Happy Birthday to Ken Russell, born July 3rd in 1927. Once the so-called enfant terrible of British cinema, Russell produced a dazzling array of powerful, vibrant and intelligent movies during his lifetime, which placed him among the greatest film and television directors of the second half of the twentieth century.
His love of cinema started early in childhood when he escaped to the local picture house to watch innumerable flickering matinees with his mother. The films fired his imagination, in particular Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen and the early monster movie The Secret of the Loch, both of which would be filtered into his later work (Dance of the Seven Veils, Altered States and Lair of the White Worm). At first Russell had ambitions to be a ballet dancer, but this was superseded by a passion for photography, which he studied at Walthamstow Technical College in London. After service in the Royal Navy, where he once presented a musical number of fishermen darning their nets with sailors in drag sewing their silk stockings, he began taking photographs of teenagers—most famously his series on “Teddy Girls,” which were published in Picture Post. Looking at these early photographs, you can see hints of Russell’s distinctive cinematic framing and compositional style.
It was a small leap from stills to motion pictures and Russell started directing small films for very little money, notably Amelia and the Angel and a documentary on Lourdes. These helped Russell secure work as a documentary director with BBC’s prestigious Monitor arts series. Here, under the guidance of editor Huw Wheldon, Russell developed the form of the drama-documentary and made a series of radical films on artists and composers such as Elgar, Dante’s Inferno, The Debussy Film, Song of Summer and the banned Dance of the Seven Veils.
The flamboyance of his talent could not be contained by television and by the late sixties Russell felt he was repeating himself and therefore made the move to cinema. Over the next five decades Ken Russell made a series of consistently brilliant movies from The Billion Dollar Brain, the Oscar-winning Women in Love, the controversial The Devils, Savage Messiah, Mahler, a version of The Who’s rock opera Tommy, Altered States and The Rainbow.
Russell’s approach to film and television has influenced generations of directors, including such luminaries as Stanley Kubrick, Lindsay Anderson, Francis Ford Coppola, Derek Jarman and Baz Luhrmann.
Though influential and greatly loved, Russell did have to deal with several overbearing and self-important journalists, who made small careers out of attacking his work. Russell famously attacked one such critic on live TV with a rolled-up copy of his newspaper review. “Unkle Ken” was well aware that had he been Italian and called “Russellini” such critics would have sung his praises. No matter—Ken Russell’s films will long outlive such superfluous individuals.
To celebrate Unkle Ken’s birthday, here is one of his early, pioneering television documentaries Dante’s Inferno from 1967, which examines the relationship between the 19th-century artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his model, Elizabeth Siddal. It stars a young Oliver Reed, Judith Paris and poet Christopher Logue, and is filled with Russell’s arresting and powerful vision.