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Devils, The: Special Edition

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
1971
Studio: 
BFI
Genre: 
Cult
Format: 
DVD
Region: 
2 PAL
Aspect Ratio: 
2.35:1
Directed by: 
Ken Russell
Cast: 
Vanessa Redgrave
Oliver Reed
Dudley Simpson
Gemma Jones
Murray Melvin
Movie: 
5
Extras: 
5
Bottom Line: 
5
Video: 
Click to Play

This review contains multiple spoilers throughout!

The mood of radicalism and unfettered free thinking that was the cultural inheritance of the 1960s gradually built up a tsunami force that  finally hit British cinema full square in 1971, leaving it reeling to a triple whammy of blows from three controversial major studio releases, each testing the BBFC’s then-new film classification system (raising the age of admittance to ‘X’ certificate films from 16 to 18) to the very limits of its capacity to resist what now seemed to some like an irresistible flood of violence, sex and ‘permissiveness’ that was infiltrating the mainstream. Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”, Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” and Ken Russell’s “The Devils” all came out within a year of each other to a chorus of media outrage, local council bannings and/or torturous censorship problems. Indeed, in “The Devils” case, all three. Religious groups were predictably outraged; tabloids filled their pages with overheated accounts by young female film extras of the supposedly tawdry goings-on on Ken Russell’s set; and the film was all but butchered and subjected to (what now reads as) the most heartbreakingly extreme censure, not just from the affable, always courteous  John Trevelyan at the BBFC (who promptly retired upon passing a heavily censored cut, leaving his unsuspecting successor Steven Murphy to pick up all the flack), but from apoplectic and deeply offended executives at the film’s distributors, Warner Brothers, too -- some of whom went on to vent their fury directly at the puzzled director after the first studio screening of Russell’s original, even more extreme, cut; expressing their deep disgust at being forced to view  such a ‘blasphemous, disgusting piece of shit’.

While “Straw Dogs” and “A Clockwork Orange” have both largely come out the other side of their individual controversies with their reputations as cinematic masterpieces assured, and are now freely available for home viewing in their uncut forms, “The Devils” remains mired in controversy to this day. Russell’s vividly imaginative portrait of the true events which took place in the small fortified town of Loudun in Poitiers, France, in the year 1634, is likely to remain shocking to many, even though the original film, in the form in which Russell at the time submitted it to BBFC secretary John Trevelyan in early 1971, was way more extreme than even the X certificate version finally released to British cinemas later that year then quickly withdrawn and replaced with the even more radically neutered R rated American cut – which, from then on, became the only version available anywhere for several decades. Even the partially restored ‘director’s cut’ first screened in the presence of Ken Russell at the National Film Theatre in 2004 and at only a handful of film festivals in the years since, which re-integrated some of the most controversial footage taken from the middle and end of the film (once believed to have been lost for good until the investigations of British film critic and fan of the film, Mark Kermode), by all accounts still doesn’t recapture the full cumulative force of what Russell originally submitted.

Even so, even that version, with its hyperbolic and salacious-sounding ‘rape of Christ’ sequence now intact, remains unseen by anyone who wasn’t there to witness it at these infrequent public screenings: to this day Warner Brothers refuse to authorise the release of that 2004 version on DVD. What we do have instead though, with this, the BFI’s typically comprehensive new two-disc DVD package, is the first official release of that X certificate version originally distributed to British cinemas back in 1971. This DVD now becomes, then, the longest version of the film to be officially released for home viewing anywhere in the world. Watching it, after reading from the accompanying booklet the meticulously catalogued list of cuts and trims and re-orderings Russell was forced to make in order to even come near complying with the objections of both the BBFC and Warner Brothers back then, it’s amazing to think that the film managed to survive in a form that can still confidently be proclaimed a masterpiece. But masterpiece it most assuredly is – and the crowning filmmaking achievement of its director Ken Russell (who died last year, just as this release was being prepared)  and his provocative,  idiosyncratic brand of cinematic flamboyance.

