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Ken Russell classic films

Ken Russell Women in Love

"he appeared at a time when films were becoming a little static and dialogue based and he sort of blew that wide open"  (Editor Michael Bradsell on Ken Russell from interview on DVD extras)

 Alan Bates and Oliver Reed in Ken Russell Women in Love

Woman in Love, a period when Ken Russell brought out films that challenged cinema, was a major critical and commercial success. The Music Lovers continued his success and The Devils established him as a great mainstream director. At one point his latest three films (The Music Lovers, The Devils and The Boyfriend) were showing at the same time on London's West End

Women in Love from 1969 is based on DH Lawrence's 1920 novel and caused as much critical confusion as Lawrence did in his day. The wrestling scene brought homo-erotic images into the mainstream cinema [my phrasing here was used uncredited word for word by an international news organisation].  But it became a major commercial success

Larry Kramer, the producer who also wrote the screenplay says filming took 16 weeks and the film cost between $1.25 and $1,5 million- he gives both figures (from DVD commentary).  Michael Brooke states Peter Brook, Jack Clayton, Stanley Kubrick and Silvio Narizzano were initially approached to direct (from DVD  notes).

 Eleanor Bron in Ken Russell Women in Love

As in Russell's later Rainbow he skips most of the political aspects of Lawrence's book as well as the first world war (there is a rabbit called Bismarck).  DH Lawrence wrote The Rainbow first then Women in Love, but Ken filmed The Music Lover first and The Rainbow twenty years later.

Ken Russell Women in Love  Ken Russell Women in Love

Drowned lovers contrasted with the living.

  Glenda JAckson in Ken Russell Women in Love  Ken Russell Women in Love

The rest of the virgin and the anxiety of the mistress.

Ken Russell Women in Love

Ken Hanke says "I’d certainly rank it in the top ten literary adaptations of all time. It’s that rarest of adaptations in that it captures the novel and comments on it at the same time. Russell has looked at the novel as a kind of autobiographical wish-fulfillment. The characters are Lawrence and his friends as he saw them- or maybe, as Russell once corrected me, “as he would have liked them to be.” As a result, the film is often as much about Lawrence as it is an adaptation of the book. Take the garden luncheon where Lawrence’s alter-ego Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates) embarrassingly recites the poem “Figs”- a poem (equating the fig with female genitalia) by Lawrence that is not in the novel. But you almost feel it ought to have been after you’ve seen the film" (Mountain Xpress, 26 Jun 2012 (click here).

The proper way to eat a fig, in society,
Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump,
And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower.
Then you throw away the skin

After you have taken off the blossom with your lips.

But the vulgar way
Is just to put your mouth to the crack, and take out the flesh in one bite.

The fig is a very secretive fruit.

The Italians vulgarly say, it stands for the female part; the fig-fruit:
The fissure, the yoni,
The wonderful moist conductivity towards the centre.


One small way of access only, and this close-curtained from the light;
Sap that smells strange on your fingers, that even goats won't taste it;

And then the fig has kept her secret long enough.
So it explodes, and you see through the fissure the scarlet.
And the fig is finished, the year is over.

That's how the fig dies, showing her crimson through purple slit
Like a wound, the exposure of her secret, on the open day.
Like a prostitute, the bursten fig, making a show of her secret

That's how women die too.

 Alan Bates and Oliver Reed in Ken Russell Women in Love

Alan Bates and Oliver Reed in Ken Russell Women in Love

The use of mirrors is typical of Ken Russell.  As well as the conflict between  Gerard & Gudren and Rupert & Ursula, there is also a gay undertone between Gerard and Rupert, hovering between sexual and life-long friendship

John Russell Taylor in The Times, 13 Nov 1969, says "Whoever had the idea of putting D.H. Lawrence and Ken Russell together, it was a stroke of something like genius."

"Rarely has a great novel been more lovingly, more sensitively or more knowingly brought to the screen" (Arthur Knight, quoted in Jane Jaffe Young, D.H. Lawrence on Screen, 1999, chapter 4).

Glenda Jackson in Ken Russell Women in Love

Russell says the dance sequence was influenced by Isadora Duncan (from DVD commentary) and Russell also made a documentary about Isadora Duncan.

Vladek Sheybal in Ken Russell Women in Love

Early in the film Gudren says "I was born here and I will die here until I fly away".  But when she reaches Switzerland she says "The minute I set foot on foreign soil I am transported".  She has outgrown Gerald and meets Loerke played by Russell regular Vladek Sheybal.  Producer Larry Kramer says Klaus Kinski was the first choice for the role, but was too expensive" (from DVD commentary).  Loerke is gay, but Gudren and he bond, and in one scene imitate Tchaikovsky, the gay composer, and his wife.  This scene would come back in Russell's next film The Music Lovers.

Oliver Reed in Ken Russell Women in Love

Gerald is not used to women taking control, and he is destined to be alone on the snow in a cold frigid death.

Rupert laments the death and when Ursula says "You can't have two kinds of love.  Why should you?  Aren't I enough for you" he replies "You are enough for me as far as a woman can be".

All images from the film or the DVD extras.


Alan Bates in Ken Russell Women in Love  Oliver Reed in Ken Russell Women in Love

Alan Bates as Rupert a school inspector and Oliver Reed as Gerald a mine owner are at their peak with subtle powerful acting. Both traded part of their salary for a percentage of the profits.  Bates' manager negotiated $100,000 up-front plus $150,000 and 7.5% of net profits after the film recouped costs.  He also ensured Alan Bates was credited before the film title (Spoto, Donald, Otherwise engaged: the life of Alan Bates, 1941, Chapter 7).  Russell offered Alan Bates the role of Tchaikovsky in his next film The Music Lovers (ibid).

