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Censoring The Devils

The problems posed by Ken Russell's inflammatory religious drama

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One of the last decisions that John Trevelyan, Secretary of the British Board of Film Censors, had to make before his retirement in 1971 concerned Ken Russell's The Devils. He was already an admirer of Russell's work, and felt that the film, while undeniably extreme, was possible to defend on artistic and possibly even religious grounds, given that its subject was that of a priest prepared to suffer the most horrific tortures rather than deny his faith. Concluding that "milder violence would have failed to make a valid point", he was supported by BBFC President Lord Harlech, whose Catholic faith made him more sympathetic to the film than most of the Board's examiners.

After seeing a rough cut, Trevelyan had privately advised Russell that two sequences would be impossible to pass in the then current climate: the "rape of Christ", where frenzied nuns rip a cross containing a life-size effigy of Christ from the wall and symbolically ravish it, and a short sequence involving Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) sexually misusing a charred thigh bone. These were removed prior to the film's submission to the BBFC, but cuts totalling 89 seconds were still requested.

This shortened version was duly passed with an X certificate and released to a storm of controversy. Reviews were overwhelmingly negative, with critics considering that Russell had gone so far over the top in terms of lurid surface detail (even in the cut version) as to negate any dramatic value that the film possessed, and many local authorities banned the film altogether. The Festival of Light called for the BBFC certificate to be withdrawn and for Trevelyan's successor Stephen Murphy to resign (somewhat unfairly, given that Murphy had not made the decision to pass the film), though threatened private prosecutions failed to materialise.

Although the "rape of Christ" scene had been described in detail in An Appalling Talent, John Baxter's 1973 biography of Russell, the footage of this and other deleted sequences was long assumed to be lost if not destroyed. But in 2002, following a lengthy search through Warner Bros' vaults by critic Mark Kermode and documentary film-maker Paul Joyce, it was finally rediscovered, and editor Michael Bradsell reinstated it, assembling a convincing soundtrack from other parts of the film (the footage was cut before the original dubbing took place). Russell endorsed this version as his authentic "director's cut", which was premiered at London's National Film Theatre on 23 November 2004, some 33 years after its original release.

Michael Brooke

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