Russell was brought to the material through an initial acquaintance with John Whiting’s 1960 stage play, from which he adapted much of his screenplay’s dialogue. But its source material, Aldous Huxley’s 1952 non-fiction narrative history, “The Devils of Loudun”, was what really drove him to write the film in one three week burst of inspiration sustained by the musical accompaniment of Sergei Prokofiev’s opera ‘The Fiery Angel’ (which itself was based on a novel about demonic possession).  With this bizarre true tale of 17th century religious intrigue, political manoeuvring and sexual repression as his subject matter, culminating in an outbreak of supposed mass hysteria that saw a series of public exorcisms performed on an order of enclosed Ursuline nuns in 1634 with the result that the local parish priest, Father Urbain Grandier, was accused by their testimony of consorting with the Devil and later burned to death at the stake in the centre of the town (now apparently a car park!), Russell concocted a wild, imaginatively florid rendering of the period -- full of macabre details gleaned from Huxley’s text, but also filtered through the artistic sensibility of his collaborators, principally his set designer Derek Jarman.

Although its notoriety is usually cast in terms of the film being a lot of blasphemous bother about sexually unstable nuns -- led by a hunchbacked Vanessa Redgrave no less! -- doing naughty things behind convent walls, “The Devils” embraced the nature of the freedom of its era, politically and culturally, like few other films had before or since in terms of picking up on the decade’s taste for revelling in sheer bawdy excessiveness, and cutting loose from the previous generation’s sense of propriety. In a way “The Devils” was the ultimate product of the culture of late sixties/early seventies England (the sixties model Twiggy and her impresario boyfriend Justin de Villeneuve can even be spotted in the background at one point during the lead up to the nuns’ orgy sequence) and embodied the decade’s heady mix of radical political and social critique, combining them with a revolutionary zeal that was deliberately contrived to shock the staid with its sly, catty pantomime humour and an unashamedly kitsch (bad) taste for dressing up in crazy ‘glam’ outfits. But at the same time, Russell was clearly being sincere in the text of a letter that was sent to John Trevelyan during the interminable wrangling that went on in the early months of 1971 about how much of his vision was going to have to hit the cutting room floor, in which he stated: ‘what I set out to do was to make a deeply felt religious statement – and I believe that despite the fact I have butchered the film at your bidding far and away beyond anything I dreamed of [ …] what remains still just about retains my intentions – albeit in a watered down version’.  

The key point is that Ken Russell’s way of making ‘a deeply felt religious statement’ was so completely unlike anyone else’s way of doing so that the film offended many critics’ sense of decorum as much as their sense of decency. On first viewing, one is overawed still by the sheer sensory overload of conflicting stylistic quirks it displays. The expected business of any prestige period film -- the present-and-correct, beautiful and exquisitely composed cinemascope cinematography; awe inspiring sets and flamboyant, detailed period costuming – are here being put in the service of a sensibility that seems quite at home, and to positively revel in, sacrificing historical verisimilitude for macabre effect whenever possible: many of the film’s known historical personages are rendered deliberately as strangely mannered caricatures; Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue), for instance, becomes a scheming scarlet-robed cripple escorted by two statuesque nun bodyguards who silently wheel him about like extras from a Robert Palmer video, first in a throne-shaped wheelchair and later on an upright trolley; while Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) is imagined as an androgynous queen, first seen staging his own gloriously camp theatre piece in front of a court made up of bewigged dandies and chattering transvestites, and performing for the Cardinal’s entourage as a gaudy version of Botticelli’s Venus -- executing fay little dance steps (at which his sycophantic audience erupt in exclamations of feigned delight), near-naked apart from a ‘bra’ made of clam shells, with false mascara-caked eyelashes and gold lipstick to match his huge crown and gold slippers. Meanwhile, the apparent historical accuracy of Georgina Hale’s ugly white face paint and green lipstick is somewhat overshadowed by the blatant tan lines left from a decidedly unhistorical 20th century brassiere, that can clearly be seen when she’s shown naked at one point with Oliver Reed’s womanising priest, Grandier.

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Throughout the film, horror is mixed with high farce in equal measure and the most emotionally wrought sequence might be pierced at any moment by an outburst of Russell’s variety of ludicrous black humour: a tart King Louis is pictured casually dispatching Huguenots that have been dressed as giant blackbirds, released from a gilded cage and forced to run for their lives in front of an audience across a picturesque lawn while he takes musket shots at them. Meanwhile, Redgrave’s hunchbacked Sister Jeanne often expresses her deranged erotic obsession with Oliver Reed’s Grandier through expressionistic silent movie acting -- all exaggerated movements and wild eyed madness; there’s never a moment when you aren’t aware of what’s really going on in her mind, even when she’s not having ecstatic visions of Grandier as Christ in which lust and religious devotion have become irreparably confused …  she can’t even keep a hold of the keys to the gates of her enclosed order without furtively fingering them in the most suggestive of manners!

Elsewhere, the ravages of the plague form an everyday backdrop of death against which a pair of cackling, leering quack medics (Brian Murphy and Andrew Faulds) are able to ply their trade with cures that seem more designed to gratify their sadistic pleasures than ease the suffering of the populace. Russell lards the screen lovingly throughout with examples of the period’s taste for casual cruelty and its acceptance of the imminence of painful death – the town is dotted with vast lime pits full of mouldering plague-ridden bodies, the stench occluded by the surrounding cauldrons of incense. Richelieu and Louis’s military henchman Baron de Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton) oversees the workings of giant battering rams sent to destroy Loudun’s fortified defences and powered by armies of ragged slaves tramping giant wooden treadmills; while the town’s fortifications are them-selves surrounded by wheels, perched on top of great poles that spin in the wind like windmills. Only when the camera gives us a close-up do we notice the human remains which are contorted upon them -- maggots spilling from their every orifice!  Even at the high-point of an already emotional and terrifying climax in which Oliver Reed gives the most moving, electrifying performance of his career, Russell can’t resist throwing in an outrageous cut-away in which one of Grandier’s triumphant tormentors holds up the victimised priest’s illegitimate baby to him and hisses ‘it’s not everyday baby sees daddy burned at the stake!’

In a Ken Russell movie, everything (to paraphrase Spinal Tap) is always turned up to eleven!

Critics pounced on this cocktail of extreme imagery, over-the-top acting, highly stylised & grandiose sets and sly humour to denounce the film as a piece of historically inaccurate fiction, even though many of the details they picked out for the most sustained criticism had invariably been taken by Russell directly from Huxley’s meticulously researched book. There is one obvious element of the film which is clearly unhistorical though, and unashamedly so: Derek Jarman’s magnificent, stark white sets blatantly have no connection to the 17th century town in France they’re meant to portray. The artist -- then recently graduated from Slade School of Fine Art -- had never designed sets for a film before, although he had worked in that capacity on a number of theatre productions; Jarman’s work for “The Devils” though is still widely regarded as being some of the finest set design ever to grace a British-made film. Constructed on the back lot at Pinewood, the entire town of Loudun was created by Jarman in what was then the largest free standing construction at the studios since “Cleopatra” in 1964.  He decided, with Russell’s approval, to take an abstract approach rather than to try to recreate the actual town as it would have existed in the sixteen-hundreds. Inspired by the stark look of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1927) and by the futuristic, geometric art deco of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927), Jarman set about creating a city that exhibited a postmodern melange of differing architectural styles incorporating everything from neoclassical influences to vast exterior stairways that looked more like Babylonian ziggurats, everything was painted a blanket shade of white, as were the city’s fortified walls which were made up of towering geometric blocks and arches.

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His interiors were equally radical and avant-garde: the vast resources of the church and state are represented by a cavernous church archive that looks more like a prison set -- all gangways and metal platforms and huge metal gates; the inside of his reconstruction of Sainte Croix Cathedral is painted entirely in matt black; and, most striking of all and inspired by a sentence Russell picked out in Huxley’s book about Sister Jeanne’s exorcism being ‘like a rape in a public lavatory’, the enclosed Ursuline convent is a series of chambers decked out entirely in white tiles, which indeed make it look as though it’s either an swimming baths or a public convenience, entirely without windows apart from tiny barred openings set high up in the walls, which open out at ground level with the street outside, and from which Sister Jeanne can be glimpsed desperately trying to catch sight of Father Grandier, the priest who has become the subject of her repressed desires.        

Despite the extremity of the artistic licence taken with such an approach to the realisation of the settings, Jarman’s sets are indicative of the thinking behind Russell’s more general atitude to the content of the film. He wanted the viewer to experience the city and the events within it with the same immediacy and from the same point of view as the people who would have lived there at the time, rather than from the cosy, comfortable position of historical hindsight that is the territory occupied by most period drama. The story is taking place against a backdrop of feudalism; France is still largely a collection of autonomous, self-governing cities with their own armies and governor nobles defending fortified walls. In order to further his campaign against protestant uprisings (while also extending the power of the Catholic Church), Cardinal Richelieu has joined forces with the state in the form of King Louis with a plan to bring all the cities under central control, knocking down the fortified walls and thus also denying the protestant inhabitants refuge from the state’s periodic purges. The mixed Protestant and Catholic inhabitants of Loudun, meanwhile, are proud of their modern city and by casting it as an awesome metropolis of his and Jarman’s own imaginations, Russell is able to recreate a sense of how it might have felt to live within these city walls, a sense which is informed more by our own notions of modernity than by a strictly historical recreation of the true appearance of the city at the time of the events depicted.

 In the same way, the strange atmosphere induced by the white tiles and echo-laden chambers of the convent creates a pertinent sense of claustrophobic suppression of female sexuality, cloaked by the false serenity and ‘purity’ that’s so ironically signified by the unforgiving starkness of these very surroundings. With the film’s macabre rendering of mass hysteria in the form of demented, overwrought characterisations and in its cavalcade of images of physical deformity and defiled spirituality, Russell sets out a story that’s all about not just how the spiritual can be corrupted and tainted by the lust for earthly power and by pursuit of the physical pleasures, but also how complete denial of the physical world can also lead to warped and dysfunctional spirituality. In helping the king pursue his nationalistic designs against the country’s disparate nobles, Richelieu is debasing the church with cheap political concerns centred on the wielding of power. Father Grandier (Oliver Reed), meanwhile, is also initially portrayed as a man who has brought his faith into disrepute with his incessant philandering, resulting in his making the daughter of the King’s solicitor (played by Georgina Hale) pregnant as the film opens. After the death of Loudun’s governor -- struck down by the plague that’s running rife through the area -- Richelieu sends his envoy Baron Jean de Laubardemont into the town, charged with the job of knocking down the city walls. Grandier, backed by the town’s private army, forces him to abandon such plans. Having now made powerful enemies of the Church as well as some extremely well-connected people inside the king’s court, Grandier becomes the subject of a conspiracy to discredit him, but the plan only comes to fruition after the priest falls in love with one of the nurses, Madeleine De Brou (Gemma Jones), who regularly helps him attend to the victims ravaged by the horrors of the plague.

