Revisiting Ken Russell's film The Devils

Download Flash Player to view this content.

First aired on Fresh Air (21/10/12)

A controversial 1971 film that is rarely seen doesn't seem like an obvious subject for a book. But movie critic Richard Crouse's book about The Devils and its maverick director, Ken Russell, went into a second printing within days of its publication.

Crouse said he was surprised at the popularity of Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of The Devils, published by ECW Press. "I wrote a book about a movie that no one's seen, a film director that has been by and large forgotten, wrongfully, but forgotten," he said, adding that when he first conceived of the project, he'd thought, "If we sell this to 1,500 or so film geeks around the world, people like me, I'll be happy. And we blew through the first printing in about four days."

raising hell cover.jpg

Why write about such an obscure movie? Crouse explained that two years ago, he hosted a screening of the film at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto, and he invited director Ken Russell to take part in a Q&A as part of the event. His main motivation was that he wanted to see the film on the big screen, and to meet Russell. He didn't expect a big crowd. Instead, Crouse said, "We sold out in minutes, sold 950 tickets, right to the rafters, and the night of the event, I walked by and there's hundreds of people outside, trying to get tickets and they can't." Russell was 82 at the time. When he was introduced, and walked down the aisle to the front of the stage, he was cheered and applauded wildly. The reception made Crouse think that there might be an audience for a book.

Russell had a reputation for being difficult and eccentric -- "wonderfully eccentric," was how Crouse put it. They had dinner before the event, and Russell didn't say a word in response to Crouse's stories, which unnerved him so much that he went back over to the theatre without finishing dinner.

But when Crouse sat down to interview Russell onstage, things went well. "He was funny and a little bit crabby and eccentric, and just all the things you would imagine Ken Russell to be by watching his films."

Russell had wanted to be a ballet dancer, and he actually studied ballet. "By the time he was about 21, he'd actually worked professionally once or twice as a dancer but he realized that his career was going to have no kind of longevity, he was already too old to make a go of it. So he picked up a camera, something he'd always been interested in," Crouse explained. He became a photographer, and eventually started making short films, which led to working for the BBC. His main job was making documentaries about classical music composers, but he reinvented the form. "He introduced the idea of using different actors to play the same character over various times in their character's lives, he introduced re-enactments, all sorts of things that had never been seen before," Crouse said.

Russell's feature film career wasn't successful straight away, but he made his mark with Women in Love, which is now considered a classic. At the time, it was controversial because of its scene of Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestling naked. It was the first full frontal nudity of a man on screen.

The Devils is based on an actual historical event that took place in 17th-century France. It's been the subject of a play, a book by Aldous Huxley and an opera. It has been well-documented, according to Crouse. "What Ken Russell did was visualize it, and I think that's where the problem was."

The film is about the power struggle between Father Grandier, a priest who leads a scandalous life -- he's married, but chases after women -- but is loved by his parishioners, and Cardinal Richelieu, who is trying to unite France as a Roman Catholic country. There's a nun, Sister Jeanne of the Angels, who's been put in the convent by her family because she's disfigured. She's delusional, and thinks that Grandier is in love with her and comes to her at night as a demon and makes love to her. Richelieu sees the story as an opportunity to lead a witch hunt against Grandier. "It's a fascinating, complicated, rich story about politics and religion, and the intersection of them, and what happens when they meet," Crouse said.

It was an era when filmmakers were pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable, with films like Straw Dogs, and A Clockwork Orange. But The Devils was reviled. It was banned in a number of countries, and was heavily edited before being released in others. "What Russell did here, the thing that I think blows people's minds about this movie, was that there had been violent movies before The Devils, certainly, there had been taboos broken about sexuality," Crouse said. "There had been religious movies made, forever. What he did was bundle them all together in one film. It's still, to this day, 40 years later, not done that often."

A heavily edited version of the movie is available to rent, and Crouse thinks what it has to say about corruption and morality is still relevant. "In a lot of ways the movie is more timely today than it was in 1971 when it was made," he said. "Religion is such a big issue now in politics. To an extent it always has been. But there's been ebbs and flows to it and we happen to be in the high tide of it right now. And I think that The Devils is a movie that makes some really interesting comments on it."

Crouse also feels that Russell doesn't deserve to be forgotten. "The Devils is his masterpiece. It is a movie that is brilliant in its conception and its execution, and Guillermo del Toro told me that there is not a filmmaker alive that wouldn't envy the career of Ken Russell, in the sense of the themes that he was able to develop over the course of his entire career, from first movie to last," Crouse said. "He is a very significant filmmaker, and because he was a slightly difficult guy, because he was eccentric, because he really wanted to push the envelope, the studios shut him out. And when you can't get money to make your movies, it's hard to keep your name out there, and he's been forgotten about. But go back and get Altered States, The Devils, all those movies, and have another look at them because they're really worth seeing."

Related link: