officially submitted to the censors in February 1971 the sequence had hit the cutting-room floor, and although a few fleeting, residual shots remained to trouble the BBFC (the sight of a nun spiralling naked from a rope, for instance), there is nothing in the board's records to suggest that the 'rape of Christ' was ever officially seen or rejected by the examiners. All that is certain is that this extraordinary sequence, which clocked in at between three and four minutes, was deftly excised by Bradsell, leaving Russell with a memory of "the reel of film, just lying there" before disappearing into oblivion, missing, believed destroyed.
It was in the knowledge of its probable destruction that I started searching for this sequence back in 1999, spurred on by Ken's vivid description of the piece and encouraged by recent unearthings such as that of the excised footage from The Exorcist which I'd been able to present for the first time in Nick Freand Jones' BBC documentary The Fear of God. Working with director Paul Joyce (whose documentaries on Oshima, Wenders, Roeg and Kubrick had earned great critical respect), I made a nuisance of myself in America, where we enlisted respected archivist Mike Arrick to make ultimately fruitless enquiries at the studio's Burbank vaults. Having drawn a blank, Paul and I turned our attention to the UK, where Ken was now convinced any surviving material would finally have come to rest. Initially the studio was tolerant of our badgerings, particularly since finding extra footage could facilitate a commercially viable reissue of the film. But when a final pleading request by us to check one outstanding item which was believed to be utterly innocuous in fact turned up a canister containing negative cuts of whole sequences deleted from The Devils, this enthusiasm began to wane.
Viewed in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks, these religiously controversial scenes (which include a bawdy pantomime of priests fornicating with nuns; a lengthy interlude of naked nuns at leisure in their convent in the presence of a large dog; an extended sequence of Vanessa Redgrave's Sister Jeanne kissing and caressing Grandier's charred bone which she then uses - off screen - as a dildo; and two entire assemblies of the 'rape of Christ') were once again deemed unfit for public consumption. Despite offers by Lucida Productions to reinstate this material into The Devils at its own cost with the assistance of editor Mike Bradsell, the studio balked, declaring the "distasteful tonality" of the material to be entirely out of step with current company policy. Once again, the Americans who had initially financed Russell's outlandish vision decreed that the director had gone too far, and chose to censor their own property. It was only after much complex legal negotiation that Channel 4 was granted the right to exhibit this material at its own risk, and even as I write, mere weeks from our projected transmission date, I am aware that this right may yet be rescinded and those sequences may yet remain unseen.
Whether or not Russell's extraordinary vision would be enhanced by the reinstatement of this recovered material is clearly a matter of personal opinion. Having viewed an assembly of this sequence which Bradsell had brilliantly orchestrated with found fragments of Peter Maxwell Davies' electrifying score, Russell declared himself to be "delighted" with the results and enthusiastic about the sequence's imminent restoration. As things currently stand, however, there is little chance that the film's original backers will sanction such an act, though the possibility of sublicensing the material to an independent distributor remains an option. For the moment, though, Russell's beautiful monster must remain where it has always been: caged within the confines of state and studio censorship, cast out of the catholic canon of mainstream cinema.