Sidewinder’s View: “The Devils” (1971) [SPOILERS]

One of my all-time favorite motion pictures, this one. Now that I’ve acquired a Region-Free Blu-ray player and the widescreen Region 2 DVD of the film, even more so.

A common mistake many fans of The Devils make is when they focus on the identities of the story’s villains, as opposed to the villains’ goal. “Ooooohhh, it’s a criticism of organized religion, the power-lust of the church, its hypocrisy and corruption, the dangers of combining church and state”…blah blah blah.

Yes, I say, that is what’s going on in the movie, it’s very clear, but why? The monolith of Church and State conducts itself this way, yes…but in service of what?

The centralization of power.

The State with the help of the Church, and vice versa, is intent on extending liberty-crushing tentacles of a tyrannical big government. Oliver Reed’s renegade priest wants no part of it. He’s even had walls built around the city so as to keep that tyrannical power out.

So the church goes to the State, i.e. the King, gives him a sales pitch to get him on board– notice, they go to him for approval, not vice versa, why? Because he’s top dog. He’s the King. The Church is big, but not as big and it’s still just a church. To pull this thing off, the Church needs the force of the King’s arms.

The King agrees they have to bring down Oliver Reed, but they can’t just take him out, assassinate him, they have to ruin him first. Destroy his credibility, which will then lend legitimacy to the State’s expansionism and take away the inspiration Reed’s death might otherwise provide to anyone else unhappy with the State.

The whole plot’s about a sadistic smear campaign carried out in service of a power play.

They do that by bringing in the Michael Gothard character and having him start up a witch hunt, first targeting the local nuns. Why? To get witnesses against Oliver Reed, so they can arrest him, put him on trial. It’s a show trial, its verdict predetermined.

The real point of the trial is to get Reed to go along with the lie, to confess to consorting with the Devil. The State tortures him, hideously, trying to break him. It fails. He dies at the hands of the State, but at the end we’re told there remain doubts among the populace about the legitimacy of the State’s efforts.

Thematically, the central conflict in The Devils— which, boiled down to its essence, is Tyranny Versus Liberty– is identical to the central conflict in Braveheart. Both stories essentially have the same conclusion.

But, unlike Braveheart, there are no big battle scenes in The Devils…zero sentimentality…the main character, Oliver Reed’s Father Grandier, is a debauched womanizer, not the most appealing fellow during the first part of the story (though his character has an awakening of sorts once the conflict really kicks in to gear).

It’s a very cynical and sometimes surreal take on historical events and figures, and, stylistically, often goes to extremes either bizarre, violent or profane. The imagery, character behavior, the movie’s often psychotic musical score, is not for all tastes. The Devils, simply on a surface level, is an attack on audience sensibilities.

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First time around, I found it a very hard movie to like. But it left an impression on me that I was not able to shake.

Because of its content, because of its style, it’s a movie, that, if you’re receptive at all to it, gives you a lot to look back on and think about, which, for me is what makes the difference between a merely good movie and a great one.

One of my favorite moments in the movie is when the King meets the Michael Gothard character, plays along with the witch hunting hysteria Gothard’s whipping up for him, then pulls a prank on him and laughs in Gothard’s face, his way of essentially telling Gothard:

“You’re very entertaining, but you and I both know you’re full of shit. I just wanted YOU to know that I know that. But I like what you’re doing. Keep at it”.

Made a fool of in front of the King and his court, does Gothard quit? No. The charade of the witch hunt continues, that charade merely being a tool for a much larger purpose.

The zealotry shown by the Gothard character indicates to me he’s convinced the Satanic threat is real. At the very least, he’s convinced the Church believes in it, and that his witch hunt is actually meant to counter this threat.

Most important is the appeal made to his vanity, the fact that he’s been chosen to lead the fight because of his excellence as a devout warrior for the side of righteousness.

Gothard’s character has, to paraphrase the line from Scarface, gotten high on his own supply…of hysterical, irrational bullshit. As a result, he’s lost all sense of objectivity.

Seems to me that The Devils fans who only focus on the identity of the religious villains in the piece are as deluded as the Gothard character before the King pulls that prank on him.

Some fans of the movie like The Devils because the movie because it’s so weird, surreal and in-your-face shocking…

…which is the same reason a lot of other people dislike it.

Some like the movie because they’re convinced it makes some kind of profoundly damning statement against religion…which is precisely the same reason alot of other people despise the film, because it feels like the movie’s making a really obnoxious statement about their beliefs. That it’s intended to be insulting.

The movie’s about so much more than what aspects these particular fans have focused on. Personally, I don’t have a chip on my shoulder about the Catholic church, nor do I have an axe to grind with organized religion in general, so to me, the religious aspects of The Devils are just details that help tell the story.

Provocative aspects of the movie aside, what it’s really about is the immorality of tyranny, illustrated by the depths of depravity both the tyrants and their cronies sink to in pursuit of a greedy centralization of power.

But it’s the tyranny itself, not the identities of its practitioners, which resonates with me and it’s how I view the story. Yes, in its approach to the material, it’s meant to elicit a strong response, but it’s not done just for the shock of it.

Trouble is, when a filmmaker sets out to go to extremes and achieves it, the extremes end up being all that too many people take notice of, in either approval or disapproval.

Seems to me, so many fans of The Devils are unable to see the big picture***, unable to recognize what the movie’s truly about, what it’s trying to say.

***Much like the lefties who watch Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and see it as some sort of anti-capitalist screed depicting “the evils of big business”. Note to the clueless: the bad guys in Brazil aren’t businessmen, but bureaucrats, politicians and their assorted flunkies, in thrall to an all-powerful, bloated Big Government nightmare.

Don’t get hung up on the window dressing, I say, when the designer’s intent was to have you look through the window and get a full view of what lies beyond it.

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