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Grandier’s feelings for Madeleine ignite – finally -- his faltering faith for real; her love he interprets as giving him a glimpse at last, and for the first time, of God’s grace. But when word gets back to the deformed Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) at the nearby nuns’ enclosed order that Loudun’s priest has secretly married his love in a self-conducted ceremony, her lust and jealousy leads her to attribute her frequent erotic seizures (in which her contemplative adoration of the Christ figure in his suffering on the cross becomes mixed up with sexual longing for Grandier, to create frenzied sexualized fantasy visions of the wounds of a crucified Christ who has the face of the man she coverts), Jeanne implicates Grandier as a sorcerer during her confession to the priest’s jealous rival, Father Mignon (Murray Melvin), claiming he has used witchcraft on her and consorts with demons. When news gets back to Laubardemont and Trincant -- the father of the girl Grandier had earlier made pregnant (John Woodville), the plotters bide their time, waiting until Grandier is away petitioning the king to have Loudun’s walls remain intact in order to launch a public investigation into the priest’s alleged diabolism.

The politicians engage an ostentatious and fanatical Church exorcist called Father Barre (Michael Gothard) to conduct the interrogation of Sister Jeanne and oversee her exorcism at the convent. This is where Russell’s flamboyant stylisation and full-on approach got him into so much trouble with the critics of the day, even though the details of Sister Jeanne’s ordeal at the hands of her inquisitors -- involving the likes of enforced enemas, administered with rather fierce-looking metal hypodermics -- were taken directly from Aldus Huxley’s account of the proceedings. Nevertheless Gothard’s Father Barre is characterised as a sort of seventies rock star inquisitor, sporting Jagger-esque long ‘hippy’ hair and John Lennon granny glasses -- a false idol who distracts the people of Loudun with his show trials and cynically motivated, self-aggrandising showboating. Having got an increasingly deranged Sister Jeanne to implicate the rest of her order in the supposedly demonic goings on, the young nuns -- most of them unwilling to be there in the first place --  are blackmailed and brainwashed into acting out a series of increasingly outlandish and grotesque public cavortings in the supposed sacred confines of Loudun cathedral, for the entertainment of the townsfolk who soon turn up to watch the regular daily spectacle of abasement.

It was in the midst of this centrepiece sequence that Russell originally placed the infamous ‘rape of Christ’ sequence, in which the nuns of Loudun, encouraged by the licence to act out their every fantasy through the sanction gained from being thought officially ‘possessed’, eventually defile their own religion by tearing down the cathedral’s statue of Jesus and performing lewd sexual acts upon it.  The scene would have been intercut with Father Grandier and Madeline solemnly conducting mass by a lake on their way back to Loudun having been fooled into believing their mission to save their city walls has been a success. The purity and humble simplicity of Grandier’s renewed faith, brought about by the earthly love of a woman but defined by the performance of a traditional Catholic ritual in natural surroundings, and its contrast with the debased, corrupted nature of the official Church in its obsession  with politics and power and its doctrinaire suppression of sexuality, highlights Russell’s liberal social message and his views on the mixing of church and state, but also the ambivalence of a Catholic filmmaker whose work was both a product of the cultural liberalism of the era but also expressive of a more theologically inclined viewpoint that was suspicious of the explosion in secular popular culture and a late-sixties media that was becoming ever more saturated in distracting images of excess.

The whole film is itself a showy, throbbing, gaudy extravaganza of cinematic outrageousness, with exquisite cinematography and lighting by David Watkin, Shirley Russell’s magnificent costumes, Jarman and Christopher Hobbs’ design work, and a memorably electrifying score by Peter Maxwell Davies -- a serious modern composer not normally associated with film music before this or since, but who’s uncompromising atonal score perfectly suited the fervid atmosphere in which Russell conjures sombre, melancholy seriousness one minute and irreverent, arch humour the next in equal measure, both somehow irrevocably conjoined thanks in no small part to editor Michael Bradsell, whose skill in saving the film’s complexities and subtleties of meaning despite the censor’s scissors often seem near miraculous. The most controversial sequences of the film depict a populace that’s seduced by a debasing public spectacle cynically contrived by the authorities of Church and State with the intention of making it forget and neglect what’s most important to it – its freedom and the city’s autonomy -- and to tempt the people into revelling in cheap sensation; a theatre of cruelty designed to appeal to its lowest instincts. It is Russell’s contention (following Huxley’s interpretation) that the rituals of public exorcism which took place in Loudun at the time were akin to theatrical performances, as much so as the king’s camp rendering of the birth of Venus at the very start of the film; and even as Grandier’s horrific death is staged in the town square as a public spectacle, the past exorcisms are already being recreated in the background for a mummers play, in which a travelling troupe of theatricals can be seen cross-dressed as nuns and raising their habits to reveal simulated cloth genitals!

