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George Bernard Shaw's opening credit reads, "Based on a play by Bernard Shaw." After the opening credits a written prologue states: "General John Burgoynes Punitive Expedition Against the Rebels in New England." The prologue is followed by a voice-over narration spoken over animated figures of toy British soldiers and Indians fighting with American Colonists positioned on top of a map of New Hampshire. The narration sets the time as 1777 and indicates that the British viewed the conflict as quelling a rebellion whereas the Colonists saw the war as a defense of liberty. The film also utilized the toy soldiers in the opening credits and during segues between Springtown and Websterbridge, dissolving from the toy figures into battle sequences. At the film's conclusion, a voice-over narration reveals that Gen. Burgoyne surrendered three weeks later, "the details being a matter of history."
As noted in an August 1938 Los Angeles Examiner article, noted Hungarian producer-director Gabriel Pascal bought the screen rights to numerous plays by George Bernard Shaw, including "The Devil's Disciple," which Pascal announced he would produce with M-G-M in 1939. A 1950 Hollywood Reporter news item indicates that actor-producer Emlyn Williams had arranged to produce The Devil's Disciple through Gloria Films. According to a July 1952 Los Angeles Times news item, Pascal, who had already produced and directed two Shaw adaptations, Major Barbara, United Artists, 1941 and Caesar and Cleopatra, UA, 1945 (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50), again announced plans to produce The Devil's Disciple in 1952, with Marlon Brando as "Richard Dudgeon" and Rex Harrison as "Gen. Burgoyne." Pascal died in 1954.
A Hollywood Reporter news item indicates that actor-producer Burt Lancaster's company with producer Harold Hecht, Hecht-Lancaster, purchased the rights to The Devil's Disciple in August 1955 from Pascal's estate. According to a January 1956 Los Angeles Times news item, Anthony Asquith was in discussions to direct. The film was originally slated to be shot in color in Hollywood, and 1956 Hollywood Reporter items stated the film would star Lancaster, Laurence Olivier and Montgomery Clift. In addition, an October 1956 Rambling Reporter item mentioned Hecht-Lancaster's interest in casting Gene Tierney. A January 1957 Hollywood Reporter item noted that the film had been postponed in order to give the script an additional polish by writer John Dighton. A later item noted that the heavy production schedule at Hecht and Lancaster's newly formed company, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, would postpone the production even longer. An undated news item added Carroll Baker to the cast and indicated that scheduling difficulties due to the production delay would likely cause her and Clift to withdraw from the project.
By the time of production in July 1958, The Devil's Disciple was a co-production between Hecht-Hill-Lancaster and co-star Kirk Douglas' Bryna Productions. According to an article on the film's production in Beverly Hills Citizen and a biography on Lancaster, early in the film's production, director Alexander Mackendrick was replaced by Guy Hamilton. The Beverly Hills Citizen piece, paraphrasing from an article in London's Daily Express, indicated that the change was due to Mackendrick's difference of opinion with the screenplay turning the play into a "swashbuckling adventure spiced with sex." The producers and Lancaster insisted that concern over the pace of Mackendrick's direction prompted his firing. Mackendrick had clashed earlier with Lancaster on the 1957 production of The Sweet Smell of Success (for more information on teh dispute, see record below). The Devil's Disciple was shot on location in England, according to Lancaster's biography at the Rothschild estate and at Trig Park in Hertfordshire, as well as Elstree Studios.
The play and film were loosely based on historical events. John Burgoyne (1723-1792) was a former member of parliament who, with a rank of major-general, fought early in the American Revolutionary War. After limited participation in the Battle of Bunker Hill, a frustrated Burgoyne returned to London only to return the following year with a large British force to Canada. Upon receiving his own command, Burgoyne successfully invaded New York, which was preceded by numerous battles in Vermont and New Hampshire. Upon taking New York, Burgoyne's depleted forces faced strong Colonial resistance, and anticipated reinforcements by Gen. William Howe did not materialize when Howe went on to attack Philadelphia. Burgoyne was forced to surrender his army in Saratoga, a major event of the war that brought about the first foreign assistance for the Americans by the French. The film correctly notes that Burgoyne's forces were supported by many foreign mercenaries, including Germans and Native Americans.
Although several reviews refer to Burgoyne by his nickname of "Gentleman Johnny," at several points in the film he is referred to as "Gentlemanly Johnny." Reviews were mixed on The Devil's Disciple, many noting that it was not one of Shaw's better plays. Reviews criticized the differences between the play and film, the latter of which which built up "Anthony Anderson" to be the central figure over Dudgeon and softened the romance between Dudgeon and "Judith." Many also criticized the use of the animated toy figures as intrusive and ineffectual. Variety, Hollywood Reporter and New York Times praised Olivier's performance but were less enthusiastic about co-stars Lancaster and Douglas.