Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

St. Joan of Arc on the Big Screen

by Michael Morris


This article, by Michael Morris, is an overview of the various films on the life of Joan of Arc, from 1898 to the 1990’s.

Larger Work




Publisher & Date

The Morley Institute, Inc., December 1999

Of all the saints in heaven, no other figure is more frequently portrayed in film than Joan of Arc. Little wonder, for her life was filled with all the drama and adventure one thinks of as being "cinematic." A devout, young shepherdess who came to be called simply "the Maid," Joan heard celestial voices that compelled her to go to the aid of the French dauphin, a weakling whose throne was being threatened by the invading English. She lead an army, routed the foe at Orleans, and saw the dauphin crowned king at Rheims but was eventually captured by the enemy, tried, and burned at the stake at Rouen in 1431. She was only 19.

Joan was a French national heroine long before she was solemnly rehabilitated by the Church and canonized a saint in 1920. Her story inspired a multitude of notable authors to write about her: from Shakespeare to Shaw, from Mark Twain (who claimed that his account of Joan was the favorite of all his books) to Claudel. Even Therese of Liseux wrote a play about Joan and performed the lead (a role much photographed) inside her Carmelite convent.

The Earliest Productions

Joan’s story made its cinematic debut at the end of the 19th century. The French, naturally, created the first productions just a few years after the art form was invented. The Pathe Studio produced a film in 1898 directed by Georges Hatot. Georges Melies, the cinematic magician, followed with several episodes of her life starting in 1900. Melies, remembered best for taking movie audiences on a trip to the moon, mounted a "grand spectacle in twelve tableaux, and about five hundred characters in superb costumes" for his initial rendition of the Maid’s tale. His were wonderfully imaginative films inspired by various theatrical forms of the 18th century—part vaudeville and comic opera, part music hall and magic theater. Later he concentrated on filmic renditions of her burning at the stake with special effects to attract audiences to the theater. Because the average movie-goer at the turn of the century was illiterate and not likely to be able to read, Melies made his films without relying on title cards or dialogue. The story’s strength was in the visuals. Some would call this period of movie-making "primitive;" others would say this was the time when this particular art form achieved its greatest purity.

Of the 500 films made by Melies in his lifetime, only 90 have survived, and only a quarter of those are fit for exhibition today. The nitrate film used in the silent era was terribly unstable. It does not store well, and it corrodes and combusts. Some of it was even melted down for its silver content during the most desperate days of World War I.

Joan Of Arc—Hollywood Style

The earliest film to attain international fame for its treatment of Joan of Arc dates from 1917 when the American director Cecil B. DeMille made the first of his "historical spectacles." It was called Joan the Woman, and DeMille signed the opera singer Geraldine Farrar to play the role of Joan. It was rather odd for a professional singer to play the lead in a silent film, but Hollywood movie producers wanted respectability, and grand opera had the dignity they were looking for. Farrar became the first of the great operatic divas to appear on screen, and her arrival in Hollywood ushered in what is now commonly called "the star treatment." Her contract demanded a private railway car to transport her from New York to California. Upon her arrival, a red carpet was laid from the train to lead her and her entourage to a chauffeured limousine. The mayor of Los Angeles was on hand to greet her; children strew flowers in her path. She was provided a Hollywood mansion, staffed with servants as well as a private bungalow at the studio equipped with a grand piano. On the set, an orchestra played music to help Farrar attain the right mood. Hollywood treated its star not as a woman, or as a saint, but as a goddess. The goddess demanded much, but she also threw her heart and soul into the film.

DeMille had a suit of armor made of silver for Farrar, because it was lighter than the iron worn by the men. She was neither svelte nor a teenager, so she had to be lifted onto her horse and kept there by a bevy of gothic-clad cowboys. She never complained, not even during the execution scene where real fire and smoke engulfed her. At the last minute, when a dummy was substituted on the stake, Farrar stood on the sidelines solemnly watching herself burn. Only when the dummy was reduced to cinders did the actress rush to the nearest restroom to get sick.

As DeMille later declared in his autobiography, his intention was to "emphasize the humanity of Joan of Arc rather than project the conventional image of a saint." Hence the unusual title for the film. He added, "We portrayed Joan as a strong peasant girl with a sense of humor and human sympathy, ever faithful to her Voices, but tempted and fearful too—a woman of flesh and blood, whose heroism was as much in her victory over herself as in her victory over the English. That is what real saints are like, I think."

To emphasize Joan's humanity, DeMille included more flesh in the story of the saint than hagiographers had ever imagined. One of the first intertitles in the film describes Joan of Arc as "The Girl Patriot, who fought with men, was loved by men, and killed by men, yet withal retained the heart of a woman!"

While the film had none of the bathtubs and couches that would characterize his later religious epics, DeMille did add a love interest to Joan's life. Never one to waste an opportunity to "improve" the stories found in Scripture or history, DeMille felt that Joan's rejection of this invented dalliance should then lead to her betrayal and death. The actress Lillian Gish reported that her mentor, America's first epic filmmaker D.W. Griffith, was quite shocked by DeMille's decision to add a love story to Joan of Arc's life. Griffith told Gish, "I will never use the Bible as a chance to undress a woman!" (That being said, one wonders whether anyone ever told Griffith that Joan's story is not found in the Bible!)

Regardless, the romantic link DeMille chose to attach to his St. Joan was a lieutenant, based on the Maid's historical comrade-in-arms, the brave soldier Gilles de Rais. But the director's artistic license proved to be a historical blunder, because the real Gilles de Rais, besides being a good soldier, was accused of being a homosexual, a satanist, a child rapist, and a murderer who eradicated the entire juvenile population in the villages bordering his estates. Gilles de Rais would have been a most unlikely candidate for romance with Joan.

The director faced an even greater problem with Catholics who did not appreciate the film's depiction of a venal clerical tribunal that condemned Joan to death. Images of the Inquisition, with instruments of torture wielded by criminal monks, were a stereotype that justifiably triggered resentment from Catholic audiences. DeMille anticipated this reaction by citing historical facts, taken from the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, in programs distributed to theaters. The program stated: "Bishop Cauchon [who tried and condemned Joan to be burned at the stake] died in 1442. He was excommunicated from the Church posthumously by Pope Calixtus IV; his body was exhumed and thrown in the common sewer." Citing yet another pope in his autobiography, DeMille declared that "we were simply thirty-nine years ahead of Pope Pius XII's declaration that in a film dealing with the Church it may well be 'necessary to present faults and failings of ecclesiastical persons, in their character and perhaps even in the exercise of their office."'

While history seemed to be on DeMille's side this time, the controversy with Catholics did not diminish. As a consequence, he told his distributors that two versions of the film should be circulated; in those areas where there was a largely Catholic population, the scenes depicting Church leaders should be greatly deleted, while in Protestant areas of the nation it might be desirable to retain such scenes. Joan the Woman, therefore, is more of a sociological curiosity in the history of religion and the cinema rather than a true mirror of the past.

Lastly, DeMille faced another historical problem. The film's release came shortly before the United States entered World War I. Anticipating this, the director tacked on a modern-day story to both the beginning and the end of the film. This unfortunate prologue and epilogue (which he later regretted on artistic grounds) became a piece of pro-French propaganda. It showed an Englishman fighting in the trenches of France against the Germans. Joan of Arc appears to him and challenges him to sacrifice his life for the defense of France to expiate the sins of the English against her country. Since France and England were presently allies, how else was the director to sell a medieval story in which the English were the enemies of France and the enemies of a saint? DeMille's Joan cost over $300,000 at a time when the average movie cost $20,000 to make. Nevertheless, it grossed more than $600,000, making it a passable success by Hollywood's reckoning.

Despite its faults, Joan the Woman is pure American entertainment. Its flair for spectacle and action, its sentimentality, its drama mixed with humor, and its editorial pace are all elements American audiences came to expect in their epic films. And the name, DeMille, became synonymous with the magnificence and lavish excess that only Hollywood could provide.

The other notable account of St. Joan of Arc in the silent cinema was made in 1928 by the French Societe Generale des Films in Paris. It approached the Danish director, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and asked him to choose one of three famous women as a basis for a motion picture: Catherine de Medici, Marie Antoinette, or Joan of Arc. Dryer chose Joan because he "wanted to interpret a hymn to the triumph of the soul over life." He scripted the film from the written testimony of the trial preserved in the archives of the Bibliotechque Nationale in Paris. The film, from the writing of the script to its final photography, took one and a half years to complete. Coincidentally, the trial of Joan of Arc took one and a half years. Dryer's movie does not chart Joan's triumphs; rather, it concentrates on the interrogation of the tribunal, her recantation, and her execution.

Dreyer called his film The Passion of Joan of Arc—an apt title for a film as harrowing as the most dramatic Passion play. Stylization was the rule of thumb throughout the movie, and simplification marked its costumes and the sets. The action takes place within the castle precincts of Rouen, fashioned as a single unit (painted pink so it would photograph as gray against the sky). Intensification was achieved by shooting the movie almost entirely in close-ups, with tilted angles and portions of the actors' anatomy cut out of the picture frame. None of the actors wore makeup. These were but some of the methods Dryer used to achieve a visual expression of spirituality. The unflinching seriousness with which the director engaged the project inspired the entire cast and crew. The scenes were filmed in chronological order, moving day by day toward Joan's death. As one assistant later said, "We were not making a film. We were living Joan's drama, and we often wanted to intervene and save her."

The director concentrated on the physical and psychological torments the saint endured during her captivity, pitted against her conviction that she was in the state of grace and her confidence in her heavenly voices. All the while Dreyer's manipulation of the camera, photographing figures and planes of architecture at abstract angles, rendered the viewer with a sense of reality that was losing its firmness— space without gravity. We watch Joan as she transcends the corporeal world for a higher life.

For the lead role, Dryer chose Marie Falconetti, an actress he discovered in the Comedie Francaise: "I found in her face exactly what I had been seeking for Joan of Arc, a rustic woman, very sincere, who was also a woman who had suffered." The unrelenting close-ups of her face create a landscape of human emotions: tragedy, compassion, hope, pity, and terror. The close-ups of her accusers are a documentary of ugliness and hate: lips cursing and spitting at her, and eyes accosting her soul, trying to make her break. Unlike Joan the Woman, this did not translate into entertainment in the American sense of the term. This film was meant to produce heart-wrenching desolation and catharsis. Joan, played by Falconetti, is interrogated and intimidated; she is stricken with fever and bled. Told that she can receive the body and blood of Christ only after signing a confession of witchcraft and heresy, she denounces her accusers but breaks when they show her the pyre that waits to consume her. Taking her back to prison, they shave her head. But she overcomes the humiliation with new resolve when she sees a mock crown of thorns. Recalling Christ's own passion and suffering, she demands that her accusers administer the death penalty. Only through the lethal burning can Joan fulfill her voices' prediction that she will escape imprisonment. Her death becomes her victory.

It was Falconetti's first and last film. She knew that she could never surpass the performance that Dreyer inspired her to fulfill. Falconetti achieved cinematic immortality. She left France and spent the rest of her life running a school for children in Argentina.

Today, The Passion of Joan of Arc is considered one of the most artistic movies ever made. Yet its history was rocky from the beginning. It had a disastrous debut in Copenhagen, followed by Church censorship in France. The archbishop of Paris demanded many excisions, and the distributors, without Dreyer's permission, complied. Out went the graphic shots of instruments of torture, as well as the grisly image of Joan slowly crumpling behind the flames. The film received a hostile reception in Britain and was banned for two years because of its "anti-English attitude." It was drastically recut and was accompanied by a commentary in the United States. After World War II, all negatives were thought to have been lost in a laboratory fire. Then in 1981 a surviving original print was found in an Oslo mental institution. A doctor had sought to use the film as a therapeutic catalyst for his patients and forgot to return it to the distributor. Since then, the cinematic masterpiece has been reborn with the Gregorian chant soundtrack Dreyer had always wanted for the film. Richard Einhorn's 1994 opera/oratorio, Voices of Light, written especially to accompany Dreyer's film with a full orchestra, chorus, and four soloists, has toured the United States to packed audiences. An old art form has been renewed and Joan's heroic test of faith reintroduced to a new generation.

Perhaps the most famous St. Joan portrayal in talking films is that of Ingrid Bergman in the 1948 RKO production, Joan of Arc. As a teenager growing up in Sweden, Bergman read about the saint and was mesmerized. When she became a star in Hollywood, she lobbied producer David O. Selznick to help her bring the saint's story to the screen, but he balked at the idea of making a movie that showed England as the invader of France. Undaunted, the actress, who was named "Woman of the Year" in movies and who was the most popular actress in America, decided to star on Broadway in Maxwell Anderson's Joan of Lorraine. Bergman transformed the hortatory, stirring, but ultimately pretentious play by substituting dramatic highlights for its intellectual meanderings. Victor Fleming, the director of Gone With the Wind, saw Bergman in the play, fell in love with her, and convinced her that he was the one destined to direct her in the movie.

Bergman's stardom enabled her to achieve a kind of secular sainthood. Having played a serene and determined nun in the extremely popular film, The Bells of Saint Mary's, just two years previously, the nonreligious Swede chose roles that endeared her to the church-going of America. But real life began to collide with "reel" life as the RKO production progressed. Bergman's quiet affair with Fleming, who was an alcoholic, only complicated the film making process, not to mention her marriage. The director and actress did not leave enough objective distance between themselves to make sound judgments. Unable to get a hold on the spirituality of the story, Fleming poured his energy into the sheer spectacle of the film. While there was no burning of Atlanta in this movie, he did have battle scenes, a coronation, and an execution by fire. But so much money went into the production that by the time they were ready to film the most critical battle scene, it had to be shot on a sound stage.

"I know I look like Joan of Arc who was a big peasant," Bergman told the press covering the film. "I love the real Joan as much as I want to be true to her" But at 32, Ingrid was almost twice as old as the real Joan of Arc, and twice as big. The real Joan had been nicknamed "La Pucelle" or "little flea" on account of her diminutive size. Bergman looked positively Amazonian in her armor, which was so heavy and cumbersome that in some scenes she looked like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz rather than the petite heroine from France. While she studied Falconetti's earlier performance for inspiration, she failed to capture the inner torment and spirit of her character.

"Every actress wants to play Joan of Arc," declared the actor Jose Ferrer (who played opposite Bergman as the dauphin). "Actors identify with a noble character and they feel they have a deep handle on it. Their professional lives are full of corruption, and yet they are idealized beyond their contribution. I think that Ingrid began to believe in her own mythology. She was a strange woman."

When the film opened in 1949, Bergman received mixed reviews. The movie cost $1 million more than Gone With the Wind to make, but it only grossed a little over $2 million. Fleming, totally burnt out by the production, died suddenly of a heart attack. Bergman, who had become a professional saint, fell off her pedestal and shocked the world by running off with the Italian director Roberto Rossellini.

If Fleming's Joan of Arc proved that money and scale do not guarantee a successful film, French director Robert Bresson's The Trial of Joan of Arc (1965) proved that simplicity and focus, in the manner of Carl Theodor Dryer, can still gain critical acclaim. Unlike Dreyer's film, The Trial of Joan of Arc makes no attempt to prejudice the viewer by inventive camera techniques. Bresson's vision of Joan's trial is more austere and dispassionate. The camera acts only as a witness to the question-and-answer rhythm of the proceedings. Like Dreyer, Bresson based his script on the actual proceedings of the trial. Without fancy photography, Bresson's version allows the viewer to concentrate on the words used during the proceedings and see just how bright and scrappy the original Joan must have been. Facing intelligent and crafty theologians, the illiterate Maid of Orleans was able to hold her own against the scholastics trained to separate fact from fiction.

Also, the film is the first to make much issue about Joan's virginity. Joan's power was in her purity, and it is evident from this film that the paradox of a virgin leading an army of men confounded her interrogators. Historically, both the dauphin and the clerical court that condemned her had Joan's virginal status checked as part of their process of discernment. And while she carried a sword and banner into battle, by her own admission she never killed anyone. The sword, she admitted, was only used to scare away the prostitutes who followed her men and compromised their noble cause.

While the motion pictures discussed thus far fall into two camps and reflect the difference between Hollywood-made films and those made in Europe, a new trend in the depiction of Joan as an icon of contemporary sensibilities coalesces the filmic efforts of both continents.

Modern Portrayals

Otto Preminger's St. Joan (1957), based on the play by George Bernard Shaw, starred the 17-year-old Jean Seberg as the Maid of Orleans. Preminger interviewed more than 3,000 women in search of the perfect Joan before he settled on the Iowa-born Seberg, who had previously only appeared in amateur productions. While the role changed the actress's life and turned her into a troubled star, it was apparent to critics that she was no match for Shaw's famed dialogue. Like a female James Dean, her petulance is at times overwhelming, as when she goes into a tirade and recants her signed confession for the self-centered reason that it would cause her to be cooped-up in solitary confinement for the rest of her life. But Shaw himself saw Joan as a proto-Protestant, one who spoke to God directly without benefit of clergy.

If Seberg's rebellion suggests any connection to the discontent of the postwar generation, then Jeanne La Pucelle (1993) by French director Jacques Rivette firmly fixes his St. Joan as an icon of modern misbehavior. Sandrine Bonnaire plays Joan with an unsaintly attitude; she swings her legs while under examination, has a fit when English soldiers call her a whore, and cries like a baby when pierced by an arrow. Cast as a fanatical fighter for freedom, her execution in this film seems solely the consequence for her obstinate refusal to wear women's clothing. It is little wonder, then, that St. Joan has become something of a cultural hero in certain lesbian and transgendered circles at the end of the 20th century.

"I'm the first virgin playing Joan of Arc, and that's pretty cool!" declared actress Leelee Sobieski, comparing past film productions with her own television miniseries, Joan of Arc, which aired last spring. "I'm happy that's the way I am; I have no need to be anything else. I'm 16. And if I'm a virgin at 25, well, too bad for the male race!" The in-your-face chastity of the young actress harkens back to Joan herself and the counterculturalism of the early virgin martyrs more than it does to modern youth. And while the long, straight, blond hair she sports in the television production makes her look more like a California beach bunny than the medieval Maid of Lorraine, she brings a youthful energy and a wise innocence not found in earlier productions starring older women. CBS's Joan of Arc cost $25 million, more than the combined cost of all the productions previously listed. But the technological advancements made in the industry now enable the storyteller to stage the miraculous occurrences that surrounded the saint in a more convincing way. And while it was filmed in the Czech Republic, it exemplifies the magnificence of the Hollywood epic launched by DeMille at the beginning of the century.

Yet magnificence is sometimes not enough.

The latest portrayal of Joan of Arc in The Messenger, directed by Luc Besson, is perhaps the most perversely sensational interpretation of the saint in film history. This Joan, played by Milla Jovovich, is driven by hate and revenge for the rape and murder of a fictitious sister. The result is not a virgin saint motivated by love of God and country, but rather, a raging psychotic on the loose: She hacks off her hair in a frenzy, breaks open a tabernacle and pours the Precious Blood down her body, and abjures her membership in the Church before death. This is not a portrayal of the Joan of history, neither is it a picture of the saint who continues to fascinate. Rather it is a Freudian monster created by filmmakers to shock and titillate.

Somewhere out there Dreyer, Falconetti, and even DeMille must be weeping for the craft they pioneered with such brilliance, now sunk low by artists less gifted.

No single motion picture can capture perfectly the essence of Joan of Arc. Every artistic attempt is but a piece in the larger mosaic of the saint's profile. But the fact that so many films have been and continue to be made about the medieval heroine speaks more of us and our needs in a world where faith is challenged than it does of the teenager who followed God's call to change the fate of a nation.

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