By Shannon McKeown
I looked forward to this miniseries for its subject matter. It was the television airing of another version of "Joan of Arc," starring Ingrid Bergman in the 1960's which originally sparked my interest in this story, and like for many women, Joan became a heroine of my childhood and a positive influence in my life, though the details of her story turned into a mostly forgotten interest as time went on. The CBS miniseries was aired while I was home on sick leave, so there was time to watch it an dissect it, something I enjoy doing when the subject is worthy, with no expectation that this film would be such a subject. I thoroughly expected it to be poorly done, poorly acted, and very far from the truth- this was, after all, a television movie. I couldn't have been more surprised, then, by what was actually shown. And while other reviews at this site have pointed out shortcomings which I cannot disagree with, a discussion of what this miniseries meant to the viewers seems to be in order. I will demonstrate this after a look at what may have been confusing to the viewer and what would have been expected in an inferior production.
For myself, I became interested in this subject all over again, and was delighted to find so much information available on the internet, through websites such as this one and a discussion group on e-mail. Still, despite what I now know to be historical inaccuracies in the miniseries, I believe that many of these can be overlooked when one considers that this movie for network television, produced for the general public with less than 4 hours to tell the story still did so in a mostly admirable manner. So, for example, while the armor may not have been the kind of armor Joan wore, I don't believe that there were enough serious inaccuracies to dismiss this movie out of hand as "bad."
There was, however, one thing which bothered me a great deal.
It started with Cauchon's looking sympathetic towards Joan at the time of Joan's abjuration. I felt that the whole scene was poorly executed and seemed to be missing something that perhaps was cut out and would be on the full length video. Nope. They are in the trial, and she starts off about how she will be saved (supposedly, we in the audience know what that "really" means) but at this point Joan takes it literally. She makes the comment that "even if it stake were raised and the fire lit, (she) would not lose faith in God (again, she is referring to her belief that she will be saved from this kind of fate)." In response to this, Cauchon yanks her outside and shows her the stake, and with all the other guys around feeling terrific about finally "getting" her, he implores her to sign (sign what? This is when I realized they were referring to her abjuration) and with tears in his eyes, crying "Live Joan! Sign!" Joan still doesn't get it. So he takes a torch and burns her hand and scares the living hell out of her and she finally realizes that she will die, so she signs the paper.
Then, with great relief they send her back to jail. No protest about going to the SAME jail; no explanation about what it meant to abjure. Not long after this we hear her screaming; implying that she is being raped in prison. To be honest, I was bothered more by the fact that she was back in the same jail and not protesting that she now belonged in a church prison rather than in the same place, than I was by the rape. Until I read all the information on the subject of this supposed rape on this website, I had always assumed that Joan WAS raped. Certainly she was sexually abused in prison; we know that for a fact. So if she was raped, I am not too shocked. If she wasn't, I am very glad, but I didn't find this scene as disturbing as others apparently did. Call me a jaded lady.
Not long after this scene, Jean DeMetz comes to visit Joan, and she cannot even look at him, implying again that she was raped. Yet, she "wakes up" when DeMetz tells her that LaHire and his men are just outside the city and planning to rescue her. She looks right at him in the same way she always has, and with seeming gratitude, answers him, "I will be saved!"
Now, the next scene has her back in men's clothing, recanting. After this, she tells Cauchon that her story about St. Michael was a lie, he asks why and she says that he (Cauchon) asked her what she was forbidden to answer, and in effect, by lying she has saved them both. Then they haul her out to burn her, and LaHire tells DeMetz to stay there, and to let her see him so she'll have hope while La Hire goes out to initiate the rescue. Of course it's too late, and in this version it's DeMetz that procures the processional cross which he holds up to Joan to look at as she burns. This is undercut with a scene of Cauchon weeping in guilt and sorrow.
And then, of course she dies, and the whole thing winds up and the movie is over.
