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Ken Russell classic films

Ken Russell - The Devils - title

"it remains a genuinely breathtaking work, the jewel in the crown of Russell’s magnificent career; a film which was ahead of its time forty years ago, and which (like its creator) never lost the power to enthral and enrage in equal measure" (Mark Kermode,  The Cinema Museum introduction, 24 Aug 2017 click here)

Aldous Huxley's "The Devils of Loudon" filmed by Ken Russell in 1971 as The Devils.  About power, corruption and political expediency in France as the church (Cardinal Richelieu) and crown (Louis XIII) battle for power over the city of Loudon, in France, protected by massive walls.  And Father Urbain Grandier in Loudon will fall victim, a priest who has lovers yet turns out to have nobility.  Russell says "religion was the theme of the film, it was the exploitation of religion" (the quote is from the BBC documentary Empire of the Censors, 1995).

Ken Russell The Devils

Ken Russell The Devils

"When Solo [co-producer with Russell] and Russell showed his completed script to United Artists which had backed the director's previous three films, the company turned it down with alacrity.  Funding was later secured from Warner Brothers, and in  the summer of 1970 with a budget of some £2 million, Russell began shooting on a closed set at Pinewood Studios" (from John Exshaw in Cinema Retro, Vol 7 Issue 21, 2011).

Ken Russell The Devils  Ken Russell - The Devils - Georgina Hale

 The film confirms Russell's immense talent, and again the imagery is breathtaking.

     Vanessa Redgrave in The Devils

Murray Melvin in The Devils   Ken Russell The Devils

Ken Russell The Devils

Gaudier is tortured and burnt alive just before the walls of Loudon, and its independence, are destroyed.  Gaudier's wife is lost among the mountains of bricks as she climbs over the wall to leave the city, and the colour is bled away.

Ken Russell The Devils

Ken Russell The Devils

In the film’s opening sequence "Louis XIII performs in a court ballet as Venus rising from the waves... Russell uses burlesque
theatre, which was a popular genre in the seventeenth century, to reveal the internal machinations of power. More specifically, Russell... uses a burlesque performance to show that there is really nothing behind the facade of political power. (Staging the World: The Devils as Theatrum Mundi by Christophe Van Eecke in Journal of British Cinema and Television 12.4 2015).

"The Devils succeeds in conveying its messages because it engages the senses beyond Huxley’s words. The performances of Vanessa Redgrave as Jeanne and Reed as Grandier are studies in extremes, with Grandier remaining controlled until the very end, whereas Jeanne oscillates between calm and agony as befits a case study in mental fragility" (from The Devils of Loudun by Kevin M. Flanagan in Books to Film vol 1).

All released versions have been censored.  The power of Russell's imagery was so powerful that many critics complained of scenes which they thought were in the film, but were not, rather they were implied.

British Board of Film Censorship on The Devils

Correspondence from the British Board of Film Censorship on The Devils detailing the cuts they required (from BBC4 Dear Censor).

When on a television programme with Russell, critic Alexander Walker called the film "monstrously indecent". Russell famously hit him over the head with a rolled up copy of the Evening Standard (from Obituary by Tom Vallance, The Independent, 29 Nov 2011).

The Devils Oliver Reed torture

The torture of Reed was censored in the original versions, but is included in later versions (it lasts seconds).  The rape of Christ scene was censored by the studio and was thought to be lost.  Mark Kermode did research on the filming of The Devils.  He says in The Observer 4 Dec 2011 "I was standing in Mothercare in Southampton when my mobile phone rang and a familiar voice came on the line. It was Tim, an archivist from Warners whom I had been pestering for years about trying to track down some long-lost film footage. 'I've got the tin you were asking for,' said Tim, with an edge of excitement in his voice. 'I'm not sure what's on it, because when I opened it, it smelt of vinegar, so I've sent it to be treated. But I had a quick look at the first couple of frames and from what I could see there was a bunch of naked nuns and a bloody massive crucifix…' 'I'll call you straight back,' I said, hastily hung up the phone and dialed another number. 'Ken, it's Mark. Listen, I'm in the nappy department of Mothercare and I think we just found the rape of Christ…'."  A restored version with the full sequence, was shown at the National Film Theatre on  23 Nov 2004.

Ken Russell The Devils

Ken Russell The Devils

The film was based on Aldous Huxley's 1952 rambling but interesting account of the actual incidents at Loudun, and on John Whiting´s 1961 stage play of the novel. The premiere of the play, 10 years before the film, included Max Adrian as Father Barre and Dorothy Tutin as Sister Jeanne, both in this film, though in different roles.

"Speaking in 1997 Russell recalled how he came to be involved in thee film. 'Robert Solo, the producer, gave me the Whiting play, The Devils, which I 'd seen anyway, and the Aldous Huxley The Devils of Loudun. which I didn't know about and asked if I would like to make the film.  I read both and was captivated' " (from John Exshaw in Cinema Retro, Vol 7 Issue 21, 2011).