Glenda Jackson in Ken Russell Women in Love  Jennie Linden in Ken Russell Women in Love

Glenda Jackson as Gudrun and Jennie Linden as her sister Ursula.  Glenda acts subtly and won an Oscar for her role. The initial scenes, where her acting is by facial expression rather than words, is presumably Ken Russell's idea and increases the depth of the film.  She was paid £5000 for the role.

Glenda Jackson in Ken Russell Women in Love

Glenda Jackson was pregnant but did not tell Russell until it became obvious.  Vladek Sheybal says "there is a revealing shot in the film which nobody noticed after its release, but which I noticed, when she dances with me in the snow- suddenly we see a bulge" (from Glenda Jackson A Study in Fire and Ice by Ian Woodward, 1985)

The editor is again Michael Bradsell.  Russell describes the scene with Gerard on horseback as a masterpiece of editing (from DVD commentary).

Costumes are by first wife Shirley Russell.  "The costumes of the central characters look forward from the war to the youth, vigour and energy of the 1920s style.  Scouring London markets and regional auctions for examples of period dress, [Shirley] Russell made the moment relevant; seeking links between the present and the vivacious, wild but often troubled bright young things of the decade... The resulting designs are wide ranging.  In the opening scenes, the two sisters are conspicuous in their fashionable attire. They are set against the lived in clothes of the miners, who dress according to necessity rather than want..." (Claire Smith, BFI Website, 8 October 2015, click here).

Ken Russell - The Music Lovers - Shirley Russell

The Director of Photography is Billy Williams.  Says Joy Gould Boyum (from Double Exposure: Fiction into Film, 1985) "the scenes between Rupert and Ursula tend to be brightly lit, situated in daylight and frequently outdoors.  The scenes between Gerald and Gudrun, in contrast, tend to be set in interiors and most often at night- with the prevailing darkness serving... to comment on the texture of their relationship....".

Georges Delerue composed the music, Russell says: "Certainly the power of the scene is greatly enhanced by the music of Georges Delerue but it’s not the exact music that he wrote for that particular sequence... what I had to do was to cut out the fugue and use the prelude, actually the prelude had tremendous, a sort of growing intensity and power so it worked and the fact that it cut off just as the moment when the two men collapsed worked extremely well".  Russell had previously made a documentary in Delerue.

The song I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" recurs throughout the film, on the DVD commentary Russell says the song "symbolised illusion and fantasy".  Other music includes Dans Aromân in D Minor by Theodor Rogalskis (the dancing with highland cattle sequence) and Jerusalem.

The credits state the film was shot on location in  Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Yorkshire, Northumberland, County Durham, London as well as Zermatt, Switzerland.

Ken Russell Women in Love

Russell received an Oscar nomination for his direction, alongside Fellini and Altman.  He is seen here preparing shots, below with Director of Photography Billy Williams (both images from DVD extras).

"Flamboyant film director Ken Russell was admirably suited to devising visual and aural analogues for key aspects of Laurence's purple  prose" (D.H. Lawrence on Screen, Jane Jaffe Young, 1999, chapter 4).

"Ken Russell achieves something in this film that is very difficult to achieve, which is to identify the language of the novel as well as the cinematic translation of it. The film has a language all its own that is just amazing and remarkable. It tells a story of compression and repression, and Russell finds a kind of modernist language that helps give life to the film's story. It's an incredible movie about the male identity and the possibility of men embracing the fullness of sexuality" (Luca Guadagnino, A.Frame, click here).

Billy Williams director of photography

Ken Russell Women in Love credit

All images from the DVD of the film or DVD extras.

Best Image

Glenda Jackson in Ken Russell Women in Love  Ken Russell Women in Love

Glenda Jackson, red hair and fringe, confronting the Highland cows, red hair and fringe.

"I had this dance through a herd of cattle… and I was petrified… and it was just amazing dancing with these creatures and expecting to be gored but it worked" (Glenda Jackson interviewed on This Cultural Life, BBC Sounds, 1 Oct 2022, click here).

Ken Russell Women in Love

Russell's visual imagery.

Best Scene

 Alan Bates and Oliver Reed in Ken Russell Women in Love

The wrestling scene. Homo-erotic imagery which is still daring.

British Board of Film Censorship on Women in Love

Correspondence from the British Board of Film Censorship detailing the cuts they required (from BBC4 Dear Censor).

"This film included a remarkably brilliant scene in which two young men wrestled naked... We had to consider this carefully, but decided to pass it; in a scene this was a milestone in censorship since male frontal nudity was still a rarity. We had little criticism, possibly because of the film’s undoubted brilliance" (John Trevelyan, British Board of Film Censors quoted in article by Robert Hofler, 27 May 2020, The Wrap, click here ).

The opening sequence with the coal miners on the bus and the silent dialogue of Glenda Jackson.


Ken Russell Women in Love

A typical Russell shot of a figure in silhouette.

Sexuality (repression, homosexuality).
The elements: water and earth

For the scene in the coal mine Russell returned to a colliery he had used in his documentary The Miners Picnic.


Other films released in the same year include True Grit, Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider and Fellini's Satyricon.

True Grit    Midnight Cowboy   Easy Rider  Fellini Satyricon


More films

Click title for film French Dressing * Billion Dollar Brain * Women in Love * The Music Lovers* The Devils * The Boy Friend * Savage Messiah * Mahler * Tommy * Lisztomania * Valentino * Altered States * Crimes of Passion * Gothic * Aria * The Lair of the White Worm * Salome's Last Dance * The Rainbow * Whore


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