I've been hooked on Jeanne d'Arc since childhood. My fascination began with the movie Joan of Arc starring Ingrid Bergman. Her story contained several hooks for me: how in five months Jeanne went from illiterate country teenager to the leader of the French army, then crowned Charles VII king; how everyone laughed at her, yet she still accomplished what she set out to do because of her incredible faith; her piety; and her unique relationship with her Voices.
But as I grew older, I came to understand that the "conventional wisdom" in most books about Jeanne d'Arc was largely inaccurate. This insight prompted more research by me and a longing for a movie about her that would tell the truth - or at least a good deal of it. So it was with great anticipation that I awaited the CBS-TV "Joan of Arc" miniseries.
As someone who earns his living being creative, I know how easy it is to criticize and how difficult it is to create, especially a movie - and a TV movie at that. But, the CBS rendition of the "Joan of Arc" story left me so upset, I couldn't NOT write. They had a $25 million budget and still bungled the job - badly. Why they saw fit to disregard the historical truth with such painful consistency, I'll never know, but I found it extremely difficult to watch this clumsy production to its end.
The actual story of Jeanne has enough tension, character development, plot, and emotional roller-coaster rides to hold any audience. The director's decision to take such liberal "license" with her life story ruined it for me. Why bother calling it the "Joan of Arc" story? Why not just call it "The Brave Girl Warrior: Based on a True Story" and let it go at that? Any connection between the CBS story and Jeanne d'Arc's life was purely coincidental.
It began with the opening credits where they showed Jeanne burning at the stake. In truth, the whole time those flames seared and melted her flesh, the real "Maid" never cried or whined or moaned, and certainly never said, "Thank you." She simply repeated one word over and over: "Jesus!" How much more emotional power did the director need for his audience than to see a medieval teenage girl burning at the stake, yet courageously and stoically bearing her pain (Why not mention that it was common practice for humane executioners to kill the person who was about to be burned before lighting the flames)? What was wrong with sticking to the truth? Politically incorrect? What CBS showed didn't make sense.
Jeanne became a saint; that' s an historical fact. So what's the point of making a movie about the life of a saint if they're not going to show her being a "saint?" Okay, I know: technically, CBS did not present the life of a saint. They presented the life of "The Maid of Lorraine." But that was merely a different side of the same coin. Trying to tell only the historical side of the "Joan of Arc" story is like trying to tell the Babe Ruth story without the baseball. Both are so interconnected and interwoven it's impossible to tell where one ends and other begins. So already CBS was off to a "shaky" start with me.
Next, this production cut to Jeanne's birth and showed her father ordering the murder of his newborn baby daughter. I couldn't believe my eyes and ears! Nothing could have been further from the truth. Jacques d'Arc loved his Jeanne more than anything. True, he was domineering and overly protective toward his daughters - typical of most fathers at that time. The truth about Jeanne and her father is that he was scared to death about her going off by herself because he had had a recurring nightmare for years about her dying with soldiers or "something to do with war," he told his wife. What a terrible beginning to this movie.
What followed was a systematic misrepresentation of the facts about Jeanne. Without citing chapter and verse of each historical "untruth or distortion" in this disappointing production, the following (in no particular order) represents those I found most distasteful:
1. Their showing Bishop Cauchon as originally part of Charles VII's court - light years from the truth. Cauchon hated the French and was always an English lackey; he held Charles VII in most low regard. He wouldn't have been caught dead working in association with the Dauphin. Why eliminate Georges de La Tremoille (most trusted counselor to Charles until 1433)? A more despicable historical character one could never find. My guess is that Peter O'Toole wouldn't join the cast unless he had the second largest role, and the producers needed his star power to get financing or decent air-time. Ergo, they telescoped Cauchon and Tremoille into one.
The problem with that is they sacrificed too much story. They'd have been better off giving O' Toole the part of the Duke of Bedford and expanding that part. In truth, Bedford was the main villain behind the scenes (as this production hinted), pulling political strings and playing Philip (the new Duke of Burgundy who was not the captious fool CBS would have us believe) and Cauchon like a harp. Or why not have O'Toole play La Tremoille and overlook the real Frenchman's girth? That man's true role in the life of Jeanne d'Arc was certainly important enough even for someone with O'Toole's ego.
2. Their portrayal of Charles VII as a handsome and dashing young "turk" who was Machiavellian in his political maneuverings. In the first place, at 26 Charles was naove and ugly - short, frail, knock-kneed, and with the limbs of a scarecrow all of which he concealed behind an ever-present long, green cape. His face featured a huge bulbous nose, beady eyes, a large sensual mouth, and a serious case of acne. He was shifty-eyed and seldom looked directly at anyone. Charles was neither dashing nor physically attractive, and he knew it - many laughed in his face because of his repulsive appearance.
Until he became king, Charles had few illusions about his own importance. He'd been abandoned by his mother and raised by his future mother-in-law since age 10. He was well-read and had keen geopolitical insight, but suffered from low self-esteem. He dealt with that by allowing the world to underestimate him; he went out of his way to cultivate an impression of stupidity. Secretly, he was bright, pious, yet extremely superstitious - he kept several astrologers busy almost full time.
