The Devil’s Disciple (1959)
By the time of this film’s production, the two leading American actors who were featured prominently across the bill boards had started up their own companies having long ago broken free of the standard seven year contract tying them to one particular studio. From Hecht-Hill-Lancaster and Bryna features comes this spirited adventure yarn that casts Laurence Olivier as the British General attempting to put down any uprisings in Colonial America. Representing the HHL company is Mr. Burt Lancaster and from the Bryna division is Mr. Kirk Douglas.
For the majority of this black and white period piece from playwright George Bernard Shaw, it’s Kirk Douglas who shines the brightest of the three stars. He’s proudly wearing a charismatic grin and displaying the carefree attitude of a devilish rogue in the choice role as “The Devil’s Disciple.”
When the short tempered Harry Andrews under Olivier’s command hangs an innocent man in a neighboring town square who just happens to be Douglas’ estranged Father, the hands of fate will have set the plot in motion. Playing the Minister from the dead man’s own village is Burt Lancaster who sees the injustices being dealt to the colonial settlers. He is a man of God and believes in peaceful solutions versus the hard hand of Andrews and company. When he’s refused the body, he retreats empty handed to his own village and parish.
In the dark of night a lone horseman will retrieve the hanging body and return it to the graveyard next to Burt’s church and thus we are introduced to the black sheep of the village, the grinning yet grizzled Kirk Douglas. His opening scene opposite Burt (versus might be a better word) is one that allows Kirk to overplay his role while Burt underplays his part. Prodding Burt’s minister, Douglas freely swears allegiance to the Devil and when invited for supper points out, “I never met a Minister yet who doesn’t ask you to supper and treat you to a sermon.”
Like their earlier go around as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday, these two characters will make for strange bedfellows until honor and respect will overtake their initial misgivings, bonding them in battle.
While Olivier must contend with guerilla warfare, the headstone of the hanged man is discovered in the cemetery that Lancaster keeps watch over leading the British to send troops in his direction. Burt feels it’s duty to warn Douglas. This leads to some more fun as Kirk visits the home of the Minister Burt and his skittish wife, Janette Scott. “The Devil’s Disciple under the Pastor’s roof.” Kirk playfully states. By the time the British arrive to arrest Burt over the body being stolen, Lancaster is out on another religious call leaving Kirk in his home with Miss Scott. Knowing that the troops have come to hang Burt, Kirk steps into Burt’s shoes and takes his place as the British troops have no idea what Burt looks like.
It’s a great scene as Kirk knowingly is going to certain death in the place of Burt and has to play up the angle with Scott who wants no part of Douglas stepping in to Burt’s shoes and the hangman’s noose. When eventually she rushes to Lancaster to tell him off the mistaken identity and how Douglas marched off with the troops, Burt will have to shed his straight laced Minister’s robes and ……… VOILA……. turn into the rip roaring action packed MOVIE STAR we all know him to be.
Before Burt turns the tables on the British, we are treated to a wonderful trial between the supposed Minister Douglas and Olivier’s General presiding over the court room proceedings of which the verdict is already set before it has begun. While Douglas successfully turns Harry Andrews into a buffoon, he’ll have less success while verbally sparring with Oliver. Another fine scene to relish for fans of these two who would of course famously go head to head in the 1960 classic Spartacus. Consider this a satirical warm up.
Burt will also get his licks in when he to has a verbal confrontation with Olivier nearer the fadeout making this a nice trifecta for fans of these legendary film stars. While watching it, I of course loved the interaction between Burt and Kirk which is paramount to their pairings and iconic status as a duo in film. The added smoothness of Olivier to the proceedings is nothing but icing on the cake as he goes toe to toe with each over the rights and wrongs of warfare.
I hadn’t seen this film in more years than I care to admit but won’t wait nearly as long for my next viewing. It’s fun, compact and full of adventure in a comedy of errors style that thankfully can be seen on blu ray release from Kino Lorber as of late. It was directed by Guy Hamilton who would go on to worldwide fame helming a number of James Bond flicks including the iconic Goldfinger.
Olivier gets a great tag line at the fade out……………… “History, Sir, Will tell lies as usual.”