In the last century, over 20 films have been made about Joan of Arc, and every decade has seen at least one release. Already this year we've had a TV mini-series, and this week brings the opening of The Messenger, starring model-turned-actress Milla Jovovich (see review, this week). Clearly there is something about this peasant girl turned saint that has resonated for many people. Though cynics might describe Joan as a deluded xenophobe obsessed with the notion of a divinely ordained kingship, modern audiences can hardly be expected to know much of anything about her, let alone the historical context of the Hundred Years' War in which she fought. Besides, as historians have always noted, "historical films" usually tell us a good deal more about the time in which they are filmed than the time period they are supposed to portray.

I have limited my discussion to those films currently available on video, though others do occasionally make the art-house cinema rounds (e.g. Robert Bresson's austere Le Procès de Jeanne d'Arc). One "cameo appearance" also deserves at least a passing mention: Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go's as Joan of Arc-turned aerobics instructor in 1989's Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.


Joan the Woman
(dir. Cecil B. DeMille, 1916)
Historical Accuracy: **
Entertainment Value: ***

This imaginative epic is one of DeMille's finest. Despite being nearly 20 years too old for the part, Geraldine Farrar fits the descriptions of Joan by her contemporaries: short, robust, and dark-haired. Although her vigor is dampened a bit by a completely fictional romance (the film insists that Joan always "retained the heart of a woman"), this Joan is irresistible in her dramatic gesticulations and impressive bullying of her foes. DeMille added a framing story about a WWI French soldier who fights the Germans with Joan's spirit guiding him. No doubt this bit of French nationalism helped inspire Joan's canonization as a saint in 1920.


La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc
(dir. Carl-Theodore Dreyer, 1928)
Historical Accuracy: ****
Entertainment Value: ****

La Passion is without a doubt the most captivating of the Joan of Arc movies. The film succeeds in part because it limits its focus to the courtroom and Joan's prison cell. In the lead, Renée Maria Falconetti's first and last cinematic performance is stunning, and her intensity erases any doubts about the ability of a silent film to convey deep emotion. The use of the actual trial records best displays Joan's wit and intelligence: When a judge asks her if one of the saints in her visions was naked, Joan responds, "Do you think God lacks the means to clothe him?" The close-up shots of Joan's incredibly ugly, stern-faced judges (one looks exactly like a rhesus monkey) succeed in conveying the intimidation Joan must have felt. Dreyer also didn't flinch in presenting Joan's ending in the most accurate way: His is the only film which shows Joan's head being shaved before her execution, and the dark outline of her body slumping in the fire is truly horrifying.


Joan of Arc
(dir. Victor Fleming, 1948)
Historical Accuracy: ***
Entertainment Value: **

Based upon the play Joan of Lorraine by Maxwell Anderson, this Joan of Arc is more accurate than most, but the price paid is the monotonous narration and wooden performances. Even with 45 minutes cut from the original 145, too much time is spent on Joan's (Ingrid Bergman) plaintive whining and hand-wringing. As Charles VII, José Ferrer, on the other hand, is superb. Ferrer not only looks exactly like portraits of Charles (called "the ugliest man in Christendom" by his contempories), but he displays a convincing blend of apathy and self-interest. The stage origins of the screenplay are evident in the gaudily colored, phony theatrical sets. The battle scenes have neither the drama of the older silent pictures nor the intimacy of modern films, resulting in what looks like a Society for Creative Anachronism get-together.


Saint Joan
(dir. Otto Preminger, 1957)
Historical Accuracy: **
Entertainment Value: ***

This video is prefaced by a 20-minute documentary on the making of the film, which includes interesting tidbits like the audition of the 17-year-old Jean Seberg for the leading role. Like DeMille's Joan the Woman, Saint Joan, based on George Bernard Shaw's play, also has an artificial framing device: The opening is a dream sequence of an elderly Charles VII, who engages in sappy, paternalistic dialogue with Joan's ghost. Once the actual story begins, we see Charles (Richard Widmark) as a swishy whiner with a Jerry Lewis voice. Though there are many inaccuracies, this film scores points for the wonderful performances of the judges, who display complexity and individual personalities, unlike the cardboard cut-out bad guys of many Joan films. Seberg deserves credit for being willing to look absolutely awful in the trial scenes, and she was a real trooper during the filming of the execution. (The gas-jet flames accidentally blasted up and slightly burned her, so that scream you hear is real.)


Giovanna d'Arco
(dir. Werner Herzog & Henning von Gierke, 1989)
Historical Accuracy: (zero)
Entertainment Value: *

This adaptation of Giuseppe Verdi's 1845 opera is for serious opera fans only. The story is so different as to be nearly unrecognizable (Joan and Charles VII fall in love; Joan's father accuses her of witchcraft; Joan dies in battle), and the inexplicable costumes (men in pointy-hatted red capes, like devil Klansmen) lend an unintentionally humorous note. Joan (Susan Dunn) is pleasingly portly, but perhaps that's why she never appears in armor. The Virgin metaphor is given its full due here, however, as Joan ascends into heaven just like Mary. As for the music, well, I'm not an opera fan.


Joan of Arc
(dir. Christian Duguay, 1999)
Historical Accuracy: *
Entertainment Value: **

This film focuses on the more fanciful aspects of Joan's legend, like the idea that she was the prophesied "Maid of Lorraine," and that she performed miracles like discovering a hidden sword and making hens lay eggs. But those stories were actually part of the testimony given at Joan's posthumous "rehabilitation" trial in 1450-56, leading to the foregone conclusion of sainthood centuries later. It's too bad the rest of the film strays so egregiously from the historical record, with hopelessly inaccurate characters and the completely fictional treason of Charles VII. Cut from a four-hour TV mini-series to a 140-minute video, the characters' motivations are incomprehensible. Leelee Sobieski does a serviceable job as Joan, though with a rather flat delivery. Much worse is the unfortunate casting of Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser, M.D.) as Charles VII, whose effeminate, bratty demeanor includes too many anachronistic modern colloquialisms.

Thanks to Scarecrow Video for providing the videos for this piece.

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