Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of The Devils


The story of one of the most controversial films in history How did a movie by one of the most famous filmmakers in the world end up banned, censored, and shelved? Made by “the English Federico Fellini,” Ken Russell, The Devils is so contentious that even decades after its 1971 release, Warner Brothers keeps its most incendiary scene under lock and key. Featuring an exclusive interview with recently deceased director Ken Russell and new interviews with cast, crew, and historians, Raising Hell examines this ...
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Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of The Devils

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The story of one of the most controversial films in history How did a movie by one of the most famous filmmakers in the world end up banned, censored, and shelved? Made by “the English Federico Fellini,” Ken Russell, The Devils is so contentious that even decades after its 1971 release, Warner Brothers keeps its most incendiary scene under lock and key. Featuring an exclusive interview with recently deceased director Ken Russell and new interviews with cast, crew, and historians, Raising Hell examines this beautifully blasphemous movie about an oversexed priest and a group of sexually repressed nuns in 17th century France. From the film’s inception through its headline-making production and controversial reception, Richard Crouse explores what it is about Russell’s rarely seen cult classic that makes it a cinematic treasure.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Raising Hell is a book to satisfy fans and intrigue new viewers. Even if The Devils isn't your cup of tea, Crouse has created a fascinating portrait of the director's vision and the studio's lack of foresight." —www.PlanetFury.com

"An exhaustive, vivid and passionate account of one of the most powerful and transgressive films ever made. This is not only a great book, it's a necessary book." —Guillermo del Toro, film director, Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth

"The Devil is in the details, and to appreciate why so many filmmakers are possessed by Ken Russell's outrageous masterpiece, this book is a must." —Terry Gilliam, film director, 12 Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

"In Raising Hell Richard Crouse has written an entertaining and informative account of Ken Russell and his adventures on The Devils. Russell remains an authentic and original voice in British cinema, and this is the funny and sad tale of the rise and fall and rise of one of his most controversial films." —John Landis, film director, The Blues Brothers

"Reading this book was pure pleasure for me. It made me desperate to see Ken Russell's gorgeous, crazed epic again." —David Cronenberg, film director, The Fly and Naked Lunch

"Bravo to the publisher ECW Press for putting out a companion book to a film that remains so elusive. . . . Crouse has perhaps created the definitive chronicle of Russell's masterwork. . . . For fans of Russell and The Devils, . . . Raising Hell is essential reading on an essential film." —Fangoria (December 2012)

"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." —www.StevenWBeattie.com

"In this excellent book, Richard Crouse takes us back to the early 1970s, a period where Hollywood had jettisoned the Hays Code, a Depression-era list of no-nos for filmmakers, and unleashed a torrent of profanity, nudity, and graphic violence." —American Book Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781770410664
  • Publisher: ECW Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2012
  • Pages: 200
  • Sales rank: 695,864
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Crouse is a film critic who hosted "Reel to Real" on the Independent Film Channel, "In Short" on Bravo, and is a frequent guest on many national Canadian radio and television shows. He is the author of "The 100 Best Movies You've Never Seen," "Reel Winners," and "The Son of the 100 Best Movies You've Never Seen." He lives in Toronto.
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Read an Excerpt

Raising Hell

Ken Russell and the Unmaking of The Devils

By Richard Crouse


Copyright © 2012 Richard Crouse
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-77090-281-7



"Now there's a man well worth going to hell for, aye!" — off-camera voice, The Devils

The importance of Ken Russell in Oliver Reed's career was wittily summed up by a gag gift sent by Irish actor Richard Harris to Reed in 1969. The two hell-raising actors carried on a friendly rivalry for years, characterized by outrageous public behavior and personal jabs. Reed had gotten the latest insult in when he joked in the media, "Even though people say Richard Harris and I have been having a great feud, it's not true. After all, how could we be feuding for years? I'd never heard of him until two weeks ago."

In response Harris sent Reed a gift-wrapped pair of Victorian crutches. On one of them the name "Ken Russell" was elaborately inscribed. Attached to the crutch was a note that read, "In my Royal opinion you should not dispense with these, otherwise you will fall flat on your arse." It was a good-natured poke at Reed, whose work and success were so closely associated with the provocative director.

Despite Oliver Reed's family connections — his grandfather Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree founded the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art — the actor never took formal acting lessons. On the British chat show Aspel & Company he explained the nontraditional way he learned his craft:

I didn't go to acting school. My uncle, who was a director at the time [Sir Carol Reed, the Palme d'Or winner in 1949 for The Third Man and the 1968 Academy Award winner for Best Director for Oliver!], said you should go to RADA and you should camp outside directors' lawns in a tent and ask them for a job every time they go to the studio in the morning and that's how you'd get a job. You have to be enthusiastic. But to me, the people who were teaching at RADA were people who can't do it. They might be very good at teaching people to speak English but then I knew how to speak English. My grandfather and my father insisted that we should and I was educated in the south, so I had to work through it in a different way. So pubs and the army were the places where I rubbed shoulders with people I wouldn't normally have rubbed shoulders with and I found them a little bit more interesting than the people I was at school with, so I started to emulate them.

Then along came a new kind of British cinema, a new wave of Angry Young Men who, like Reed, challenged the social status quo. Exemplified by the playwright John Osborne, whose play Look Back in Anger was a seminal work of the genre, and actors like Alan Bates, Dirk Bogarde, Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney and Malcolm McDowell, the movement was a slap in the face to the established British art scene. It was kitchen sink drama, showing for the first time the nitty-gritty of everyday British life. It so appealed to Reed that the bullnecked wannabe actor stepped up his training for film work by "getting into fights at pubs." It was this life experience mixed with a natural swagger that defined his early film work.

His first credited film role came in 1960, playing the leader of a gang of violent teddy boys (Brit rockers who dressed in Victorian-style clothes) in the Norman Wisdom comedy The Bulldog Breed. (Also appearing is future superstar Michael Caine, who shares a brief scene with Reed in what would be the only time Caine and Reed acted together.) Tough guy bit parts led to larger roles, and in the early '60s Reed glowered through a series of Hammer horror, action and swashbuckling films, which met with varying degrees of success.

In 1960 Reed appeared in roles as diverse as an uncredited tough nightclub bouncer in The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll and a gay ballet dancer in The League of Gentlemen. Later that year he was cast as a treacherous thirteenth-century nobleman in the Robin Hood actioner Sword of Sherwood Forest. Unfortunately, even though he was featured on the poster in a dramatic pose, his role was altered in post-production. As though he was being punished for being a naughty boy, he is seen but not heard. His voice — complete with a campy French accent — is audible in the trailer but was redubbed by another actor for the theatrical release.

Nonetheless, he considered it an agreeable experience. "It was hide-and-seek with swords," he said, "it was goodies and baddies and damsels in distress and I was Errol Flynn and every other hero I had watched at the cinema."

His first significant role came in 1961. Hammer, the British film studio best known for a twenty-year string of Gothic horror films that spanned the mid-'50s to the '70s, had the rights to remake any of the iconic American monster pictures courtesy of a distribution deal with Universal Pictures. The British company scored big with their version of The Mummy and prepped their next reimagining, an adaptation of Guy Endore's novel The Werewolf of Paris. Working on a shoestring, they shaped the story to fit Hammer's penny-pinching mold. The story's location was changed from Paris to Spain so the studio could shoot the film back to back on the same sets as the proposed Spanish movie The Inquisitor, and an unknown was cast in the lead role.

Chosen from a field of seventeen hopefuls, Reed won the part of Leon in The Curse of the Werewolf, a peasant boy whose lycanthropy can only be tamed through love. Reed impressed director Terence Fisher and producer Anthony Hinds with his smoldering intensity and makeup artist Jack Ashton with his face. "[Reed's] powerful bone structure was just right for the appearance and his gifts as an actor were perfect for the part," said Ashton. "In addition, he resembles a wolf anyway when he is very angry."

Reed impresses in one of his best performances for Hammer. His complex take on Leon reveals the character's inner struggle to control his animalistic side while caring for and protecting the people he loves. The tender scenes work, but the performance becomes memorable late in the film when he changes into the beast. The snarling transformation scene is so effective it earned him the nickname "Mr. Scowl."

Despite Reed and the good makeup work, the film fell afoul of censors (scene after scene was excised, reportedly due to the film's lethal mix of horror, sex and even bestiality), critics (one called the movie "a singularly repellant job of slaughter-house horror") and audiences, who stayed away. One unexpected side effect for Hammer was the sudden loss of one of their distribution territories. The Spanish government, so upset by the portrayal of eighteenth-century Spain in the movie, banned all Hammer products for the next fifteen years.