When Ken worked on the BBC Monitor programme an episode on 26 Feb 1961, which Ken did not direct, features two short films.  One on John Whiting and his play The Devils, the other on two composers one of whom was Peter Maxwell Davies who later composed the music for The Devils (programme details from The Radio Times).  The inspiration for Ken's film?  It seem too much of a coincidence to be otherwise.

The Devils of Loudun 

Left Huxley's book reissued to cash in on the film and right an excellent 2015 performance of John Whiting's play by Sedos in London.

All images from the DVD of the film or the DVD extras unless otherwise stated.


As well as directing Russell was co-producer and wrote the script.

Oliver Reed in The Devils

Oliver Reed in another subtle performance as Grandier, possibly his best role.

Ken Russell The Devils with Vanessa Redgrave

Vanessa Redgrave is excellent as the prioress who loves Grandier from a distance. Her frustration causes her to denounce Grandier. Glenda Jackson turned the role down because parts were too similar to the madhouse scenes in The Music Lovers. Just as Jackson previously, Redgrave was pregnant during the filming, eventually having a miscarriage.  Most actors were chosen by Russell based on their physical appearance.

Ken Russell The Devils - Christopher Logue Carmen Callil.jpg

"Christopher [Logue] was playing Cardinal Richelieu and Carmen [Callil] was one of the nuns pushing Richelieu’s wheeled chair.  They had in common a scarring early experience of Roman Catholic education which added to their enthusiasm for the film’s lurid retelling of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon.  Christopher- who always panicked about remembering lines- wrote his out and pinned them to the back of Carmen’s wimple" (Rosemary Hill obituary of Carmen Callil, London Review of Books, 17 Oct 2022, click here).

Peter Maxwell Davis provides the music.  He worked “…industriously scoring The Devils with a metronome and stopwatch, and from time to time flying to London [from Orkney] to visit the set and discuss progress with Russell.  He found it a novelty to work with film people… On the whole, however, he regarded the interlude as just that, and nothing more” (Mike Seabrook,  Max- The Life and Music of Peter Maxwell Davies, chapter 7, 1994).  In the documentary Hell on Earth he says about Ken "People say oh he's got bad taste- well of course he has, thank God for that".  He also went on to score The Boyfriend.

Derek Jarman designed the sets, massive brick constructions.

The cinematography is by David Watkin who also worked on The Boyfriend.

Costumes are by Shirley Russell, the editor is Michael Bradsell.  Bradsell says of Ken's script "the script was much tighter than I was used to from him.  There was not a wasted page or wasted word anywhere and he shot pretty accurately what he'd put on paper". (Mark Lawson interviewing Bradsell from BBC Radio 4, Front Row, 14 Mar 2012 here).

British comedian Spike Milligan was a candidate for a part in the film (information from Spike: An Intimate Memoir by Norma Farnes, 2003).  Russell's early documentary Portrait of a Goon was about Milligan.

Judith Paris credits in The Devils

Judith Paris plays Sister Agnes but the credits incorrectly give the role as Sister Judith.

Ken Russell The Devils directing  Ken Russell The Devils filming

Ken Russell on set directing.

 Ken Russell The Devils

Best Image

Vanessa Redgrave in The Devils

Vanessa Redgrave´s entrance, head bowed under a low arch.

The Walls of Loudun by Derek Jarman

The walls of Loudun, by Derek Jarman, are vast and impressive.  Russell wanted them to look newly built.

Best Scene

Ken Russell The Devils

The holocaust imagery of bodies in the plague pit resemble the bodies in the bath (Billion Dollar Brain) and the plastic models being burnt in French Dressing.

The girl confessing a love affair to Reed, and by a slip of the tongue giving away that it is Reed she loves.

The girls dancing in devilish ecstasy until the vessel with the relic of the blood of Christ subdues them. Then it is revealed the vessel is empty, there was no blood.


Ken Russell The Devils

Christ imagery as the prioress dreams of Grandier as Christ walking on water.

The Walls of Loudin

Derek Jarman's sets for The Devils

The enormous walls of Loudun have the same splendour as the walls in Fritz Lang's Metropolis "For the actual design of the sets Russell turned to another newcomer, Derek Jarman, and together the pair studied Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) for inspiration" (from John Exshaw in Cinema Retro, Vol 7 Issue 21, 2011).

Unconsummated love (the prioress) and forbidden love (Grandier and lovers, and the homosexuality of the audience in the opening sequence (watching the king in drag).  Lots of nuns.


Other films released in the same year include A Clockwork Orange, The French Connection and two more Russell films- The Music Lovers and The Boyfriend.

A Clockwork Orange  The French Connection  The Music Lovers  The Boyfriend


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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