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Thursday, 15 March 2012

"He's not the Messiah, he's just Oliver Reed!" Thoughts on the BFI's DVD release of Ken Russell's '71 masterpiece, 'THE DEVILS'.

Despite the fact the new BFI DVD release of The Devils is not the most complete version possible - that remains the recently restored 'Director's Cut', this is still the most complete version ever to make it to DVD and is the uncut theatrical version - at last. So I'm actually very excited about it, and support it, and support the BFI's determination to get the film released at all and admire how they gave Ken the chance to have The Devils screened last year at the BFI Southbank in front of an appreciative audience who overwhelmingly clapped their support and good wishes when host Mark Kermode told us that the man himself was too ill to attend and that he was sure we all wished him well in his recovery. We did. Sadly it was not to be. Not a single ticket was asked to be refunded that day. That's on the strength of love for the director - and the film - alone.

The new DVD is essential, and to be celebrated, it's more complete than ever before, and is the theatrical release, but the scenes cut are important ones in context - and the director's cut, I'm sure, is the one that the BFI would have wished to have released, had they been able. By all accounts, Warner, who own the rights, will not allow this. The controversial 'rape of christ' and other edited scenes, are certainly overwhelming and make the viewer uneasy, but in context - they flow seamlessly into the narrative about all-consuming visions and the reality of certain temptation, eventual salvation, but not without pain or trial. The scenes of Reed walking through the desert in solitude on a spiritual quest weighed heavy with visions of obscenity and blasphemy but eventually finding the nature of his purpose and relationship with his God and himself in this world and beyond, are some of the most poetic, most beautiful ever witnessed in the movies.The BFI supported this restoration and worked with Russell and Kermode to complete it and have it finally screened to the public as originally intended, and as Mark explained in his intro to the director's cut screening I attended, it wasn't an easy task to recover the scenes thought lost. Russell did want this version to be how the film was screened originally in cinemas, but he was forced to make cuts, to even get an X certificate. So in a roundabout way - the theatrical version is censored in all but name. I do want to see a complete version released one day - as Russell himself would have wanted, I'd like to think this will happen.

However, the Ken Russell commentary on the new release is perhaps the most excited I've been about a DVD extra in a long while, and I will be buying the disc before it gets deleted (I'm sure it won't be anytime soon, but I'm also sure not taking the chance) as I won't be missing out on a much-needed and wished-for release of one of Russell's greatest ever movies, one that he described himself in a recent interview with The Guardian under a year ago, as a deeply spiritual movie (the film had the support of prominent figures in the Church of course, as we learnt from Mark Kermode at the BFI Southbank screening - more support from the Church than perhaps critical support). Russell described his film as being: "about the degradation of religious principles...and about a sinner who becomes a saint." It's no surprise that Oliver Reed's eyes burn with that knowledge of redemption, he knows this film could be as much about his own life as it is his character's - I'm sure there are thoughts of personal salvation here that go beyond acting, and he appears in this movie at perhaps his most subdued, most respectful. In the original trailer, the voiceover ominously stated: "The Devils.....(lengthy pause) is not a film for everyone". That's a given! But it's a film everyone should see. The BFI DVD is the best way to do so yet, perhaps ever.

words: mark gordon palmer

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