Even though The Curse of the Werewolf flopped, Reed's stock rose within Hammer and he was soon working steadily, playing leads in Paranoiac and meaty supporting roles in Pirates of Blood River, Captain Clegg and The Damned, opposite Hammer superstars like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.

"Everyone told me not to do horror films," he said at the time, "but all I wanted to do was act." He was honing his craft and picked up pointers from his better-known costars.

"The only reason I started acting in the fashion I do," he told interviewer Michael Parkinson in 1973, "is because I made a film once called Captain Clegg. I remember Peter Cushing was in it. [After shooting one day] I was in a car crash. My ex-wife rolled the car over and I squashed [my arm] under a lamppost. I appeared the next day and my arm was actually covered in blood and somebody grabbed me and said, 'Are you all right, Captain Clegg?'

"I said, 'Yes [grabbing his arm and wincing]. I'm all right.' Or something like that, probably over the top because I was hurt.

"Peter Cushing came up to me and said, 'Oliver, remember when you are hurt always go for the understatement. If you're going to say, "Yes, I'm hurt," just say, [face blank, no expression in the voice] "Yes, I'm all right"' — and I've kept that up ever since."

It was the birth of his well-crafted menacing aura — an image supported by his wild off-screen antics and public proclamations like, "My only regret is that I didn't drink every pub dry and sleep with every woman on the planet" — that had him typecast in the role of heavy for most of his professional life.

One director who was able to see past the sneering exterior was Ken Russell, a photographer who, like his contemporary Stanley Kubrick, turned to filmmaking. His specialty was genre-busting arts biographies for the BBC.

* * *

Ken Russell's first taste of show business came in front of a ballet barre, not behind a camera.

After winning a scholarship to London's International Ballet School — "[I] was always spraining ankles because I started [dancing] too late, started at twenty-one when most people are finishing" — and after a production of Annie Get Your Gun, he left dance behind when his troupe went bankrupt. He was twenty-seven years old and at loose ends, dreaming of a career in film but "it was a closed shop when I was trying. I wrote to all the studios and I got the feeling [that] unless you knew someone who was a cameraman or a clapperboy, why should they give you a job? It's not like today when you can just press a red button and prove to someone you've either got it or you haven't. It was too expensive."

Instead he took up photography, and while he rarely ever made more than five quid a picture, he freelanced, married one of his models and worked steadily. He rarely did studio work: "They only wanted straight fashion against a white backdrop which didn't interest me and I wasn't terribly good at it. I wasn't very good at talking to the fashion models. I didn't have the gift of the gab." Instead he roamed the streets of post–World War II London snapping street people in real, and later in unreal, situations.

He found beauty among the rubble, photographing teddy girls and local people going about their business (one photo of two men on bicycles was later captioned "The answer to the Suez fuel crisis"), but soon his avant-garde tendencies got the best of him. He found himself staging a wedding with street kids on Portobello Road ("Ask your mum for some funny old clothes she don't want," he told them. "Let's imagine we're all grown up and you two are going to get married") and outfitting models in skirts made of lampshades.

"In a way I was making still films," he said, "I suppose, of images."

Even though his strange brand of art photography was catching on, he remained more interested in the moving image. "Don't forget I saw more films than anyone in England, maybe in the world, by the time I was twenty-one. I was beaten when I went to Pangbourne Nautical College. I used to break bounds to go and see Dorothy Lamour in Reading and I was caught and beaten for it and it was well worth it."

His obsession with movies manifested itself in the form of short amateur films. Amelia and the Angel, the story of a young girl who wanders the streets of London searching to replace the damaged costume angel wings she is supposed to wear in her school nativity play, is the best known. Starring the nine-year-old daughter of the Uruguayan ambassador to London — who only agreed to appear in the film after Russell promised her a high-speed tour of the city — the film shows many of Russell's future themes in embryonic form: sin, redemption and Catholicism. It won several awards and spelled the end of Russell's photography career when BBC producer Huw Wheldon saw the film and, impressed, offered Russell his first professional filmmaking job.

"Once I got into films I never thought, 'I wonder what happened to the negatives,'" he said of his days as a photographer. "I just lost total interest."

For the next eleven years — 1959 to 1970 — he made arts documentaries for the BBC series Monitor (where he replaced John Midnight Cowboy Schlesinger as resident director) and Omnibus. Of Monitor, Russell said, "Every other Sunday evening at 9:30 the TV screen glowed a little brighter."

