Ken Russell’s ‘The Devils’ is badly misunderstood

Deal W. Hudson

February 7, 2019

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, recently condemned the New York Times for using a picture of “a nun in habit standing behind a jail-like façade” to accompany a review of Jacques Rivette’s 1966 film La Religieuse (“The Nun”). Based on a novel by Diderot, it depicts the life of a nun who is constantly beaten, tortured and, finally, pressed by a lesbian Mother Superior for sex. Donohue asks, “Now who would concoct such trash?”

Well, Diderot had his reasons, but another writer and film-maker told an equally disturbing story about nuns. Aldous Huxley’s 1952 novel, The Devils of Loudun, was based closely on historical events of 1652 that took place in that city, and in 1971 a Catholic director, Ken Russell, released The Devils, based on that novel. The Devils starred Oliver Reed, in the best performance of his career, as Father Grandier, and Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne, who convinces us of an almost unimaginable character – an Ursuline Mother Superior with a badly humped back and an erotically obsessive crush on the handsome Grandier.

One aspect of the film now jumps out at me: Loudun was a city with high, impregnable walls that allowed the persecuted Huguenots to live in safety alongside Catholics. In one of the opening scenes, Father Grandier celebrates the walls, created by special dispensation from Louis XIII, as providing both protection from religious persecution and individual freedom.

It’s understandable why Mark Kermode, in his introduction to my Criterion Collection DVD of the movie, calls this Russell’s greatest film, because for the first time he combined his extraordinary visual and musical sensibility “with a solid political underpinning”. Wait? Isn’t this a film about the Catholic Church? Yes and no, because Cardinal Richelieu is merging the power of Church and state while Louis XIII entertains at his decadent court, brilliantly portrayed in the film’s opening scene where a practically naked king arises on stage as Botticelli’s Venus.

I watched The Devils one more time after having just seen Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), another film based on historical fact – the script is taken directly from the court record of
her trials. St Joan and Father Grandier are each put to death for political, not religious reasons, though churchmen used accusations of heresy to burn them, in spite of knowing these were not true. So it follows, at the moment of Grandier’s burning, the city walls of Loudun explode and come tumbling down. And Grandier’s last words are: “Don’t look at me, look at your city, your city is destroyed, your freedom is destroyed also.”

The orgiastic scenes with lots of female nudity have aroused intense controversy since its appearance, but they are secondary to the plot. Compare those scenes, and the characters central to them, to the figure of Father Grandier. The former are cartoonish and recognised as such by the townspeople who look on. The latter, Grandier, has enjoyed carnal love with women and become secretly married to a woman he loves, but undergoing severe torture will not confess to a heresy he did not commit. He dies a true martyr with a nobility similar to St Joan of Arc.

Those who, in the name of God and decency, have condemned The Devils, have been ill-served by their preoccupation with nakedness and sex. They missed the meaning of Russell’s masterpiece.

By Deal Hudson

Deal W. Hudson was born November 20, 1949 in Denver, CO, to Emmie and Jack Hudson, both native Texans. Dr. Hudson had an older sister Ruth, and eventually, a younger sister, Elizabeth. Emmie Hudson, Ruth Hudson and Elizabeth Hudson now live in Houston, TX; Jack Hudson passed away some years ago. The late Jack Hudson was a captain for Braniff Airlines in Denver at the time of Dr. Hudson’s birth. Later the family moved to Kansas City when his father joined the Federal Aviation Agency. From Kansas City, the Hudson family moved to Minneapolis, then to Massapequa, NY, and finally to Alexandria, VA, where they first occupied a home overlooking the Potomac River adjacent to the Mount Vernon estate. After a year, the family moved to a home on Tarpon Lane a few houses up the street from the Yacht Haven boat docks. Dr. Hudson attended Mt. Vernon Elementary School from grades 4 to 6 and has a special gratitude for the teaching of Mr. Hoppe who first told him was a ‘smart lad.’ Having moved with his family to Fort Worth, TX in 1960, Dr. Hudson attended William Monnig Junior High and Arlington Heights HS. In high school, Dr. Hudson was captain of the golf team, editor of the literary magazine (Guerdon), and performed the role of Peter in the ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ during his senior year. Dr. Hudson graduated cum laude with a major in philosophy from the University of Texas-Austin in 1971 where his undergraduate advisor was Prof. John Silber. His teachers at the University of Texas included Prof. Louis Mackey and Prof. Larry Caroline. Dr. Hudson minored in both classics and English literature. Dr. Hudson lived in Atlanta from 1974-1989, where he attended Emory University, receiving a Phd from the Graduate Institute for the LIberal Arts. He also taught philosophy at Mercer University in Atlanta from 1980-89. In 1989 Dr. Hudson and his family left Atlanta when he was hired to teach philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx. Dr. Hudson taught at Fordham, and also part-time at New York University, from 1989 to 1994. Dr. Hudson first came to Atlanta in after graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) with an M.Div. While at PTS, Dr. Hudson managed the Baptist Student Union at Princeton University and became its first director. Dr. Hudson also was licensed at a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention at Madison Baptist Church in Madison, NJ. Dr. Hudson’s primary area of study at PTS was the history of Christian doctrine which he pursued with Dr. Karlfried Froelich. In 1984 Dr. Hudson was received in the Catholic Church by Msgr. Richard Lopez, with the special permission of Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan, at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta. Dr. Hudson has been married twenty-five years to Theresa Carver Hudson and they have two children, Hannah Clare, 23, and Cyprian Joseph (Chip), 15, adopted from Romania when he was three years old. The Hudson family has lived in Fairfax, VA for more than fifteen years, after having lived five years in Bronxville, NY and a year in Atlanta, GA, where Theresa and Deal were married.

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