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Ken Russell classic films

Savage Messiah Ken Russell

"In cinema it is necessary not to explain, but to act upon the viewer's feelings, and the emotion which is awoken is what provokes thought" Andrei Tarkovsky 1962, quoted by Steve Rose in a review of Andrie Rublev, The Guardian, 20 Oct 2010

Moving from music to sculpture Russell comes up with Savage Messiah, one of his cult masterpieces about Henri Gaudier in 1972.  The film was largely self-financed by Russell which made its commercial failure a particular blow.  Gaudier meets the much older and prim Sophie Brzeska- she says "If only we had met 20 years ago".  She has an ordered mind, compared with Gaudier's spontaneity.

 Ken Russell Savage Messiah

They develop a friendship leading to them sharing names (Gaudier Brzeska) though they never married.  " I am your brother... I am your sister".

"Sophie, who was almost twenty years older than Henri, only agreed to live with him on condition they avoided sex... she became a surrogate mother to the iutense and excitable adolescent... Although he claimed that his relationship was platonic, Gaudier's work is often charged with a highly erotic awareness of the human body" (Wild Thing, Richard Cox, 2010, Royal Academy of Arts, chapter 5)

Ken Russell's imagery is as always breathtaking.

Scottt Antony in Savage Messiah Ken Russell  Dancer in Savage Messiah Ken Russell

Gaudier in the rain looking through the art gallery window, and a dancer in the Vortex Club.  Gaudier was one of the Vorticists along with Ezra Pound and Wyndam Lewis.

Tiger Savage Messiah by Ken Russell  drawing of tiger Ken Russell Savage Messiah

In one of Russell's best scenes Brzeska waits for Gaudier at a station.

Ken Russell Savage Messiah

The train comes and goes but no Gaudier. Another train leaves and there is Gaudier on the wrong platform, arms full of roses for Brzeska. He runs towards her, jumping from platform to rails. He slips as a train emerges but rather than escape the train he picks up the roses, at the last moment avoiding the wheels of the train and falling into Brzeskaīs arms.

Savage Messiah Ken Russell  Savage Messiah Ken Russell

Gaudier joins the war. The superb line "I have succeeded in making the enemy angry..." is from a letter quoted in H.S. Edeīs biography of Gaudier.

Sophie wrote "Before leaving for the front- he gave  me all his works- drawings- tools- furniture- in fact all he possessed.  After eight months spent in the trenches - he was killed on the 5th June 1915.  In my great grief all material possessions were indifferent to me- I wished and longed for death myself" (Matka and other writings, Sophie Gaudier-Brzesa, Mercury Graphics London, 2008, chapter 4).

The film ends, just as Edeīs book does, with Gaudierīs work.  Dorothy Parker says "Recommendations seem to me always impudent: but perhaps I know you well enough to ask a favor of you.  Please, will you put down whatever that thing is that you're doing and read Savage Messiah [the book]?  It is no fun, but,  if only for the letters it contains, it is a great book.  And you don't get "great" out of me for red apples" (Dorothy Parker, Two Lives and Some letters, 14 March 1931, included in The Collected Dorothy Parker).

Ken Russell Savage Messiah

Gaudier could be seen as Russell's fictional autobiographical character. When Russell read H.S. Edeīs biography he was the same age as Gaudier "I was impressed by Gaudierīs conviction that somehow or other there was a spark in the core of him that was personal to him, which was worth turning into something that could be appreciated by others."

Russell also says (Films and Filming Oct 1972) "I wanted this film to be totally different from the big companies and back into the small studio, back to the BBC sort of style with a small unit".

Helen Mirren Savage Messiah Ken Russell

"In a scene that burns itself on the brain, Helen Mirren, as Gosh, descends a staircase of magnificent Jarmanesque grandeur. It is perhaps the finest nude scene in film history" (Chris in Eye for Eye here).

Alex Russell, Ken's son, who plays a small role in the film, says "On Savage Messiah, I remember when filming on the sea coast some oil or tar was on the lens of the 35ml camera; but was not discovered till the evenings rushes screening: so a whole days shooting was ruined! Also: the rain scene was done via the fire brigade pumping salt water straight from the sea! Also: the Gaudier Breshka charcoal and pastel drawings (well faked) for the film were later stolen and sold as originals down Bond Street and at Sotheby's!"

In the film Gaudier says "If people can't tell the difference between a genuine Gaudier and a genuine Gainsbrough they deserve to be cheated.  One day someone will be forging my work".

One review states "Although the performances are full of hysteria, "Savage Messiah" is so tame that it almost makes one long for the excesses of the earlier Russell films, which so overwhelmed the senses as to become anesthetically soothing, like loud rock. At one point in the film, I had the feeling that perhaps Russell was really taking stock of his career to date." (Vincent Canby, New York Times, 9 Nov 1972).

