The X rating is a double edged sword. For adult films, the X is a badge of honor; it’s the rating for which they strive. For a mainstream film, it can be the kiss of death. There have been several mainstream films that have gone on to great success, both critical and commercial, despite being initially given an X rating. Classics like Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead began their cinematic lives with X ratings. John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy even won the best picture Oscar in 1969 with an X. But not all mainstream X films are so lucky; in 1971, writer/director Ken Russell (Tommy, Altered States) made The Devils, a film which many consider to be the best picture of the director’s career. Despite heavy editing, it was slapped with an X rating and, therefore, Russell’s original vision of The Devils has never been properly released.
The Devils takes place in the city of Loudun, France, during the 17th century. The governor of Loudun has just died, and the people look to their popular priest, Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed from The Brood and Burnt Offerings), for guidance. As highly regarded as he is, Grandier does have one fatal flaw; his weakness is his attraction to the opposite sex. Grandier is already embroiled in a sex scandal with an underage girl when he meets a woman named Madeline (Gemma Jones from Paperhouse) with whom he falls in love. The couple weds, and the marriage enrages a hunchbacked nun named Sister Jeanne (Agatha’s Vanessa Redgrave). Sister Jeanne is herself in love with Grandier, and she jealously accuses the priest of possessing her through witchcraft. The Catholic Church sends a pair of priests, Father Pierre Barre (Michael Gothard from Lifeforce) and Father Mignon (Ghost Story’s Murray Melvin), to Loudon to investigate, and they charge Grandier with the crime of being a witch. Knowing that he is not guilty, Grandier tries to maintain his innocence without sacrificing the rest of his congregation.
Ken Russell based his screenplay for The Devils on the play of the same name by John Whiting (PT Raiders), which was loosely based on the book The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley (who also wrote Brave New World). While the movie most likely takes several liberties with the true story, both the source material and Russell’s film are based on an actual case called the “Loudon Possessions,” and Urbain Grandier was a real French Catholic priest who was burned at the stake after being convicted of practicing witchcraft in 1634. As with any movie dealing with religious themes, The Devils was already controversial; Russell’s exploitative treatment of the ideas simply added fuel to the fire.
Both the British and American ratings boards had issues with Russell’s first cut of The Devils, and the director had to censor it heavily in order to even be given the X that it finally received. Two scenes in particular were excised, only existing today in expensive bootleg editions of the film. One scene, legendarily known as the “rape of Christ” scene, shows a group of half naked nuns pulling down a statue of Jesus Christ and rubbing their bodies all over it. Another scene shows Sister Jeanne masturbating with an object that should not be used for such a purpose (to reveal the object would be a spoiler – if you must know, Google it). It’s clear that Ken Russell was trying to make waves with The Devils; he just took it too far for the ratings board’s comfort.
Even with the reluctant cuts, The Devils is packed with plenty of sacrilegious imagery. Although the statue of Christ scene was taken out, there is still no shortage of naked nuns who have orgies while being possessed by demons. Sister Jeanne also can be seen doing her share of pleasuring herself, even without her edited prop. Not all of the explicit content is religiously oriented; Grandier does a bit of sexual frolicking with non-nuns, and there is a torture segment involving his legs that makes the hobbling scene from Misery look like a puppet show. It may not have been what Ken Russell had initially envisioned, but the version of The Devils that was finally shown in its limited release was plenty graphic without all of the offending blasphemy.
Controversy aside, The Devils is still an impressive film. Ken Russell coaxes amazing, over-the-top performances full of fire and brimstone out of his core cast, especially Oliver Reed, Vanessa Redgrave, and Michael Gothard. The beautiful sets were designed by Derek Jarman (Savage Messiah) and decorated painstakingly by Robert Cartwright (The Elephant Man), while the exquisite period costumes were done by Shirley Russell (Reds). Cinematographer David Watkin (who would go on to win an Oscar for Out of Africa) practically steals the show, with every shot tastefully composed and flawlessly executed. Throw in the suitably oddball score by Peter Maxwell Davies (The Boy Friend) and it’s no wonder that The Devils is considered by many to be Ken Russell’s finest hour as a filmmaker.
In a world where films like Cannibal Holocaust, I Spit on Your Grave, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (all initially given X ratings) are readily available to anyone anywhere, The Devils has to be bootlegged or imported. That’s a shame because, unfortunately, collectors and fans alike have to settle for bad transfers or butchered versions of a very beautiful film.