The Devil’s Disciple (1959)

  • Year: 1959
  • Released: 20 Aug 1959
  • Country: United Kingdom, United States
  • Adwords: Nominated for 1 BAFTA Award1 nomination total
  • IMDb:
  • Rotten Tomatoes:
  • Metacritics:
  • Available in: 720p, 1080p,
  • Language: English
  • MPA Rating: Approved
  • Genre: Comedy, History, Romance
  • Runtime: 83 min
  • Writer: John Dighton, Roland Kibbee, George Bernard Shaw
  • Director: Guy Hamilton, Alexander Mackendrick
  • Cast: Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier
  • Keywords: minister, based on play or musical, black and white, 18th century, american revolution, flint rock,
69% – Critics
69% – Audience

The Devil’s Disciple Storyline

In a small New England town during the American War of Independence, Dick Dudgeon, a revolutionary American Puritan, is mistaken for local minister Rev. Anthony Anderson and arrested by the British. Dick discovers himself incapable of accusing another human to suffer and continues to masquerade as the reverend. The minister’s wife, Judith, is moved by Dick’s actions and mistakenly interprets them as an expression of love for her. In spite of his protestations she finds herself romantically attracted to him. Brought before British commander General Burgoyne, Dudgeon displays his willingness to die for his principles. At the last minute Dick is saved from ministerial pursuits to become a revolutionary leader.—alfiehitchie

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The Devil’s Disciple Movie Reviews

“The British Soldier Can Stand up to anything, except the British War Office.”

Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, both players who chose rather successfully to chart their own careers, decided on their third co-starring film to jointly produce it as well. The property chosen was George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple which takes place in the northern theater of operations in the American Revolution.

Shaw’s wit is going full tilt here as he’s having a great old time blasting upper and middle class pretensions of British society. The vehicle he uses is General John Burgoyne who lost the Battle of Saratoga to the rebel army which guaranteed French recognition and European aid for the colonists.

Both Lancaster as Parson Anthony Anderson and Kirk Douglas as committed non-believer Dick Dudgeon play larger than life characters here as they usually do and both have their moments. But in fact this film is stolen completely out from under them by Sir Laurence Olivier as General Burgoyne.

As a previous reviewer noted, Shaw wrote the best lines in the play for the Burgoyne character. But it takes the skill of a player like Olivier to bring them off. Burgoyne was very much a product of Georgian Great Britain, a cynical man in a very cynical business. By the way Harry Andrews as Major Swinton does an excellent job essentially as Burgoyne’s straight man. Andrews is a pompous sort of character and Olivier tosses the bon mots off him like a handball player.

The story involves Dudgeon being mistaken for Anderson and being sentenced to hang for rebel activity. Anderson arouses the populace and sheds his parson’s collar for rebel activity and saves Dudgeon from the noose. Burgoyne quits the town he was occupying and goes off to his destiny at Saratoga.

But in this case as in a lot of Shaw plays, the story isn’t as important as the commentary. And when the commentary is delivered by Olivier, it’s being brought to you by the best.

Olivier Flat in “Devil’s Disciple”?

This is in answer to otter_c, who wrote: “The only disappointment is Laurence Olivier as General Burgoyne. Olivier castigated himself in his autobiography for botching one of Shaw’s most hilarious roles, his personal griefs were overwhelming him at the time. He’s nervous and unfocused, line after wonderful line falls flat. (He returned to form shortly after in “Spartacus” and “The Entertainer”)”

All due respect to both you and Sir Lawrence, but I think this is an instance where his self-appraisal is a little off-target.

I’ve always enjoyed this performance as a very excellent portrait of a thinking man and wit under a great deal of pressure, with no idea that Olivier did not care for it — thing is, Burgoyne IS distracted; he has more important fish to fry than this petty punitive hanging, and even before he gets the news about Howe he is deeply concerned for the continued viability of his command: He tosses off his bon mots as the after-thoughts of the kind of intellect who could actually write plays when he wasn’t under siege in an unpopular war in unfriendly country.

And I find that makes them and Burgoyne funnier than, say, Ian Richardson’s total self- awareness in the ’87 BBC production.

Olivier liked to be In Control when he worked; and in some of the roles in which I do not much care for him I feel it makes him artificial and excessively mannered. So naturally, a performance given when he was overwhelmed with grief is gonna rankle the perfectionist in him; but since he was preoccupied with other, more important (to him) matters it put him willy-nilly square in the same frame of mind as I gauge Gentlemanly Johnny to have been in as disaster loomed, I feel it really helps make the performance live in a way the studied Olivier technique might not have come within yards of.

The two men — the actor and the general he portrays — are up against it, but instinct pulls each through even if more distractedly than if under less severe constraints; there is still enough of the essence of each to make a credible showing.

The artist is not always the best critic of his own work; and Olivier’s General Burgoyne is excellent work whether the actor knew what he was doing or not.

Overlooked , underrated gem

Oddly enough, very few good films have been made about The American revolution, and this is one of them.Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster put in very fine performances, with Lancaster acting against type as the priggish, self-righteous minister who transforms himself into a dashing, wickedly, hero, and Kirk Douglas as the sardonic, cynical, Satanic, selfish, and utterly delightful Dick Dudgeon, who transforms himself inot an altruistic, self sacrificing hero. Laurence Oliviers performance is little too langourous and flat, until he delivers the films great punch-line, “history will lie, as usual.” Of course, it may be that the films sharp-eyed, toughly ironic view of the revolution has militated against it ever gaining the popularity it deserves