Compare with:

"... Russell presents a sharply etched portrait of the bohemian community of opportunistic dealers and arty types who like Gaudier better than the vulgar woman. The convincing atmosphere of pre-war France is presented with Russell's eye for careful compositions in wide-angle lenses mixed with exuberant moving camerawork and flashy cutting.  So much of this is pure Russell, such as a shot of the naked Helen Mirren (as a spoilt aristocratic turned bomb-throwing suffragist) posed in the middle of a lavish set designed by Derek Jarman. One of the most remarkable sequences shows Gaudier carving a marble sculpture, uttering various observations while he chips and chisels. All at once, we see a serious artist at work. The final sequence is a dazzling parade of some of the museum pieces he left behind, that we can finally understand how this cliched "artistic temperament" got around to producing something real." (Michael Barrett, 6 May 2011, Pop Matters here).

 Ken Russell Savage Messiah

"There's no such think as an artist who doesn't need an audience"

Ken Russell Savage Messiah


All images from the film or posters.



Scott Antony and Dorothy Tutin in Ken Russell Savage Messiah

Scott Anthony in Savage Messiah  Dorothy Tutin Savage Messiah Ken Russell

Scott Antony plays the sculptor and Dorothy Tutin his soul mate.

Helen Mirren appears in one of her first film roles.

Photography is by Dick Bush.  The scene where Gaudier is carving the statue is particularly well filmed, in shadows with the camera moving slowly showing the gradual progress Gaudier is making.  "When the actors cannot move, Russell moves the camera. As Henri stands chiseling and sermonizing, the camera slowly dollies around him, viewing him from every possible angle. Just because there is so much talk and so little action, everything in these shots is designed to contribute to a visual dynamism." (Duvall, John A., "Savage Messiah: Ken Russell's Forgotten Masterpiece" (2014). Collected Faculty and Staff Scholarship. 74. https://doi.org/10.1080/10509208.2011.646576).

Editing is again by Michael Bradsell.  The scene of the dancing intercut with reading of letter and set to music is beautifully done.   Stuart Baird is Dubbing Editor, he would go on to edit Tommy, Lisztomania and Valentino.

Costumes are by Ken's then wife Shirley Russell. Derek Jarman provides the sets.

Ken Russell Savage Messiah

Paul Dufficey draws in the opening credits.  He is responsible for all the Gaudier artwork and sculptures in the film.

Lindsay Kemp 

The dancer/choreographer Lindsay Kemp makes an acting appearance as Corky.

Best Image

Ken Russell Savage Messiah

The opening credit sequence with Gaudier drawing the bones of a hand, the pen scraping the paper.

Savage Messiah Ken Russell

Best Scene

The last but one major scene with the talking heads cut with the dancer. The perfect mix of loud music, sharp cutting and glaring colours.

Savage Messiah Gaudier  Savage Messiah Gaudier

The last major scene where Russell simply shows the beauty of Gaudierīs sculptures.  Tarkovsky's film on Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev from 1966 also ends the film with a scene showing Rublev's works.

The Edinburgh Museum of Modern Art has a room of Gaudierīs work including many of the ones Ken Russell shows. 


Ken Russell Savage Messiah

The scene with a general in full uniform on a horse inside a room being painted is revived in Prisoners of Honor with the officer in Roman dress.   "Henri then sculpts her father, the breathing stereotype of a pompous military officer, who verbally abuses Henri as he works. Henri’s resentment towards the military is symbolized by his tearing off the clay model’s nose – an act of rebellion, perhaps, but token at best. The sculpting of General Boyle is symbolic of the prostitution of the artist to the power elite that even Henri cannot avoid, and also leads the narrative directly into confrontation with the impending war"  Duvall, John A., "Savage Messiah: Ken Russell's Forgotten Masterpiece" (2014). Collected Faculty and Staff Scholarship. 74.

In one scene it appears as if Gaudier will be killed by a train.

The victory celebrations are very similar to those  in Tommy.

Savage Messiah Ken Russell  Metropolis

Gaudierīs studio (left) is almost identical to the workers area in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (right).

Gaudier in Savage Messiah Ken Russell

This could be from a Caravaggio or a Derek Jarman film (Jarman was set dsigner here).


Other films released in the same year include  Brando in The Godfather, Lady Sings the Blues, more Brando in Last Tango in Paris and Tarkovsky's Solaris.

The Godfather  Lady Sings the Blues  Last Tango in Paris  Solaris by Tarkovsky

More films

Click title for film French Dressing * Billion Dollar Brain * Women in Love * The Music Lovers* The Devils * The Boy Friend * Savage Messiah * Mahler * Tommy * Lisztomania * Valentino * Altered States * Crimes of Passion * Gothic * Aria * The Lair of the White Worm * Salome's Last Dance * The Rainbow * Whore


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