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Indeed the whole movie is utterly suffused with images of performance, spectacle and ritual, and plays off the resulting tensions between possible competing interpretations of them based in either notions of earthly desire or spiritual contemplation of the divine. The sombre religious funeral procession led by Grandier for Loudun’s former governor is meant to be an expression of profound reverence but in fact provokes the confined, hunchbacked Sister Jeanne into spasms of sexual longing, which eventually results in the pollution of her faith through years of denial. Similarly, the sincerity and beauty of the marriage ceremony conducted by Grandier for himself and Madeline is furtively witnessed by the conniving apothecaries, who later use it as evidence of the priest’s satanic perversion. In a way, the Sandro Botticelli painting which provides King Louis XIII with the symbolic means of cementing his partnership with Cardinal Richelieu and the forces of the Church in the opening moments of the film, also expresses the ambiguous and multifarious meanings which can be simultaneously contained by images of beauty in ritual or performance, for the Roman goddess Venus represents at once both fertility and sexuality but also more rarefied notions of love. Neoplatonic interpretations of the painting ‘The Birth of Venus’ hold that contemplation of the goddess’s physical beauty is capable of arousing also appreciation of a more refined spiritual beauty – which is what happens to Grandier and Madeline midway through the film – but the King’s kitsch staging of Botticelli’s masterpiece is followed by the corruption of those supposedly most attuned to spiritual contemplation, precisely because they are denied the possibility of human love.

But the film’s own position as a highly stylised framework for the representation of such matters, betrays Russell’s own morbid Catholic religious urges through its obsessive cataloguing of images of flagellating and masturbating nuns and an increasingly Christ-like representation of Grandier, shown becoming more and more ‘holy’ with each example of grotesque medieval torture visited upon him  in the latter half of the film, all of it culminating in a typically histrionic burning at the stake (consisting of some truly extraordinary make-up effects by Charles Parker) whereby the innocent priest is shown blistering and finally being charred  to a crisp in front of a cackling crowd of sensation-seekers as the walls of the city are brought down by the King’s forces, now with nobody even noticing in the jubilant melee.

The film is clearly one which is imbued with the Catholicism of its creator, albeit of an unorthodox liberal, kind; and like so many other films with their roots in Catholicism (“A Clockwork Orange”, “The Exorcist”), it’s only really the fact that Russell, as a practicing Catholic, knows exactly which buttons to press for maximum effect that it was prone to causing such a fuss among the religiously minded or socially conservative types who doubtless will be equally dismayed to see it released today, even if the original unexpurgated version still remains confined to Warner Brothers’ vaults, apart from fleeting film festival appearances. This ‘X’ version still retains the director’s intentions and despite being ‘watered down’, it’s undeniably a powerful, affecting piece of work. Reed’s performance is surely one of his best, though he’s joined by a cast who are frequently required to go so far over the top it makes him seem like a paragon of theatrical understatement. The film is presented here in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and looks excellent (this film would be spectacular in HD, if such a version should ever see the light of day!). The mono 2.0 audio is also clear and free of distortion.

