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The Devil’s Disciple is a 1959 film adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw play of the same title. The Anglo-American film was directed by Guy Hamilton who replaced Alexander Mackendrick and starred Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, and Laurence Olivier. Mary Grant designed the film’s costumes.
Lancaster and Douglas made several films together over the decades, including I Walk Alone (1948), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Seven Days in May (1964), and Tough Guys (1986), which fixed the notion of the pair as something of a team in the public’s imagination. Douglas was always second-billed under Lancaster in these films but, with the exception of I Walk Alone, in which Douglas played a villain, their roles were usually more or less the same size.
Richard “Dick” Dudgeon (Kirk Douglas) is an outcast from his family in colonial Websterbridge, New Hampshire. He returns their hatred with scorn. After the death of his father by mistakenly being hanged by the British as a rebel in nearby Springtown, Dick rescues his father’s body from the gallows, where it had been left as an example to others, and has it buried in the parish graveyard in Websterbridge. He returns to his childhood home to hear the reading of his father’s will, much to his family’s dismay. Anthony Anderson (Burt Lancaster), the local minister, treats him with courtesy despite Dick’s self-proclaimed apostasy, but Dick’s “wickedness” appalls Anderson’s wife Judith (Janette Scott). To everyone’s surprise, it is revealed that Dick’s father secretly changed his will just before he died, leaving the bulk of his estate to Dick. Much to his shock, Dick’s mother (Eva Le Gallienne) refuses to stay with him (a change from the stage play, wherein he promptly evicts his mother from her home). Dick proclaims himself a rebel against the British and scorns his family as cowards when they flee his home. In the meantime, the British discover the father’s grave.
While visiting Anderson’s home at the Reverend’s invitation, Dick is left alone with Judith while Anderson is called out to Mrs. Dudgeon’s deathbed. Perceiving Judith’s distaste for him, Dick attempts to leave, but Judith insists he stay until Anderson returns. While waiting, British soldiers enter Anderson’s home and arrest Dick, mistaking him for Anderson, whom they believe illegally retrieved the body. Dick allows them to take him away without revealing his actual identity. He swears Judith to secrecy lest her husband give the secret away and expose himself to arrest. Judith, in a state of great agitation, finds her husband. He asks if Dick has harmed her. Breaking her promise to Dick, Judith reveals that soldiers came to arrest Anderson but Dick went in his place. Anderson is stunned. He tells Judith to have Dudgeon keep quiet as long as possible, to give him “more start”, then quickly drives away. Judith believes her husband to be a coward (not knowing he has gone to seek help from Lawyer Hawkins (Basil Sydney), secretly the leader of the local rebels) while Dick, whom she despised, is a hero.
Judith visits Dick and asks him if he has acted from love for her. He tells her that he has acted according to “the law of my own nature”, which forbade him to save himself by condemning another. During the military trial, Dick is convicted and sentenced to be hanged. This scene introduces General Burgoyne (Laurence Olivier), a Shavian realist, who contributes a number of sharp remarks about the conduct of the American Revolution. Judith interrupts the proceedings to reveal Dick’s true identity – but to no avail: he will be hanged in any case. News reaches Burgoyne that American rebels have re-taken Springtown, so he and his troops are in danger, especially since orders from London that would have sent reinforcements were never dispatched. The final scene is in the village green where Dick will be hanged. Like Sydney Carton in Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, Dick defies his executioners and prepares to meet his death. At the last minute, the hanging is interrupted when a rebel officer arrives. It is Anthony Anderson, who has become a man of action in an instant, just as Dick became a man of conscience in an instant. Anderson bargains for Dick’s life, and Burgoyne agrees to free him. Anderson tells Dick and Judith that he (Anderson) is no longer a minister but a soldier, and will not stand in their way. With Dick as a willing conspirator in directing her “choice”, Anderson sweeps Judith onto his horse and leaves Westerbridge.
* Burt Lancaster – Reverend Anthony Anderson
* Kirk Douglas – Richard “Dick” Dudgeon
* Laurence Olivier – General John Burgoyne
* Janette Scott – Judith Anderson
* Eva Le Gallienne – Mrs. Dudgeon
* Harry Andrews – Major Swindon
* Basil Sydney – Lawyer Hawkins
* George Rose – British sergeant
* Neil McCallum – Christopher Dudgeon
* Mervyn Johns – Reverend Maindeck Parshotter
* David Horne – Uncle William
* Erik Chitty – Uncle Titus
* Allan Cuthbertson – British captain
* Percy Herbert – British lieutenant
* Phyllis Morris – Wife of Titus
* Brian Oulton – Chaplain Brudenell
* Jenny Jones – Essie
* Sheree Winton – Platinum Blond
* Steven Berkoff – British Corporal