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Classic Film and ‘The Colonies’: The Devil’s Disciple (1959)

We’re bringing our July series on Classic Film and ‘The Colonies’ to a close this month with a first-time watch for yours truly. Our July viewing has demonstrated just how interesting the variety in historical epics can be. We’ve seen some unique and fun watches, but others have been “period pictures” at their most generic. This week, we’re looking at an A-list, supersized, “Devil” of a picture, The Devil’s Disciple. The only question is, does it live up to its colorful marketing strategy?

The Devil’s Disciple drops viewers into a small town during the Colonial era. A British General (Laurence Olivier) runs the area with an iron fist… Is there any other kind? However, when a local man is hung as a traitor to the Crown, a idealistic minister (Burt Lancaster) and the rascally son of the murdered man (Kirk Douglas) muster the courage to rise against the tyranny of the British. Janette Scott co-stars in the picture. Guy Hamilton directs The Devil’s Disciple from a screenplay by John Dighton and Roland Kibbee. The idea originates from a play by George Bernard Shaw

The draw in this picture is most certainly the main cast, especially Lancaster, Douglas, and Olivier. Coming in 1959, the movie shows each of these acting legends functioning at the peak of their powers. 

The Devil’s Disciple is the best showcase for Douglas as the rascally rapscallion Richard Dudgeon. While the narrative is most aligned with Reverend Anderson (Lancaster), Douglas’ transcends his lessened screen time to give the strongest, most enjoyable performance in the picture. Douglas is clearly having a blast with the part and easily carries most of the script’s humor. Viewers most familiar with Douglas’ work know the actor is at his best when he can inject a bit of an anti-hero flair into a character and that is precisely what happens here. He’s having the most fun and as a result, he’s the most fun to watch.

At the same time though, the script is quite uneven as it juggles the other characters. While many roles are populated with some of the peak A-list talent of the middle of the twentieth century, these aren’t all A-list parts. Olivier is particularly underutilized as General Burgoyne. The acting titan isn’t given a lot to do. With that being said though, he shines with what he’s given. Watching the film, this critic couldn’t help but wonder, how much better would this movie be if Olivier’s role were expanded and he had the room to do what he does best.

Ultimately though, this is fully and completely Lancaster’s movie. He’s top-billed and he has the most screen time. However, his performance feels tired and flat. The late 1950s was a particularly fruitful time in Lancaster’s career and he has been much better than we see him here. The issues with the performance are exacerbated when viewed opposite the dynamic work by the underutilized Douglas and Olivier. It seems like a missed opportunity that Lancaster is forced to the front of this film when one shift in focus might have allowed each of these men to shine.

It’s difficult to crack just how to classify The Devil’s Disciple. The movie is interestingly marketed as a comedy… IMDB, TCM… everyone seems to agree on that… except this critic, that is. As the period piece is currently structured, the only business it has calling itself a comedy is that it isn’t a real tragedy. There is some “silliness” that goes on… which is mostly tied in with Olivier and Douglas. Though, as these characters take a backseat to a very dour Burt Lancaster, the comedy isn’t really allowed to shine through.

When examining The Devil’s Disciple and looking at its struggles, one must start with the film’s production. Journeyman director Guy Hamilton (best known to United States audiences for his work on the James Bond franchise) stepped into the film, taking over from Alexander Mackendrick (the best director you potentially haven’t heard of). Mackendrick brought a dynamic (and flexible) style, having worked on everything from comedies like The Ladykillers and The Man in the White Suit to noirs like The Sweet Smell of Success. Mackendrick was let go amid rumors that he was too much of a perfectionist. However, budgetary reasons aside, if the final result is anything like the movies mentioned above, is that really a bad thing?

So, with all this being said, it perhaps makes sense that The Devil’s Disciple suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. It doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. The film took shape under visionary Alexander Mackendrick, but came to life with Guy Hamilton, a director who thrived in the. James Bond franchise (which is ultimately crafted by the producer, not the director). Is this the raunchy, zany, action comedy the marketing materials seem to think it is? No. This really isn’t ‘A Devil of a Picture’ as the poster proclaims. In reality, this ends up being a largely forgettable historical drama with a few chuckle-worthy moments. No more, no less. The Devil’s Disciple is yet another example of missed potential.

All in all very little separates The Devil’s Disciple from the cold formality of The Howard’s of Virginia. The only difference… and what makes this feel infinitely worse, is that The Devil’s Disciple yearns to be a comedy. It just seems a shame no one told Burt Lancaster. Fans of these performers might find this one an entertaining viewing, but likely few others. You’ve been warned.

The Devil’s Disciple is available to purchase here!

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1950s, Drama


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