Discussing THE DEVILS (1971) with Kevin Flanagan

Kevin M. Flanagan received his Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh in 2015 in English/Film studies (his dissertation: The British War Film, 1939-1980: Culture, History, and, Genre). A book based on this project is under contract with Palgrave (part of the Britain and the World series). Flanagan is also the editor of 2009’s Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England’s Last Mannerist and he contributed essays and an audio commentary to the critically acclaimed BFI Blu-ray/DVD boxed set Ken Russell: The Great Composers (2016). He is currently editing Edgar Wright: Interviews for the University Press of Mississippi’s longstanding Conversations with Filmmakers series of books.


Kimberly Lindbergs: Can you tell readers a little about yourself and how you became interested in Ken Russell’s work?

Kevin Flanagan: I’m very much of the video store generation, and my first job and academic interests somehow combined to lead me to Ken Russell’s work. When I was 15 or so (this would be around 1998, give or take a year), I remember flipping channels and landing on Bravo’s “Five Star Cinema” film, a designation they gave to movies whose rights they had purchased. Other films in this strand that I can remember from the time were THE MEANING OF LIFE (’83) and PATTON (‘70). Anyway, in this particular film, there was an extraordinary sequence that’d I’d stumbled into: a man sitting on a train, with a hand on his head, crouched over in repose, while shadows undulated across his face. I continued watching the film. I gathered it was some kind of artist biography, the story of a composer, but I didn’t know his music and was overwhelmed by the images, to the point where I could not really retain the plot. Sadly, our regional TV listings guide did not mention the name of the film, so I was not able to go back and watch the whole thing until years later.

Soon after, I got a job at a video store (Hollywood Video) and began working my way through the back catalog. At the time, I was following recommendations from books like John Stanley’s Creature Features or various Leonard Maltin guides. I remember reading about (funnily enough) THE DEVILS (not knowing who Ken Russell was) and renting it, only to be blown away. I had no formal film studies training, nor any critical experience beyond amateur reviews, but I recall thinking that the “look” of the film had a lot in common with the mystery film that I’d been searching for. Certain themes were the same—genius constrained by society, persecution over religious belief—and some actors even seemed familiar (particularly Georgina Hale). I decided to watch as much Russell as I could, and within weeks I’d purchased a VHS of MAHLER (’74) off eBay and realized that at last, I’d found the film that had been haunting me for close to two years! I was soon off to college, where I proceeded to take as many film courses as possible, as none had been available to me in high school. I found my way to cinephilia, film studies, criticism and peripheral things like an interest in serious music all through the lens of Ken Russell!


KL: Seeing a Ken Russell film for the first time can truly be a transformative experience and it sounds like his work really made an impact on you. You mentioned that your interest in Russell also led to your interest in music, and I know that classical music is often an essential element of the director’s work. How important is music in THE DEVILS and was Russell inspired by any particular composers while he was making the film?

KF: Peter Maxwell Davies (who composed the music for THE DEVILS) had a close relationship to Russell during this time. Russell produced two Davies records, featuring his Fires of London ensemble, that were released in the UK by the Unicorn label: Vesalii Icones and Eight Songs for a Mad King. He is a composer of avant-garde “serious music” that might now be called “classical”. Russell was by now notorious—and beloved, in some circles—for his films about musicians. His most recent biopics of composers were on Richard Strauss (DANCE OF THE SEVEN VEILS [‘70], his last film for the BBC’s Omnibus arts strand) and Tchaikovsky (THE MUSIC LOVERS [‘70], a major theatrical film for United Artists), so there is something of their bombast that can be traced to THE DEVILS. But Russell’s commission of Davies to do music for THE DEVILS is comparable to his use of Derek Jarman’s sets: an unmistakable modernity of detail and dressing, despite enough historically-appropriate elements that do not feel too anachronistic. The music that Davies delivered for the film is angular and angry in a way that is unmistakably contemporary. At times it feels like a Sun Ra improvisation! But the instrumentation is generally period-appropriate. So much about Russell’s film of THE DEVILS, just like Aldous Huxley’s book, walks a fine line between a clear-eyed vision of the past and the inevitable signposting of the present.


KL: Russell wrote the screenplay for THE DEVILS but as you pointed out, it was based on Aldous Huxley’s non-fiction novel The Devil’s of Loudun. Russell must have found common ground with Huxley since they were both radical thinkers who bucked convention. Both men also grappled with censors who wanted to repress their work. What are some of the differences and similarities between Huxley’s original novel and Russell’s film?

KF: Huxley’s book is a weird one. It is based on historical issues and people, but it isn’t a conventional work of history. It might be thought of as a book of “ideas”, in that it has long divergences away from its central narrative and into psychology, philosophy, ecclesiastical doctrine and allusions to the 1940s and 1950s (critics have noted that the book is Huxley’s response to HUAC. The author had worked in Hollywood and witnessed what institutional paranoia did to many of his peers). Russell’s film is full of ideas, too, but many of them are communicated visually or sub-textually, or through the gestures and camerawork. For example, scholar Christophe van Eeecke has described the film as primarily being a political allegory, and key sequences like the mummer’s play that accompanies a character’s execution show the film’s capacity to analyze, render grotesque and represent the world in miniature, as an echo to the viewer on its contemporary concerns.

KL: THE DEVILS was heavily edited when it was released and as far as I know, Warner Bros. has never made a complete and uncut edition of the film available to the public. Why do you think THE DEVILS is still being suppressed and do you think we’ll ever get to see a fully restored version of the film?

KF: Film critic Mark Kermode famously tracked down the extant footage of the film’s most famous excised bit, the “Rape of Christ” sequence, and you can view it in his documentary HELL ON EARTH (2004). The BFI have released the film in its longest, officially available U.K. form, and this includes material not in the U.S. theatrical release. I honestly don’t know why the film has not been restored to its fullest, since it is a notorious work and I’d imagine would certainly do well if marketed to collectors.


KL: Despite being difficult to see for many years, THE DEVILS has many admirers. It truly is a cult classic as well as an incredible artistic achievement. Why do you think Russell’s film generates such strong reactions and still resonates with so many viewers?

KF: As you say just now, part of the appeal in the pre-streaming era was that the film was hard to see, so tracking it down made it something of a prized object. For its detractors, the film’s mix of sadism, religion and sexuality makes it dangerous. For its fans, the exposure of political hypocrisy, the examination of power and the memorable visualization of hysteria makes it essential. In terms of genre, it is an adaptation, a sort of biopic, a nunsploitation movie and a historical film with comedic elements, so it has that unique “cult” mix that characterizes a ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (’75) or CASABLANCA (’42). One of the best things you can say about it is that it is timely: it was very much of its moment in the early 1970s, but it also spoke to its historical setting and it is still relevant today.

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published at Filmstruck.com in October, 2018