There’s a scene in Ken Russell’s long-controversial, rarely-screened-in-its-entirety film, The Devils, wherein Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) riotously exclaims, “Don’t look at me! Look at your city! If your city is destroyed, your freedom is destroyed also. If you would remain free men, fight. Fight them or become their slaves.” By the time this speech unfolds, we have seen Grandier become the victim of Otherness, a martyr to hypocrisy and the lies of men, and an image of what it means to push the limits of social acceptance. For a film that has been accused of various levels of indecency for over four decades – where The Devils now lacks in its ability to shock via its viscera or willingness to expose pubic hair to the masses, it manages to shock in its capacity to mirror both the ideology of the time in which it was produced, as well as our own. It’s not often that a film which takes place in the 17th century can be considered prescient.
The Devils, in title and controversy, implies a film that deals with the horrific and seems to welcome debate at every turn – yet its terrors are far more human than that. What is most troubling within the narrative of Russell’s film isn’t the chance that Grandier has consorted with Satan, or that nuns would strip fully nude and writhe sexually, but that a mass of people would believe the words of one man (or a group of politically-aligned men) without any sort of physical evidence to back it up. It’s a testament to the power of a stridently sex-negative, authoritarian, religion-citing people that brainwashing was as alive and well in the 1600s as it is now – with the current political climate in America bearing eerie similarity to that of the film.
The Devils earned its reputation (and subsequent censorship) due to imagery that could be considered sacrilegious and sexually explicit. However, at its core (and in the director-approved cut the BFI released on DVD), it never comes off as deliberately blasphemous, but feels like the work of someone deeply spiritual, as concerned with theology – and the corruption of it – as he was his fellow man. Its most notorious sequence, dubbed, “the rape of Christ,” involves a large crucifix co-opted for use in a group sexual act and is still not included on any publicly-available version of the film But the sequence – viewed apart from the film, or in the context of Mark Kermode’s documentary “Hell on Earth” – never reaches an element of blasphemy. Rather, it portrays a perversion of faith; a desecration of a religious symbol, void of any shunning of religion in itself, unlike sequences in largely released – and rarely censored – works of Satanic horror like The Exorcist or The Omen.
The Devils was released more than forty-five years ago now and has still yet to be given a proper theatrical or home video release through Warner Brothers. There has never been a legitimate statement from the company as to why, though there are plenty of rumors regarding the controversy of its release (including a promptly cancelled DVD release). It’s easy to blame Russell’s penchant for graphic content and its titular allegiance to sacrilege as the reason for its constant censorship, but watching it now in 2017 – removed from the politics of the era in which it was produced – it becomes an eerie reminder that governing bodies will always censor work which questions authority, religion, sexuality and/or carries any sort of political motivation. Russell’s film is still a shocking one –time has not tempered it a bit –but likely not for the reasons you remember or have been lead to believe, but for its ability to expose us to the dangers of groupthink.