Not surprisingly Russell soon earned a reputation as an iconoclast, changing the way the BBC presented documentaries. Among his innovations were longer running times (his doc on composer Edward Elgar was the longest film the BBC had shown on a musician to date), the inclusion of reenactments and the use of actors to portray historical figures at different ages (think Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger and Richard Gere all playing various incarnations of Bob Dylan in I'm Not There) instead of photograph stills and documentary footage. "I think the films finally cleared the air of all the dreary, reverential, schoolmasterly treatments that the word documentary implied," said Russell.

Perhaps his most controversial BBC film was Dance of the Seven Veils, which portrayed Richard Strauss as a Nazi. The film so enraged the Strauss family that they withdrew music rights, effectively banishing the film to the delete bin of history. It was the first time the director had faced crippling censorship, but would not be the last.

Inside the mother corp, he quickly gained a reputation as a difficult director. "I had heard that Ken was a rather shy, incommunicative man who was also a bit of a backseat driver," recalled Michael Bradsell, who edited a trio of highly acclaimed BBC docs with Russell. After breaking the director "of his rather suspicious habits," Bradsell went on to edit eight of Russell's features, including The Devils.

Russell remained steadily working at the BBC, only occasionally stepping away to make a feature like French Dressing, a 1963 comedy loosely based on Roger Vadim's And God Created Woman. It was on a BBC project in 1965 that he first encountered the actor who would become his most frequent on-screen collaborator.

* * *

Russell had planned on filming his take on the story of French composer Claude Debussy for the big screen, but the financial failure of French Dressing made raising the necessary funds impossible so he retreated into the open arms of the BBC with the project. Co-written with Melvyn Bragg, the script owes a nod to Fellini and his classic in its surreal approach to biography.

The pair created an ingenious nonlinear scenario layering in three tiers of storytelling. Merging fiction and reality, they included a dramatized retelling of the composer's fiery life and relationships, visualizations of his music (including the disquieting image of Saint Sebastian pierced point blank with arrows) and finally a film-within-a-film about a director making a movie about Debussy's life to create a documentary unlike anything before seen on the BBC.

"Debussy was an ambiguous character and I always let the character of the person or his work dictate the way the film goes," Russell said. "Also, one was a bit critical of artists like Debussy and I thought the time had come to ask questions, and the natural way for me to ask questions was to have a film director talking to an actor, because an actor always asks questions about the character he's playing and the director usually had to answer them, or try to, often just to keep him happy. And when I found that Debussy was friendly with an intellectual named Pierre Lous from whom he derived a lot, it seemed an analogous relationship to that of a film director and an actor."

Now to find a leading man.

At this point in his career the twenty-seven-year-old Oliver Reed was fighting against the typecasting that kept him firmly entrenched in bad-guy roles. "I had the misfortune to look like a prizefighter and speak like a public school boy," he said. "When I started, the only jobs I got were as teddy boys in leather jackets who whipped old ladies around the head with a bicycle chain and stole their handbags."

Wanting to branch out, he figured he needed one role that could prove he was capable of more than glowering on command. Enter Ken Russell, who arranged an audition with Reed in the BBC office Russell shared with three other directors. According to Cliff Goodwin's book Evil Spirits, the meeting went something like this:

"I hear you're considering me for Debussy," said Reed when the men met face to face.

"Do you know anything about Debussy?" replied Russell, sizing up the actor.

"Not a thing."

As Russell gave Reed a Reader's Digest version of the composer's life a bored look formed on the actor's face. Russell then abruptly wrapped the meeting with a curt "Well, thanks for coming in."

"So I won't be playing the part, then?" Reed asked.


Excerpted from Raising Hell by Richard Crouse. Copyright © 2012 Richard Crouse. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Give Me Moody One:
My Night with Ken Russell 7
Chapter One Oliver Reed and Ken Russell 13
Chapter Two Inspiration and the Writing 35
Chapter Three Casting The Devils 57
Chapter Four Sights and Sounds of The Devils 69
Chapter Five Directing The Devils 87
Chapter Six The Devils' Context 119
Chapter Seven The Film’s Release 139
Chapter Eight Renaissance of The Devils 163
Appendix Historical Cast of Characters 183
Bibliography 193
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