And I thought, wait a minute - did she recant because she thought she was being rescued by her men? And what was this stuff with Cauchon? He came across as a political, yet conscience-ridden, holy man who was trying his damnedest to save this poor misguided girl's soul. The poor guy, he didn't understand her voices really were from God, and he was honestly fearful for her immortal soul! He was just doing his job, and he failed! No wonder he felt so awful, wouldn't anyone in his situation? What a tragedy for him, what a tragedy for her, what a damn sad story all around - and yes, she's in heaven, but doesn't God ask a whole lot, now doesn't He!! And on and on.
When Joan recants in the miniseries, she says only that she said what she did "for fear of the fire, but now I deny it all." In another film, the scene was more powerfully drawn with the statement "a life without faith is worse than no life at all, worse than the fire, worse than dying young." But with only "what I said I said for fear of the fire, but now I deny it all" I wasn't convinced that she thought she was going to the stake. I thought that she thought she was being rescued, by the soldiers.
I've watched these scenes a couple of times now, and I can see now that one may have looked at it in a different way, and that I could have misread the intentions of the director. Certainly others have not seen it the way I did. But it did bother me a lot the first time. And other things also bothered me as well, because they also give a different impression from what may have been intended, and because of the known historical record, may annoy people who know this subject so well:
A "romance" with DeMetz was implied, though it never happened in the movie, and he may have loved her in a totally pure way despite the little postscript at the end that "Jean DeMetz never married." But then why put that in at all? To humanize the characters perhaps, or to make it more palatable to the modem audience?
And Joan's father in the opening scene seemed to be out to kill his baby daughter Joan at birth, but upon closer examination it appears the family is being run out of town by invaders and his wife just gave birth to a daughter that he couldn't afford to save as long as he had young sons with him. Yes, still ludicrous, but not as horrible as it first appears. I was bothered more by the fact that in this film her father gave her nothing but trouble until she was about to leave and he saw her cry like a little girl that she was afraid. Only that melted his heart.
Peter O'Toole may have done a good job with the material given him, but he has such a skeletal, cadaverous appearance that they could have used this to better advantage in exploiting Cauchon's historically evil nature, rather than making him into a confused, world-weary wise man. It was like sympathy for the killer, in my opinion.
I loved the scenes with Shirley MacLaine, who played Mme De Beaurevoir. Though historically inaccurate and in actuality a combination of several actual women, those scenes served the purpose of showing that Joan's actual mission and authenticity was not lost on people, even the enemy. And though I would have liked to have seen a depiction of Joan's escape attempts, this was alluded to in the scene in which the Queen died. The camera pans up to the open window, and before the men come in to take Joan away, we see her realize what is about to happen as she looks up to the window, pondering escape.
The scenes with Olympia Dukakis, who played Mother Babette, serve the same purpose, even though as Virginia Frohlick states so well, Joan never had the comfort of a female companion or chaperone. But, Ms. Dukakis has a wonderful line in which she says, "Yours is the purest heart of any child I've ever known, and I fear what men would do to someone like you," to which Joan replies "I am not afraid" and Dukakis answers "I know, that is why I am afraid for you." This little exchange foreshadowed events to come.
While the use of "Panis Angelicus" as background music for a battle scene was otherwise inappropriate (because it was written by Cesar Auguste Franck in 1871, 440 years after Joan's death), I did like hearing the gifted 13 year old Charlotte Church singing it. Knowing who it was singing the song, I was reminded of Joan's own lost youth. It was an inspired choice, and gave added poignancy to the scene.
Now, I realize that some of us watch things like this for different reasons. For some, it may just be a way to pass the time or be entertained. And I also realize that those of us who are students of history and of this story in particular will look at any film depiction of Joan in a more critical way than the general public. The difficulties in producing a story like this lie in the realization that one cannot please all, particularly in this limited medium. That said, I believe that to put in it proper perspective, one must remember that this miniseries was a movie for network television, and compared to most, it could have been drastically inferior to the quality production that it was. I for one expected something more along the lines of "Buffy the English Slayer" or "Joan: 90210." And one could certainly forgive me for expecting "Joan the Warrior Princess."
