I watched The Devil’s Disciple this week, a movie from 1959 starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, and Laurence Olivier. It’s based on the play of the same name by George Bernard Shaw. The play is from 1897, and is set in New England in 1777, during the American Revolution. Olivier plays British General John Burgoyne, also known as “Gentleman Johnny,” a real-life figure who was also a playwright. Douglas plays Dick Dudgeon, the title character, who is a hedonistic ne’er-do-well. (He’s not actually evil, he’s just sort of an outsider who plays by his own rules and mocks the piety of his fellow townspeople.) Lancaster plays Reverend Anthony Anderson, a rather colorless minister.
The plot concerns the British occupation of the town. Dudgeon’s father is hung by the British as a traitor, and Dudgeon breaks the law by cutting his body down and burying it in Anderson’s churchyard. Anderson invites Dudgeon to his house for dinner, as he thinks he can help redeem Dudgeon. Anderson’s wife Judith is appalled at this idea, as she sees Dudgeon as a hopelessly wicked man who is beyond saving. Despite this, she is attracted to the dashing Dudgeon. When Dudgeon is over for dinner, Anderson is called away. British soldiers then knock on the door wanting to arrest Anderson, whom they believe stole Dudgeon’s father’s body. (Dudgeon is also wanted by the British, which is part of the reason that Anderson is being so nice to him.) When the British mistakenly believe that Dudgeon is Anderson, Dudgeon plays along so as to spare the minister. Anderson is sentenced to hang, and during his brief trial, Dudgeon continues impersonating Anderson until Judith breaks down and reveals Dudgeon’s true identity. However, because Dudgeon has said terrible things about King George during the trial, he is still sentenced to die for being a traitor. Meanwhile, the real Reverend Anderson has learned of Dudgeon’s bravery. Anderson rides off to find Hawkins, a lawyer who he thinks can help. Hawkins is actually the leader of the rebels, and while engaged in a skirmish with the British, Anderson finds his fighting spirit and blows up a British ammunition site. Just as Dudgeon is about to be hanged, Anderson rides into the village and presents General Burgoyne with orders that Dudgeon be freed. Anderson announces that the rebels have just beaten the British at the battle of Saratoga. Burgoyne reluctantly frees Dudgeon. Anderson then tells Judith he has joined the rebels. He tells her she is free to go with Dudgeon if she wants to, and he will not stand in her way. She chooses Anderson over Dudgeon, despite her realization that Dudgeon is good at heart as well.
Despite the terrific pedigree of the three main actors, The Devil’s Disciple falls flat as a movie. Laurence Olivier was underused, as he basically plays little more than a cameo role. It wasn’t necessary to cast as big a star as Olivier in that part. Douglas gives a terrifically extroverted performance, and is a lot of fun to watch, but Lancaster was miscast. There needed to be a bigger contrast between the two actors playing those parts. Because Douglas and Lancaster were so similar as leading men, we’re not surprised when Reverend Anderson suddenly becomes a man of action. Also, it’s not that surprising when Anderson’s wife is attracted to Dudgeon. If you’re married to Burt Lancaster, it’s not a stretch to believe you’ll probably be attracted to Kirk Douglas. Lancaster playing Anderson is a case of a star’s prior reputation and prior performances making it almost impossible to believe him in this part. If you’ve ever seen Burt Lancaster in a movie before, you know he’s a big strong guy who can kick some ass when needed. But in the movie, we’re supposed to be surprised when Reverend Anderson suddenly transforms from a milquetoast minister into a fighter. The surprise doesn’t work with an action star like Lancaster in that role. Someone like Montgomery Clift, who wasn’t an action star, would have been more believable. (Clift was Lancaster’s first choice to play Anderson.) Janette Scott gives a very good performance as Judith Anderson, despite the fact that she was only 19 years old when the movie was filmed, and thus was way too young for either Burt or Kirk, who were both in their mid-40’s. (Or were Burt and Kirk too old for their parts?)
