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In a small New England town during the American War of Independence, Dick Dudgeon, a revolutionary American Puritan, is mistaken for local minister Rev. Anthony Anderson and arrested by the British. Dick discovers himself incapable of accusing another human to suffer and continues to masquerade as the reverend. The minister's wife, Judith, is moved by Dick's actions and mistakenly interprets them as an expression of love for her. In spite of his protestations she finds herself romantically attracted to him. Brought before British commander General Burgoyne, Dudgeon displays his willingness to die for his principles. At the last minute Dick is saved from ministerial pursuits to become a revolutionary leader. Written by
Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas shared a chemistry -- offscreen as well as on screen -- which was rare even by Hollywood standards. There's a legend about them, as a matter of fact (and I'd hate to think it apocryphal), that -- at the onset of each of the many films in which they co-starred -- they flipped a coin to see who would play which role.
In their film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's "The Devil's Disciple," the coin-flip would have been at best symbolic -- or perhaps ironic is the term here -- inasmuch as the plotline concerns role reversals and identity switching. Set during the closing days of the American revolution, Dick Dudgeon, the town rakehell (Douglas), having previously admitted to Reverend Anderson, the local minister (Lancaster), "Pastor, there's something about you I respect, and that makes me want you for my enemy," allows himself to be mistakenly arrested as that minister by British troops. It's an act which even he, at the time, is at a loss to explain. While Dudgeon keeps the local British commandant, General Burgoyne (Laurence Olivier in what turns out to be one of his finer screen performances), alternately amused and bemused, Reverend Anderson discovers within himself a call to action as he rallies the rebel troops to rescue Dudgeon and to cut off Burgoyne's reinforcements.
Purists may note that the film adaptation tampers with Shaw's more typically cynical resolution in the original stage presentation (yes, it is much more 'upbeat' and true to the Hollywood dicta of the day) . . . and yet the Shavian quality of the dialogue between Dudgeon and Anderson -- not to mention the barbed repartee between Dudgeon and Burgoyne -- is preserved virtually intact here. It is also brilliantly rendered by all parties.
Although Douglas manages to 'steal' much of this film, Lancaster affords us more than a glimpse of the ability which will, in little more than another year, garner him an Oscar -- for 'Elmer Gantry'-- (and put an end to the yearly ritual of his and Douglas' comedic "It's So Great Not To Be Nominated" performance at the awards ceremonies).
One of Hollywood's more successful adaptations of a stage play, this is also a film which, more than most, stands the test of time.
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