As Virginia Frohlick stated in her review, "Joan was presented as a virgin, who loved God and wanted to serve HIM." That in itself is a miracle considering the way most teens are portrayed on modem television. And, considering how such "entertainment" is usually packaged, consider the following:
Joan could have been portrayed as a hip, street-wise village teen who used the medieval superstitions and Catholic sentiments of her fellow citizens as her way out and to the "big city." A downtrodden, though highly intelligent female in terrible chauvinistic times, she went out and accomplished all of these wonderful things on her own.
A romance between Jean DeMetz and Joan could have been portrayed as an actual event, with the two of them as star-crossed lovers run over by God's plan.
God could have been presented as only a myth, Joan's voices as only her imagination (as had been hinted in Shaw's version). Instead, we had a controlled yet wonderful presentation of Joan's visions, a sense of a loving rather than a punishing God.
All of the churchmen in this film could have been portrayed as evil; the people of the church as ignorant, superstitious fools.
Joan could have been portrayed as mentally ill, unbalanced, or physically ill and hallucinating her voices.
Joan could have been portrayed as a noble, rebellious teenager coming to her mission in reaction to her evil father.
The battle scenes could have been gratuitously bloody and violent. Joan's own wound could have been more spectacular; we could have seen more of her body as she pulled the arrow from her shoulder. Did I say shoulder? She may have been wounded elsewhere.
Joan could have been portrayed as a more "proportionately pleasing" female, by a different actress. Her costume could have been clingy and revealing.
Joan could have been portrayed as a lesbian. She might have been shown as a transvestite in the modem sense of the term.
The supposed rape of Joan in prison, hinted at in this film, could instead have been shown in brutal, lurid detail. There is precedence for this; recent television movies have not shied away from such crudeness masquerading as "authentic realism."
And finally, given the availability and accuracy of special effects these days, Joan's famous death could have been much more realistic and horrifying. In actuality, a wax dummy/double of Ms. Sobieski was filmed burning at the stake, but this scene was thankfully edited out as "too graphic."
So you see, it could have been a lot worse; not to mention the fact that some of the above elements may well have pleased some people. Instead, just what did we have? A largely accurate, restrained portrayal of young hero who died with the name of Jesus on her lips.
A stylized version of the Joan of Arc story with hints of Shaw, and hints of Maxwell Anderson among others. A 1999 version of Joan, perhaps, but this is consistent with all portrayals of Joan, for it is fundamentally both a religious AND a political story.
This Joan was shown praying in a free and natural way, coming to God with praise, but also with her fears, pain and grief. When was the last time we saw that on television? For that matter, when was the last time we saw Joan as a normal "kid?" Witness the attitude of this Joan in the early trial scenes. This portrayal captured the confidence, faith and purity of spirit as well as the insolence, the passionate impetuousness as well as the self-centeredness, the longing for justice right alongside the fears of a child. This child, on the cusp of an adulthood that would never come, portrayed by an actress of the same age, wearing on her armored sleeve the fearless sense of invulnerability and immortality that fades with age.
I have never seen a portrayal of Joan in which she looked and acted more like a teenager - a special teenager, to be sure, but a teenager nonetheless. Even the late Jean Seberg, at age 17 and with her Vidal Sassoon-like hairdo as Joan seemed older, somehow "touched." According to press statements for the miniseries, casting for an actress to play the part of Joan required someone who could play 'sophisticated yet innocent." What better description of a teen do we have? Leelee Sobieski comes across as youthful yet mature, her actual age in direct view alongside the divine mission she portrayed. It was a stunning, believable performance, full of integrity. Now I ask you, coming on the heels of the Columbine High School tragedy, isn't this miniseries a little more in line with the kind of spiritual heroism that we have all but forgotten that some of our youth possess?
All in all, pretty heady stuff for television. As with most television movies, I was shocked. This time, for the good. All in all, a worthy effort which speaks to the youth of today in a way that the other telefilms have not even attempted. Neilsen ratings showed the miniseries placed in the top 10 most watched programs of that week. Perhaps many who watched this film will now be inspired to develop their own interest in the ageless Joan of Arc story, or even to imitate this young saint just as I did so many years ago when watching an earlier version. Ultimately, this could lead to a desire to learn more about God.
How many television productions these days can even come close to that?