Last week I had the privilege to see Ken Russell’s The Devils on 35mm, thanks to the good people at Beyond Fest here in Los Angeles. It was my second time seeing the film on the big screen and it had even more secrets for me to uncover and more depravity for me to relish this time. It’s a luscious movie, perhaps the fleshliest of Russell’s very fleshly films, and it’s a true masterpiece, the work of extraordinary artists working at the peak of their powers. It is a movie that every film lover should see, but thanks to the machinations of Warner Bros it is exceedingly difficult for American film lovers to get their hands on the movie.
Perhaps the only thing more insane than Warner Bros’ insistence on hiding the film from American audiences is the fact that Warner Bros paid to make the movie in the first place. Based on Aldous Huxley’s non-fiction book The Devils of Loudon, Russell’s film is about mass hysteria and the way the ruling class takes advantage of mob mentality to destroy its enemies. It’s about the most basic human experiences - love, faith, jealousy, lust, greed - and it’s about the larger ways society goes mad and how religion can facilitate that. The film was beset with controversy from the very start, with the British Board of Film Censors demanded that Russell make trims to his film, but even before he could do that the studio yanked out two entire sequences - one where a crowd of raving naked nuns pulls a giant crucifix off the wall and violently fucks the figure upon it, rubbing the nails that hold his hand to the cross against their crotches, rubbing up against his loincloth, writhing on his face. That sequence is famously known as The Rape of Christ. The other censored sequence has Vanessa Redgrave masturbating with a burnt human femur bone. I have never seen the masturbation scene, but I have seen The Rape of Christ and it is one of the most incredible, over the top and shocking sequences I have ever experienced. It isn’t that it’s particularly graphic - although there is a ton of explicit nudity - but rather that what you’re seeing is so obviously, insanely blasphemous and frankly demonic that you understand why the studio freaked out about it.
The Devils was released in 1971 with those trims made for UK audiences. To get an R rating in the US two more minutes were cut. Brutally panned on release by the likes of Roger Ebert and Judith Crist, the film fell into cult obscurity, with die-hard film fans hoping to one day see the full, unaltered satanic vision of Russell restored. But The Devils was to be hard to find for decades, and as the home video revolution brought back many, many lesser films in fully restored glory The Devils remained off the market.
I’ve been following the struggle to get The Devils on American home video for more than a decade now. In 2008 it was all but confirmed that there was going to be a DVD release, but it never materialized. In 2010 a hi-def version of The Devils popped up unannounced on US iTunes and it stayed there for THREE DAYS before being mysteriously and suddenly yanked. Meanwhile, the British theatrical cut (still many minutes shorter than Russell’s director’s cut) was released on home video in the UK, but Warner Bros would only allow BFI to put it out on DVD, not Blu, and forbid them from adding back in the deleted scenes. That release is only available as a Region 2 DVD, meaning any Americans who want to see The Devils must buy a region-free player and import the disc.
Ken Russell isn’t a minor filmmaker, and The Devils stars Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave, major movie stars. It’s an important movie, even if it’s a movie that won’t appeal to all audiences (“The Devils is not a film for everyone” is the actual advertising tagline Warner Bros used in the original US release). There’s no question that The Devils, no matter what you think of its quality (and it’s one of the best movies ever made, period), is a film worthy of release on American home video. Warner Bros has the Warner Archive, a print-on-demand service that allows them to release all sorts of minor films from the vault. Surely The Devils deserves at least the same treatment as the first five seasons of The George Lopez Show or forgotten spy spoof The Phynx?
If the sold-out crowd on a Thursday night at 10pm in Los Angeles is any indication, there’s an audience for The Devils. What’s more, the film - while still shocking and powerful - is far less envelope-pushing in 2015 than it was in 1971. It’s hard to imagine Warner Bros’ stock taking a hit due to anger at the release of a 40 year old film that, at this point, mostly appeals to the hardcore cinema crowd. Even if the company was afraid of blowback they could easily license it to Criterion - I can only imagine the field day the Criterion Collection would have putting together the ultimate package for The Devils.
This isn’t just an oversight or a corporation misunderstanding the value of what they have. Warner Bros is intentionally suppressing the film. It’s not even a question - why would the movie pop up on iTunes FIVE YEARS AGO and be immediately yanked and never returned? The material to recreate Russell’s original version exists, but it isn’t allowed to be shown. Someone, somewhere inside of Warner Bros is purposefully hiding this film from view. It’s clearly personal for this executive; perhaps it’s an old-timer who remembers the initial release and hates the film, whose Catholicism is deeply offended by Russell’s savage critique. Whatever the case this person needs to get the fuck over it.
It is an actual crime against cinema that The Devils is not more easily available. It isn’t a lost film. It’s all there, all the pieces still exist. There are generations of film lovers and filmmakers who have been denied Russell’s work, and Russell himself has gone to the grave without his movie getting the critical reappraisal it so desperately deserves. The time has come for Warner Bros to gracefully back down from their anti-The Devils stance and allow this masterpiece to be unleashed upon a whole new unsuspecting world, to allow it to ascend to its position as not just Russell’s filthy magnum opus but also one of cinema’s great works.
Join the movement to get The Devils released on home video at the Free Ken Russell’s The Devils Facebook page. Let Warner Bros know you want to see The Devils - tweet @warnerbrosent again and again to let them know that The Devils isn’t a film for everyone… but it is a film for you.