Douglas is all grins and charm as Dudgeon, in a performance that’s reminiscent of some other parts that Lancaster had played. The first time we see Kirk, his hair is all over the place, in contrast to the rest of the film, when it’s neatly slicked back. Perhaps Douglas’s unkempt look in the first scene was a visual reference to Lancaster’s “bird’s nest” of hair? (One movie critic once wrote that they could tell what kind of performance Lancaster would give based on his haircut. If it was wild and disheveled, you could count on an outgoing, swashbuckling performance. If his hair was cut shorter, be prepared for a serious drama.) Lancaster, in contrast, is given a thankless part with not much to do. Reverend Anderson is just kind of a dull guy. Even the scenes where he finally becomes a man of action aren’t that interesting, and are not enough to lift the film. Behind the scenes, supposedly Laurence Olivier kept getting Douglas and Lancaster confused, and would call them both by the wrong name. (Which I would suspect annoyed both men.)
The Devil’s Disciple had a rather troubled production history. Lancaster produced the movie through his company Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, and when Kirk Douglas came on board, he co-produced it through his Bryna Productions company. Lancaster had purchased the film rights several years before from George Bernard Shaw’s widow, playing $600,000, a huge sum in the 1950’s. Lancaster originally wanted to play the Dick Dudgeon role, and wanted his From Here to Eternity co-star Montgomery Clift for the Anthony Anderson part. This would have been much better casting, and it’s definitely understandable why Lancaster would want to play Dudgeon. But because of Clift’s 1956 car accident while filming Raintree County, he was uninsurable, according to Lancaster. However, Clift did make two movies in 1958, and one in 1959, so he wasn’t uninsurable for long. In early 1958, Douglas came aboard, wanting to play the Dick Dudgeon role, which left Lancaster playing Anderson. Because Hecht-Hill-Lancaster was not doing very well financially, the budget for The Devil’s Disciple was cut in half. Lancaster said, “We had at first planned to make it a $3 million dollar color film. Now it was going to be a black and white movie that cost a million and a half, a very limited budget.” (The Cinema History of Burt Lancaster, by David Fury, p. 130) Director Alexander Mackendrick, who had previously directed Lancaster in the amazing Sweet Smell of Success, was replaced by Guy Hamilton after only about a week of filming. (Hamilton would go on to direct the James Bond movies Goldfinger, Diamonds are Forever, Live and Let Die, and The Man with the Golden Gun.) Mackendrick was deemed too “meticulous” to be able to finish the picture on the very limited 48-day shooting schedule. Lancaster later said, “It’s ironic that his two days on the film are the best in the picture.” (Fury, p. 130) Which begs the question, which two days did Mackendrick shoot? To clarify the timing, Lancaster said that after a week of filming, Mackendrick had only gotten through the shooting schedule for the first two days. So Lancaster wasn’t able to get the movie cast the way he originally wanted to, he had to play the role that wasn’t his first choice, he had to cut the film’s budget in half, and he had to fire his first choice for director! No wonder the finished movie is a bit of a mess. The trimming of the budget may have resulted in also trimming the running time, as the film only runs 82 minutes. The movie probably would have worked better in color, as I had trouble telling the rebels from the British. I wonder if the odd paper-mache animations illustrating the battles between the rebels and the British were due to the lack of a budget?
Both Mackendrick and Guy Hamilton were frustrated by the casting. Mackendrick explained that the main thrust of the story is that the two main characters are miscast. Dudgeon is really a born preacher, and Anderson is a man of action. “So when they change over, you get this great burst of energy. But Kirk Douglas, he’s another Burt, so you lost the temperamental thing.” (Against Type by Gary Fishgall, p. 177) In directing Lancaster, Mackendrick tried to “inhibit him in every way possible from being the Burt Lancaster that we know…to make him play somebody who’s gauche, clumsy, shy, and lacking in force.” (Fishgall p. 177)
When Guy Hamilton took over the direction, he was instantly faced with a problem, as Douglas wanted to make his part even flashier, against the objections of Lancaster. Hamilton knew that whoever’s side he didn’t take would hate him from then on. Hamilton answered that if he had his way, Douglas and Lancaster would switch parts. That settled the argument, and neither star bothered him from then on. (Story from Fishgall, p. 178)
In summary, The Devil’s Disciple is an odd misfire. It’s the kind of movie you hear about and think, “Why have I never heard of this movie before?” Well, because it’s not that good. The budget and the running time make it almost seem like a B movie, despite the fact that it has two giant movie stars at the pinnacle of their careers, and a man often called the greatest actor ever.