Banned Books Week: Richard Crouse raises a little hell

October 1, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

It’s Banned Books Week in the United States, which seems an appropriate occasion to highlight Toronto film critic Richard Crouse’s new volume, Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of the Devils. Crouse’s book has itself not been banned (at least, not yet), but it deals with one of the most notorious cases of censorship in film history.

Ken Russell’s 1971 film The Devils, loosely based on Aldous Huxley’s novel The Devils of Loudon and John Whiting’s play The Devils, focuses on a series of alleged demonic possessions of Ursuline nuns that took place in the French town of Loudon in 1634. Starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave, the film immediately ran afoul of both British censors and Warner Brothers, the American studio that financed it. (Crouse points out that this is one of the only times in history a studio has actively suppressed one of its own properties.)

The lethal combination of violence, sex, and religion made the film a target for queasy censors, who subjected the movie to an increasingly invasive series of cuts and deletions. (Film director Joe Dante called The Devils “the incredible shrinking movie,” because every time it was shown, something else went missing.) Specific bones of contention included Sister Jeanne, played by Vanessa Redgrave, uttering the word “cunt” (Crouse quotes John Trevelyan, one of the more progressive members of the British Board of Film Censors in 1971, as telling Russell, “It’s taken me ten years of fighting just to get [the word] ‘fuck’ accepted. The British public isn’t ready yet for cunt”); the climactic torture and burning at the stake of the Oliver Reed character, Father Urbain Grandier; and – most infamously – an orgy scene featuring a group of very naked nuns and a life-size Catholic crucifix. Of that scene, Crouse writes that a preview screening in Mayfair “made many of the censors want to wash their eyes out with soap.”

What made this all the more remarkable was that Russell was not some hack exploitation director: by 1970, he had already had a storied career at the BBC, and had been nominated for an Oscar for his adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel Women in Love. But Russell, who died in 2011, had a cinematic sensibility that was sui generis, combining baroque elements with an undeniable affinity for trash. (Other Russell films of note include an adaptation of the Who’s Tommy, the William Hurt sci-fi vehicle Altered States, and the late-period genre pieces The Lair of the White Worm and Gothic.) And while the years 1970–’71 saw the release of two other X-rated Warner Brothers picutres – the crime drama Performance, co-directed by Nicholas Roeg and starring a debut film actor named Mick Jagger, and Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange – the studio refused to release The Devils uncut.

Indeed, Warner Brothers was so skittish that it took out ads in a number of American publications warning the public about the content of even the heavily censored domestic release. Crouse writes:

The Devils is not a film for everyone,” screamed the header of a July 19, 1971, quarter-page ad in New York magazine. “It is a true story, carefully documented, historically accurate – a serious work by a distinguished filmmaker. As such it is likely to be hailed as a masterpiece by many. But because it is explicit and highly graphic in depicting the bizarre events that occurred in France in 1634, others will find it visually shocking and deeply disturbing.

“We feel a responsibility to alert you to this. It is our hope that only the audience that will appreciate The Devils will come to see it.”

So nervous was Warner Brothers about the film’s content that – in what must be a unique moment in film history – it actively campaigned to limit the audience that saw the film.

Crouse details the making of The Devils, including its writing, casting, and shooting, and includes comment from editor Michael Bradsell and quotes from the film’s designer, a then-unknown named Derek Jarman.

But Raising Hell is perhaps most valuable in putting The Devils in context, and attempting to explain, to the greatest extent possible, why it came in for censure when other boundary-pushing fare of the time – from upscale Oscar-nominated films such as Rosemary’s Baby, A Clockwork Orange, and The Exorcist to low-budget exploitation such as I Spit on Your Grave – did not. (The answer, unsurprisingly, has much to do with the attitude of The Devils toward the institution of the Catholic Church.) But despite quoting an online rumour that the social conservatism of current Warner Brothers president and CEO Alan Horn is responsible for the continued suppression of the film’s most controversial content, Crouse stops short of explaining why the director’s cut of The Devils remains locked in a studio vault, while other, equally incendiary films (Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, for example, or Takeshi Miike’s Visitor Q, or Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses) are widely available on DVD.

Nevertheless, Crouse’s book is a fascinating look at a film that very few people have seen, and even fewer have seen as its director intended. Raising Hell is a case study in what transpires when religion and art collide, and it should be read as a cautionary tale in the current climate of culture wars and clashes of civilizations.

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Anyone in Toronto who would like to hear the author talk about Raising Hell and the controversy surrounding The Devils should come out to the book’s official launch tonight, beginning at 7:00 p.m. at No One Writes to the Colonel.

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