Gilbey on Film: Hell on earth

The X-rated cut of Ken Russell's <em>The Devils</em> is released on DVD.

Now that every film ever made is available at any hour of the day or night to be delivered to your home in a vial and injected into your cerebral cortex while you sleep, the category of the hard-to-find, persistently-unseen, withdrawn or even banned movie is fast becoming extinct. (And please, don't talk to me about The Human Centipede II.) For many years we had A Clockwork Orange to cling to. Your choices, if you wanted to viddy Kubrick's film, were to get a pain in the gulliver watching a ropey VHS pirate copy with German subtitles, or to hop over to Paris to see it in a cinema. You had to actually, you know, try.

Even once A Clockwork Orange became as easily obtainable as an actual orange, we always had Ken Russell's The Devils to dream about, the director's cut tantalisingly beyond reach. Would it ever be commercially available?

Well, it still isn't. But the next best thing - the X-rated cut seen in UK cinemas in 1971 - is out next week on DVD for the first time in a handsome new BFI release. The most widely available version had hitherto been the butchered US cinema edit, so it's good to know that our eyeballs can now be scalded by images no less pure and scandalous than the ones which caused such uproar more than 40 years ago.

The film's story, rooted in historical fact, demands nothing less than a visual and sonic representation of hell. Russell obliges - and then some. The sexual hysteria of an entire convent in 17th-century Loudun, sparked by the repressed fantasies of Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), coincides with the efforts of Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue) to raze the fortified city's defences and dissolve its independent governance. The focus of these campaigns, one sexual and the other religio-political, falls coincidentally on a single man: Loudun's hulking, deeply flawed but principled priest Father Grandier (Oliver Reed). As the one persistent obstacle to Richelieu, as well as the unobtainable object of Sister Jeanne's desires, he is doubly vulnerable. The film's demonstration of how church and state do each other's bidding to bring down Grandier, and Loudun itself, is as compelling as it is appalling.

Back in 1971, there was a predictable brouhaha over the movie's sexual explicitness, violence and, most of all, depictions of blasphemy that led to the film itself being wrongly branded blasphemous. Even now the imagery is shocking. What's changed is that most audiences will accept the intentions behind it as entirely honourable. (Though before we congratulate ourselves too heartily on our sophisticated response, we should remember that a rescue attempt is unlikely to be made on behalf of Peter Greenaway's 1992 The Baby of Mâcon, a movie comparable in its conscientious horrors, but without a large and vocal following on its side.)

The chronology of the censorship battles over The Devils are documented in a booklet accompanying the DVD, and in the 2002 documentary, Hell on Earth, presented by Mark Kermode (who has been instrumental in gathering up censored footage presumed destroyed) and included among the disc's plentiful DVD extras. (Check out Kermode here discussing the absence from the current cut of the notorious "Rape of Christ" sequence, which was removed before the picture was ever exhibited publicly.)

That's the furore. What of the film? My immediate reaction, not having seen it before this week, is that it's Russell's strongest work by some distance, bolstered by its ferocious, articulate political passion and rendered with a perverse beauty.

To say it shows no sign of its age would be an understatement. The instincts of Russell and his set designer (then-newcomer Derek Jarman) in plumping for stylised expressionism over historical accuracy have been vindicated. The fresh, zinging white tiles and brickwork of the sets was designed both to reflect a phrase in The Devils of Loudun, Aldous Huxley's book about the same historical events, which described what took place in the city as akin to "a rape in a public toilet", and to simultaneously insulate the picture from historical remoteness. The emphasis on the monochromatic led Russell to describe it as "a black and white film shot in colour"; it's interesting to note how the extensive use of white has protected both The Devils and George Lucas's THX 1138 (also released in 1971) from the ravages of four decades and all the intervening trends and fashions.

As promised by the brash opening sequence, depicting Louis XIII (Graham Armitage) dragged up as Venus in a cabaret floorshow, The Devils is a film about performance. Everyone here is putting on a show of some manner. From the King's pantomime cruelty (gunning down Protestants dressed as blackbirds) to Grandier's priapic, strutting vanity; from Sister Jeanne's writhing ecstasy to the grand and repellent orgies it fosters; from the lip-smacking opportunists performing public humiliations on Sister Jeanne to the rock-star-like Father Barre (Michael Gothard), preening in his Lennon specs; and, finally, to the gruelling public execution at the movie's climax, Russell shows torment and fallibility being exploited for political capital. Peter Maxwell Davies's wailing, abrasive score sounds suitably aggrieved by it all, as though the instruments themselves were being tortured along with Grandier.

"The Devils" is released by the BFI in a 2-disc special edition on 19 March.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder