This segment of MovieJourneys forms an epilog to the Crusades and a prolog to the Renaissance (see Part II of this collection). Joan of Arc was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1431. She was barely 20 years old. The Roman Empire had collapsed almost a thousand years earlier. The Holy Land Crusades ended 200 years before, and the nations of Europe were now in identity over-extension, all of it driven by the temperaments of kings, popes, archbishops, generals, and occasional mad geniuses. Certainly it can be said that Joan was on a kind of crusade, raising the question in her own times, and a continuing debate in our times, on whether she was divinely inspired or mentally ill.
Imagine what would happen if an intense young woman of the 21st century appeared at the White House and claimed that she had been called by God to lead the United States in a war to neutralize the former Russian Empire. There would be those, no doubt, who would entertain the possibility that God had at last chosen to re-engage in human affairs with the intention of setting things straight; there would be others who would see the claims of this young woman as a threat to their positions of power and influence in church and state; and there would be some who would see her as very much in need of asylum in an institution to be determined by the court. She would in time embody the question of whether the human race should be guided by faith in a higher power or by the pragmatic dictates of secular government.
There are five Joan of Arc movies in my archive, ranging from 1928 to 2006. My plan was to conclude this segment by picking one of the five films and featuring it as an exemplary version of Joan’s legend. As I read through my five reviews, however, I found them fascinating for their changing ideas related to the decades in which they were produced. This is a sampler of my five reviews. Each of them has been abridged.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) – French
This silent film has a remarkable history, having been thought lost in a fire and discovered only in 1981 in a Norwegian mental hospital. It has been restored and provided with a choral and orchestral sound track. It is notable for the early mastery of film technique, most particularly the close-up, used in abundance here. Not all of the critics agree with the reliance on the close-up for cinematic drama. This is a film that sometimes mistakes bulging eyes for passion. It opens with the trial, based on the actual transcripts from 1431. Joan is removed to a torture chamber and then to a bed in her cell. When she refuses to admit that her voices and visions come from the Devil and instead charges her accusers with being sent by Satan, the execution is prepared. Much is made of the gender outrage inspired by her insistence on wearing men’s clothes. Given one last chance, she recants and is sentenced to life in prison. Quickly, she realizes her error and takes back her confession. None of the churchmen believe her voices come from God.
She is befriended and counseled by a young monk (Antonin Artaud), who attends to her in the last hours of her life. He looks suitably intense and somewhat ethereal, but his performance is merely apt – not what might be expected from the author of the handbook on 20th-century radical theater.
The whole film is ritualized, like a church service. Joan is given the sacrament: the body of Christ (close-up of her swallowing the wafer), and then she is put to the flames. This is Joan as female Christ. The people rise up and must be beaten back with maces. A print legend says she has become the heart of France. This film was made eight years after her canonization in 1920. Cinemania makes the point that many consider the work of Maria Falconetti, in the role of Joan, “the greatest in all cinema.” I cannot say I am persuaded; it is intense and affecting, but one-dimensional. The events of her trial, occurring over several months, are condensed into one long day.
Joan of Arc (1948)
The thirtyish Ingrid Bergman in the role of a very young Joan takes some getting used to, as does the Swedish accent. Director Victor Fleming was looking for a success on the scale of his Gone With the Wind and the box office looked promising until Ingrid’s personal scandal stole the audience. Her illicit love affair with an Italian film director caused her to be burned at the stake of public opinion. Maxwell Anderson’s language felt somewhat literal to me, playwriting by the book, but there is conviction in this production. This is the doctrinal Joan. There is no hint of psychosis and clearly we are meant to accept her belief in her mission as the will of God. The Church and the monarchy are portrayed as corrupt and hypocritical. Bergman was unhappy with the film, feeling it was too glamorized; too Hollywood.
Saint Joan (1957)
Based on the play by George Bernard Shaw, this film was a high profile flop. Director Otto Preminger wanted to move beyond the Ingrid Bergman formula and cast an unknown young woman in the title role. After a wide-ranging talent search, he chose Jean Seberg, from Iowa. Richard Widmark, in a departure from his usual roles, plays the bumbling Dauphin. It opens promisingly enough with Widmark in uneasy sleep dreaming of the martyred Joan, who appears to him and sits on the edge of the bed. Fairly quickly, it goes off the beam. She calls him Charlie. …. The cleverness and contrived quality of the film takes a turn toward authenticity as the time comes for Joan to be burned at the stake. Seberg’s performance takes on strength and credibility as we see her consumed by the flames, a genuinely disturbing image. The actress does a better job than she is usually given credit for.
Joan of Arc (1999)
This was a made-for-TV-movie. There is an overture in which the young Joan has her first visions (at age 10) and incurs the wrath of her father for her willfulness. Her ego formation is thoroughly mixed with God and nation. It is now 1429 (ten years later); the English attack her village of Domremy. They burn the dwellings and Joan (Leelee Sobieski) witnesses the death of her only friend, who appears to be a deaf mute. She contrives to travel toward Chinon to find the Dauphin (Neil Patrick Harris!). He plays the game of hiding amongst the courtiers while another sits on the throne. Peter O’Toole is Bishop to the royal court. In the end, Joan is conveyed through jeering crowds to the stake. The fires are lit and Charlotte Church sings. There are some beautifully filmed scenes capturing the realities of medieval France, but the net effect is of a high school play in a privileged community. This Joan has not the depth nor conviction of the actress in the rival film of the same year (below). The historical events of this version diverge significantly from those in the second film. The first may be called the Charlotte Church version, while the second is more complex. The DVD opens with an advertisement for Church’s debut album, Voice of an Angel.
Messenger, The Story of Joan of Arc (1999)
This version was filmed in France and features Milla Jovovich, a former Russian model, as Joan. An opening legend details the dispute between the French and English crowns over territory in the north of France. The time is 1420, “France’s darkest time,” when the ambitions of England weigh heavily on the country. In this version, Joan witnesses the rape and murder of her mother by English marauders as a demonstration of the psychological trauma that leads to her visions. …. Dustin Hoffman appears as some sort of spirit guide, or medieval Freudian analyst, called “The Conscience.” He employs an ironic commentary to demonstrate that her visions were mere illusions, insisting that she was fighting not for God but for herself. The film makes short work of the trial. She has been accused of dressing as a man. They give her male clothes, and sentence her to burn.