At the onset of the American Revolution, the British Army, who are trying to make their way to New England, decide to hang anyone suspected of being a rebel. Their most recent victim is Tim Dudgeon who Reverend Anthony Anderson (Burt Lancaster), his pastor, tries to save. Unfortunately, he arrives too late to tell the British that Dudgeon is innocent. Anderson then tries to take the body but is informed that Dudgeon must hang as a reminder to the rebels. Anderson is adamant and almost arrested himself until some noted townspeople vouch for him. Later that night, Anderson is visited by Dick Dudgeon (Kirk Douglas), Dudgeon’s oldest son and the black sheep of the family. He has daringly stolen his father’s body from under the British Army’s nose and delivers it to Anderson. Despite Dudgeon's open rejection of Christianity, he asks Anderson to give his father a proper burial.
Later, when the British find the grave, they assume Anderson stole the body and set out to arrest him. Anderson, who urged Dudgeon to come to his home so they could speak about the danger he is in, has been called away. Dudgeon’s mother is suspected of being on her deathbed and Anderson must be by her side. Dudgeon is left alone with Anderson’s wife Judith (Janette Scott), who is openly hateful of him. Thinking him a selfish adventurer, she must nonetheless entertain him so she does not upset her husband. When the British come for the arrest, Dudgeon pretends to be Anderson, much to his and Judith’s bewilderment. He warns Judith privately that she must not try and save him for her husband would be put to death either way.
Judith goes to inform her husband of what has taken place, urging him to save Dudgeon. When he runs off, she mistakenly thinks he does so to save himself. While Anderson tries to gather forces, he comes across true rebels and joins them in conquering the troops stationed in a nearby town. Judith races off to the prison and devotes herself to Dudgeon. While Dudgeon is on trial, Anderson receives an important missive stating that the relief troops the British so desperately need are not available. He takes this message to General Burgoyne (Lawrence Olivier), who is at the trial of Dudgeon and uses the information to save Dudgeon’s life.
Though it did not get great reviews on it’s release and is not really historically correct, I found The Devil’s Disciple mildly entertaining. Douglas is fabulous in the film (the man knew how to play a charming rogue), and Lancaster livens up his boring part in the battle scene, but it’s Olivier (third billed) that steals the show. Elegant, disillusioned, highly intelligent and quite cynical, he is the perfect, if a bit ironic, mouthpiece to deliver Bernard Shaw's cutting barbs about the British's shortcomings. There is also an ingenious and slightly quirky use of puppets to assist in the narration of the story that's very interesting.
Apparently Sir Laurence Olivier was willing to be third billed as he was trying to get funding to put on his screen version of Macbeth. Unfortunately, during this filming, Vivien Leigh was having a mental breakdown. Later, Olivier would state that this affected his performance immensely, ironic since he acted beautifully, due to his worry over her. It’s also rumored that he was bitter over the fact that Lancaster and Douglas’ production companies were able to get funding to film a British playwright’s work, while he was not.
Though Lancaster’s production company helped land the Shaw play, their history of going over-budget meant that the huge color extravaganza, typical of films from that era, was vetoed. Yet, the puppets got in! Also, Lancaster, though top billed, was relegated to playing the part of the pious Anderson because Douglas was riding high off his recent film successes. This was the third film out of seven that they did together.
Tonight on TCM!
Another Tuesday full of Douglas! I'm gonna watch Paths Of Glory and Lust For Life!