With its heady mixture of sex and religion, Ken Russell’s “The Devils” was one of the most controversial films ever produced.
It inspired waves of protests across the world when it opened in 1971 and ignited fierce critical debates about whether the British enfant terrible was a visionary or a shameless provocateur — or both.
However, the film, which was was ruthlessly edited by Warner Bros. in a futile attempt to stifle the backlash, is all but forgotten today. The original cut, which includes an orgiastic dream sequence involving nuns and an effigy of Jesus Christ, is no longer available, and the studio has never released “The Devils” on DVD domestically.
"They killed the key scene in the movie . . . it was glorious stuff,” Russell said.
In an attempt to rescue the film from the cinematic graveyard, film critic Richard Crouse has written “Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of ‘The Devils’”(ECW Press).
Drawing on interviews with the film’s cast and crew, the book chronicles the troubled production and release, as well as the turbulent lives and working styles of Russell and star Oliver Reed.
At the core of Crouse's account, however, is a compelling case that the film strives for and achieves masterpiece status.
"It still resonates with audiences," Crouse said. "It's a complicated film about the struggle between church and state and that's always timely. We still have religion and politics intertwined today. 'The Devils' is a cautionary story about the dangers of that relationship becoming too cozy."
Based partly on Aldous Huxley's novel "The Devils of Loudun" and a subsequent stage adaptation by John Whiting, Russell's film recounts the story of a radical Catholic priest (Reed) in 17th century France who is accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake. It also mixes in a group of sexually hysteric nuns, Vanessa Redgrave receiving a grotesque enema and complicated political intrigues involving King Louis XIII. Oh, and there's a grand inquisitor wearing a pair of John Lennon glasses.
Amazingly, and in part because the early '70s were a decade when envelope-pushing entertainment like "The French Connection" and "A Clockwork Orange" were connecting with audiences, Warner Bros. not only greenlit the film, it allowed Russell to realize his vision on a massive scale. The director built the biggest film set since the Elizabeth Taylor historical epic "Cleopatra" (1963) and the budget soared to the equivalent of roughly $70 million today.
"This was a huge film," Crouse said. "It was an anomaly, because it had a big budget, but it was challenging, uncomfortable and fascinating. Those kind of films don't get released today."
Alas, the best didn't pay off. At the time the film was released, the critical consensus was that Russell's cautionary tale was a garish provocation without much substance.
"It's a see-through movie composed of a lot of clanking, silly, melodramatic effects that, like rib-tickling, exhaust you without providing particular pleasure, to say nothing of enlightenment," Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times.
Pauline Kael, the New Yorker's acidic critic, was even more savage, writing, "Ken Russell doesn't report hysteria, he markets it."
The film bombed at the box office, and Warner Bros., hoping to tamp down the controversy, kept insisting on additional cuts to the film even as it was in release.
“Short of burning the entire film I had no choice," Russell said.
Not helping matters was the fact that Russell, who at one point in his native United Kingdom was listed as being more influential than the prime minister, was unable to get jobs in studio films throughout the 1980s and 1990s, causing him to fall into semi-obscurity.
Given the fact that he was nominated for an Oscar for "Women in Love," directed "The Who's Tommy" and helped launch the career of actress Glenda Jackson, his death in 2011 generated surprisingly modest attention.
"Guillermo loves the movie," Crouse said. "He told me he watched the movie, or at least part of it, at least once a month and he credits Russell as one of his favorite filmmakers."
"David Cronenberg, John Landis, Terry Gilliam are also fans," he added. "I think what they admire is his strength of vision. You can't watch five minutes without telling its a Russell film. This guy was a real storyteller with incredible visual flare."
Yet many of them have not seen the original cut of the film as Russell intended it to be shown, and even Crouse is uncertain whether Warner Bros. will take the risk of releasing a complete edition of the film on DVD or Blu-ray.
In particular, he doubts the studio is interested in restoring the "rape of Christ" sequence, which features an orgy set in a church involving naked nuns and a large crucifix.
"Forty one years later, that scene will still snap your head back," Crouse said. "Because it mixes sexuality with violence and religion, that's the reason the ban has lasted 40 years. Loads of movies have violent components or sexual or religious, but Russell wove them together. I'm not sure there would be protests in the street, but if they released it in its complete form there would be problems."
Instead it endures in mangled form, its disturbing pleasures available to those who seek it out online or on videotape, until the next revolution in filmmaking emerges to make Russell and his fellow hell-raisers seem tame by comparison.
For the record: An earlier version of this story falsely characterized the "rape of Christ" sequence as a sexual encounter between Redgrave and Reed, with the actor wearing Christ's crown of thrones. That is a separate fantasy scene in the film.