By 1959 Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas were at the peak of the popularity with movie audiences. Genuine superstars, the larger-than-life actors were among the first to exert their independence from the major studios by forming their own production companies and becoming masters of their own destinies. Between them they produced and sometime starred in some excellent films. Among the most underrated of their numerous on-screen team-ups was their joint production of "The Devil's Disciple", based on George Bernard Shaw's scathing satire based in New England during the American Revolution. The film was criticized in some quarters (including the New York Times) for taking some severe liberties with Shaw's original work in order to elaborate the action sequences that audiences would expect to see in a Lancaster/Douglas film. Still, the movie retains the requisite wit that would have to be apparent in any adaptation of a Shaw story. The film had a troubled production history. It was in the works to be made as early as 1939. Over the years, names like Marlon Brando, Rex Harrison, Montgomery Clift and Carroll Baker had been attached to various announcements about production schedules that never materialized.When Lancaster got the film rights to the story it was announced it would go into production in 1955. By the time it all came together, Lancaster had teamed with Kirk Douglas for a joint production with Laurence Olivier now the third lead. The film was originally to be directed by Alexander Mackendrick who had recently worked with Lancaster on "Sweet Smell of Success". Shortly after filming began, Mackendrick was summarily fired. The director claimed it was because of his objection to revisions in the screenplay that emphasized action and sex over the elements that were pure Shaw. Lancaster and Douglas maintained that his release was due to their dissatisfaction with the pace of filming. In any event, Mackendrick's dismissal was good news for Guy Hamilton, the up-and-coming young British director who would go on to make four James Bond movies. As a replacement for Mackendrick, Hamilton's light touch and ability to mingle action with humor and romance made him a suitable director for this particular film.
Among the more significant changes between the play and screenplay is that the character of Rev. Anthony Anderson, played by Lancaster, has been elevated in importance to match that of Richard Dudgeon, played by Douglas. The film opens in New Hampshire village during the final days of the American Revolution. Anderson is a kindly, gentle man with a pretty young wife, Judith (Janette Scott), who tries to remain apolitical despite the momentous events taking place around him. The British under General Burgoyne (Laurence Olivier) have occupied the surrounding areas and taken harsh measures to eliminate rebel resistance. This is achieved by publicly hanging suspected rebels, sometimes on the basis of slim or mistaken evidence. When Burgoyne's men string up the father of notorious rebel Richard Dudgeon, it sets in motion a series of events that make it impossible for Rev. Anderson to remain on the political sidelines. Dudgeon, a wanted man, breaks the law by cutting down his father's body from the public square and bringing the deceased to Rev. Anderson's home. Anderson takes an instant dislike to Dudgeon because of his cynical sense of humor but agrees to bury his father with dignity in his church's graveyard. This results in tumultuous goings-on. Burgoyne orders Anderson arrested for treason but when the troops arrive at his house, Anderson is gone and Dudgeon, who is visiting, adopts his identity and is arrested in his place. This act of gallantry impresses Judith, who is already smitten by Dudgeon, as he represents the kind of dynamic man of action she secretly craves. (The fact that he looks like Kirk Douglas doesn't hurt matters.) Meanwhile, Anderson, has indeed turned into a man of action himself, engaging the British in battle. When he learns of Dudgeon's deception he begins to formulate a strategy that will ensure that Burgoyne is left with no choice but to spare Dudgeon from execution.
We won't make the case that "The Devil's Disciple" is an underrated classic but suffice it to say it has many merits and deserved a better fate from both critics and the public. Burt Lancaster may get top billing but he's saddled with a quiet, understated character throughout most of the film who comes across as a bit of a bore- at least until he takes up arms. Consequently, Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier get the lion's share of good dialogue and amusing scenes and both actors make the most of it. Douglas's interpretation of Dudgeon is as a man who scoffs at death and has a cock-sure determination that somehow he'll survive any situation. He also boasts a gallows humor that is more than matched by Olivier, who admires his intended victim and extends him every courtesy even as he prepares the gallows for his hanging. Olivier's bon mots are priceless, whether it's deploring the aristocrats in London who have botched British military operations in the colonies or simply chastising his lunkhead officers (Harry Andrews gets most of the abuse). Olivier's performance is all the more impressive given the fact that in his personal life he was coping with the mental breakdown of his wife, actress Vivien Leigh. He was nominated for a BAFTA for Best Actor.
The film also boasts some creative special effects with toy soldiers used to illustrate the military situation. Helping matters along is a lush score by Richard Rodney Bennett and some impressive B&W cinematography by Jack Hildyard. While "The Devil's Disciple" isn't the best of the Lancaster/Douglas screen collaborations (for that, see "Seven Days in May"), it's a highly enjoyable romp with much to recommend about it.
Kino Lorber has released the film on Blu-ray and it's a crisp, impressive transfer. There is a bonus trailer gallery of other Lancaster and Douglas titles available from the company: "The Train", "The Scalphunters", "Cast a Giant Shadow" and "Run Silent, Run Deep" along with the theatrical trailer for "The Devil's Disciple".