The BFI have worked to make this 2-disc DVD edition the ultimate presentation of “The Devils” until such time as the restored director’s cut is allowed to be more generally seen. Mark Kermode kicks off proceedings with a two-minute introduction which also acts as a tribute to the late Ken Russell. Kermode is perhaps the biggest champion of what he believes to be Russell’s greatest film, and is consequently all over the majority of the extras here. He moderates an excellent commentary, recorded in 2004, on which he is joined by the director himself, the film’s editor Michael Bradsell, and Paul Joyce -- the producer and director of the 2002 documentary about the making of “The Devils”, “Hell on Earth”. Russell proves to be in ebullient mood here, as he is throughout most of the extras, and talks about his attempt to capture the truth of the period and the events being depicted without reining in his artistic vision. Disc one also includes UK and US trailers and a short black and white amateur film made by Russell in 1958 – the piece which got him his job at the BBC, where he was responsible for a highly regarded series of films made for the “Monitor” arts strand about the lives of the great composers. This is a less controversial take on religion, made soon after both Ken and his wife Shirley Russell (who also provides costumes here) converted to Catholicism. Told through fairy tale-like narration and music set to silent images, it’s the story of a little girl (Mercedes Quadros) who steals some angel wings she is set to wear in her school play, because she wants to show them off at home. They promptly get ruined by her naughty brother, and the girl sets off on a quirky quest across late-fifties London to find a new pair.

Over on disc Two we find Paul Joyce’s 48 minute documentary “Hell on Earth: The Desecration & Resurrection of The Devils”  in which just about anyone who was ever involved with the film appears on screen to talk about it, including many of the extras who played the naked possessed nuns in some of the more risqué sequences. As well as a Catholic scholar, the film critics who rubbished the film at the time (and now look a little sheepish about that fact) and even a BBFC examiner who recommended that it might not be suitable to be passed at all, appear. The documentary reunites the cast for a screening of the-then newly discovered ‘rape of Christ’ footage in Ken Russell’s tiny editing room at his home. Once again presented by (a slightly younger-looking) Mark Kermode, this film manages to cram in just about every major piece of salient information there is on the film, including the fact that Oliver Reed’s eyebrows were insured for a million dollars! In one memorable sequence, when asked if his depiction of the antics of the Loudun nuns might have been just a little over-the-top, Russell responds that, on the contrary, the reality could have been much worse and that some of the exorcisms might well have involved a donkey … ‘although,’ he notes, ‘ I think it was a Catholic donkey!’

It’s hard to believe this affable old man with snow white hair, seen puttering about his garden while tossing slices of white bread to a robin, could be responsible for making possibly the most incendiary British film of the 1970s but another documentary, ironically made by Warner Brothers during the film’s production in 1971, takes us right back to that period, where the younger Russell is seen giving perhaps the most in-depth deliberations on his intentions behind the work anywhere on the discs. There’s also behind-the-scenes footage of the director working with Oliver Reed and Michael Gothard on the burning scene at the climax of the film, and some terrific footage shot during Peter Maxwell Davies’ recording of his cacophonous score, complete with Russell joining in with some rather un-rigorous ‘conducting’ of his own! A previously unseen eight minutes of 8mm cine-film shot by Michael Bradsell for his own use reveals behind-the-scenes footage taken during the construction of the exterior sets on the Pinewood back lot, plus some footage captured in Pinewood gardens, where the scenes with King Louis’ shooting games were filmed. Finally, 12 minutes of a Q & A between Ken Russell and Mark Kermode are included, filmed after a rare screening of the restored director’s cut at the NFT in 2004.

That’s not all of course. This being a BFI release, there’s also a colour booklet included with the set that is packed with some very worthwhile articles. There’s Mark Kermode’s (of course!) concise, authoritative film notes; an extremely engrossing overview by Craig Lapper (a senior examiner at the BBFC) of the censorship controversy and just what was cut and from where, and when; Sam Ashby provides an informative article on Derek Jarman and his set design work for the film; and editor Michael Bradsell writes movingly about his working relationship with Ken Russell. The full credits for the main film and all of the supplementary features are included along with biographies for Ken Russell, Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave, plus numerous colour and black and white production stills and behind-the-scenes shots.

This is an excellent release that fully does justice to what is one of the greatest British-made films of all time. It comes with my highest recommendation.

Read more from Black Gloves at Nothing But The Night!

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