The American War of Independence is raging, with the locals rallying against the British troops in various locations around the country, but in this small town the Brits are doing their best to keep order by executing the insurgents they manage to find – whether they are actually insurgents or not. One such unfortunate is being hanged today, and his son Christie (Neil McCallum) rushes from the scene to fetch the parson, the Reverend Andrews (Burt Lancaster), in the hopes that he will prevent the death; he tears himself away from his sermon and both men head towards the gallows. Alas, they are too late to save him, and the Reverend begins to wonder if his stance of non-intervention is now viable…
Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas starred together quite a few times, a friendly screen rivalry that audiences frequently responded to, this strapping pair of masculine ideals who you could choose one over the other as your favourite while still acknowledging they were both pretty darn good at what they did. That was part of the pleasure of watching them pit their thespian wits against one another, knowing you were witnessing what amounted to a battle between two equals, though with The Devil’s Disciple there was one more giant of the screen added to the mix in the shape of Laurence Olivier, who played General Burgoyne, the nemesis to both the Reverend and Douglas’s actual rebel Richard Dudgeon.
If anything, Olivier’s delivery of lines based on a play by George Bernard Shaw stole the picture from under the noses of the two more muscular stars, purring out the witty dialogue and placing his character as a victim of circumstance in that he is merely doing his job in a war he doesn’t necessarily agree with, but not exactly protesting his part in the executions either. If anything, he wasn’t in this enough, and it was only the force of personality from Lancaster and Douglas that didn’t see us hankering for him to appear more frequently. Another drawback was that the three actors didn’t really share the same scene until well after the halfway mark, though the chemistry between the Americans made up for that.
Plus you could argue the anticipation of watching Sir Larry finally square off against the other two was at least as engaging as the point it finally happened. Elsewhere, Lancaster may have begun as an essentially pacifist man of the cloth, but being who he was you could safely bet he wouldn’t stay that way, and before long was demonstrating his manliness by walking through battle zones, cannon fire going off in all directions, and not so much as flinching. Even when he’s caught in a large explosion, he stands tall, grinning like a madman, as we would expect from one so cartoonishly virile, and Douglas had to concede to his partner’s more impressive qualities that if it wasn’t for Olivier, Lancaster would have claimed the film, as if the whole production was a competition rather than a translation of the text.
Frankly, the leading lady Janette Scott didn’t stand a chance; she played the Reverend Andrews’ wife Judith, loyal to her husband until he began to display signs of rebellion, but relegated very much to the whining and blubbering, weak-willed female position. You kept wanting her to show some backbone but the script wouldn’t allow it, so for most of the time Judith was simply present to make the men look even more forceful. Indeed, you half anticipated the grand finale to see Lancaster scoop Douglas up in his arms and them to ride off together into the next battle against the hated Brits, and if it didn’t quite go that far, it did tend to reduce the entire conflict to a personality contest rather than go into the validity, morals and ironies of the war as Shaw would have been more interested in bringing out. Nevertheless, by throwing a few sops to intellectual concerns, mostly with some dinky animations with knowing narration, The Devil’s Disciple managed to pose as something more serious than the rollicking historical romp it actually was. Music by Richard Rodney Bennett.