Friday, July 4, 2014

4TH OF JULY: The Devil’s Disciple (1959)


                “The Devil’s Disciple” was based on the George Bernard Shaw play.  The play was a strange choice for a movie considering Shaw did not like the play and never staged it in England.  Considering the Irishman’s view toward England, Shaw probably would have appreciated the movie.  The film was directed by Guy Hamilton and stars Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, and Laurence Olivier (billed in that order).  Olivier did not enjoy the experience and did not get along with his co-stars.  He would purposely get their names mixed up.  The movie was not a success.  Possibly because of the egregious tag line:  “Burt, Kirk, and Larry are coming – by George!”

                The movie opens with a nifty animated map explaining Burgoyne’s campaign to separate New England from the rest of the colonies by invading New York.  It summarizes the Revolutionary War as the “suppression of a rebellion” versus “the pursuit of liberty”.  Reverend Anderson (Lancaster) attempts to prevent the execution of a rebel and then is prevented from giving the victim a Christian burial.  That night the rebel's son Richard Dudgeon (Douglas) steals the body.  He’s a rogue who dresses like a dandy.  The title refers to him.  He is the opposite of the pacifist, moral Anderson.  Anderson’s wife Judith (Janette Scott) is repelled, yet intrigued by this bad boy.  When Gen. Burgoyne arrives, he insists on arresting Anderson for burying the rebel.  Dudgeon claims to be the Reverend and is found guilty in a trial.  Anderson leads the militia in an assault to rescue him.  Judith is torn between the two.

You have violated the law against colonists
being more handsome than Banastre Tarleton
                This is not your typical war movie.  However, it is certainly more warlike than the play.  The movie does  a good job fitting some action in that the play did not have.  The movie is undoubtedly better than the play.  The acting is stellar as can be expected.  Lancaster and Douglas made seven movies together and it looks like they are enjoying themselves.  While Olivier may not have enjoyed the experience, his mood was perfect for Burgoyne.  He probably found a kindred spirit in “Gentelman Johnny”.  He is snarky (a word not yet in use back then).  Janette Scott is in over her head and if the movie was remade today, Lancaster and Douglas would go riding off into the sunset at the end.  The plot is fine even if Shaw was not proud of it.  Even lesser Shaw is still pretty darn good.  It is a bit predictable and simplistic.  When Anderson changes his personality to action hero, he also changes his clothes to buckskin.  The dialogue is outstanding, of course.  At the end of the film, someone asks Burgoyne what history will say about the events and he responds with:  “History will tell lies, as usual.”  Dudgeon gets some great lines in the trial.  The movie is a deft blend of romance, comedy, and action.  The action is surprisingly vigorous.   The rebel assault includes some effective cannon fire. 

If you want to break your bayonets,
go ahead and stab
                The movie is appropriate viewing for the 4th of July.  John Burgoyne was an actual figure and his personality is portrayed based on his reputation.  The Anderson character finds a loose equivalency in Peter Muhlenberg – the “Fighting Pastor of the Revolution”.  Muhlenberg was an Anglican minister who left his pulpit to command the 8th Virginia Regiment.  Muhlenberg had been active in rebel politics before this so he did not have the transformation that Anderson undergoes.  The background of his campaign is a fairly good tutorial on what may have been the most important event in the Revolution.  Burgoyne did flounder in the American wilderness due to the recalcitrance of the rebels.  The aftermath of the fictional events in Springtown is going to be the Battle of Saratoga.  The movie accurately reflects the divided loyalties among the colonists and the frustrations this created for the British.  Burgoyne is also frustrated by the lack of support from the British high command.  One theme that is very Shawian is the movie is critical of the clergy and religion.  It is a bit of a surprise that the screenwriters did not substitute action for the cynicism about religion.  Kudos on that.

                “The Devil’s Disciple” has its detractors, but I am not one of them.  To me it is a fun movie as evidenced by the unique animation.  Of course, it did not hurt that I am a huge fan of Lancaster and Douglas.  Throw in Olivier and I’m all in.  Besides, considering the paucity of movies about the Revolutionary War, you have to take what you can get.


GRADE  =   A


  1. Nice review. Saw this on TCM a few years back and liked it, mainly for Olivier. Given how few good Revolutionary War movies exist, it's well-worth seeking out.

  2. I've seen parts of this one. In fact it was on today when I got home on TCM I believe. Great cast. Three real heavy weights. Not a very well known movie and probably did lousy for the studio at the time. But your right: the chance to see those three actors together in one movie is a rare thing.

  3. Lancaster + Douglas + Olivier + Shaw = must see

  4. It was not as good as I had hoped, given the cast, but Douglas dominates the film as the rogue who does not pretend to be anything else. As you said, there are few movies on the American Revolution, and the cast is amazing.


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