In 1429, he stood on the precipice of losing his campaign to expel the ruthless English from his homeland. He suffered consuming bouts of depression and had backup plans to flee to Spain or Scotland if defeat appeared imminent. He had access to borrowed funds from several sources, but mostly La Tremoille. That's why that man enjoyed so much power: The quid pro quo was borrowed money in return for interest, access, and power. But that situation made Charles feel trapped and alone. The only people he knew for a fact that he could trust (prior to Jeanne entering his life) were his mother-in-law (Queen Yolande of Sicily) and his young wife.
Charles DID NOT knowingly betray Joan as CBS incorrectly suggested; those around him did. They were led by La Tremoille who feared permanent loss of his power if Jeanne were allowed to continue her military successes. Jeanne and Charles were a study in contrasts, but betrayal never figured in their relationship. The worst that could be said about Charles in 1429 and early 1430 was that he was an unappreciative, immature, fearful, and guilt-ridden lout (the murder by Armagnac zealots of the Duke of Burgundy - Philip's father - took place following a negotiating session from which the guiltless16-year-old Charles had just taken a brief break).
Joan and Charles disagreed passionately in private, yet CBS downplayed that. Instead, they showed her as prideful in public (she actually prostrated herself at his coronation; why not show that?) which, rendered a great disservice to their story and the true complexities of the Jeanne-Charles relationship.
The plain fact was Jeanne and Charles were too young for the responsibilities placed on their shoulders. They both made multiple mistakes attributable to their youth: Charles was too trusting of his advisors as well as the honorable intentions of the Duke of Burgundy (he mistakenly believed Philip was negotiating in good faith beginning in August 1429); Joan was too impatient because her Voices had told her she only had a "short time."
In private, she would argue with her "gentle Dauphin" - as she fondly referred to him - because he wouldn't take her advice, or she saw him listening to those around him she knew to be traitors. In public, she would never have challenged him at his coronation banquet as CBS so inaccurately depicted. In her view, Charles VII was God's chosen to lead France back to "wholeness." Publicly humiliating or challenging him would have contradicted everything she stood for. For her, that could never happen.
3. The CBS mis-portrayal of the abortive attack on Paris was a travesty - another historical misrepresentation (including her brother's death). In truth, Charles was there during the Paris battle and Joan was wounded again. Charles could not have asserted she was a "loose canon" since he participated in the attack. Furthermore, kings don't negotiate face-to-face with the enemy; they send emissaries. Charles bargaining directly with Bedford and Burgundy after Paris (in "neutral Northern France") would never have happened.
4. Their portrayal of her capture was ludicrous; it wasn't even close to the truth. And why didn't CBS show her daring escapes from jail, one of which almost killed her? That was one of the reasons her jailers were so scared of her: she was physically fearless.
5. Their failure to accurately demonstrate the cruelty of her treatment by the English in court (in truth, the English kept her standing in a small circular cage in court like a caged animal) and jail (the CBS off-camera rape never happened, but the lack of food and sleep, the gratuitous violence, and the sacramental depravation did). In the end, it was the inhumane treatment both in and out of court that caused her to become sick, loose weight and strength, and eventually get talked into signing those deadly documents. Still, her courage never waned: From January to May of 1431, she held at bay the finest legal and canon law experts the English could bring to bear. Not too bad for a country girl who could neither read nor write.
CBS spent too much camera time and financial resources on a failed (and historically inaccurate; there is some evidence that Charles put up considerable funds to underwrite a rescue attempt, but it was too little too late) rescue attempt by La Hire and friends. (The director went to all that trouble so he could have Jean de Metz hold up a cross for her at the burning. Why? Wasn't it more powerful that Jeanne was alone and that an English soldier defied orders and jury-rigged a wooden cross in response to her pleas?) Why didn't CBS devote those same resources to portraying the back room "arrangements" between Cauchon, the other judges, and the Duke of Bedford?
The legalities of that situation were such that several important jurors were at first willing to spare her. Bedford's immense political and economic power and Cauchon's personal need to curry favor with him enabled those two men to hold "their people" in line. Imagine, all those rich, well-educated, powerful men lined up against one, short, uneducated country girl. Why wasn't that enough "story" for CBS? Whatever their answer, it still doesn't make sense as to why they took such outrageous liberties with the truth, even if we view this problem from purely an "entertainment or ratings" perspective.
6. The CBS representation at the end of the movie that the reason for Jeanne's "Rehabilitation Trial" was because of Jeanne's mother is just not true. Charles VII made that happen. Reasonable people may argue as to his real motivation, but in truth Jeanne's mother was merely a pawn in his game, not the other way around. She was an old woman with a dream; he was king. Surely the director and producers of this movie could have adhered to that truth without hurting "their" story, which leads to my final point.
7. CBS couldn't make up their mind about which "Jeanne story" they were telling. It wasn't "Jeanne the Saint," and it wasn't "Jeanne the Historical Victor," otherwise they would have stuck more closely to the facts. So what was their story: "Jeanne the Mis-Guided Who Could Have Saved Her Life and Married and Made Babies If Only She'd Made Better Choices?" That's how it came across on television. What was wrong with "The Triumph of Jeanne the Teenager Who Had Great Faith?" Wouldn't that have been more compelling? (It would have helped if the youthful Leelee Sobieski had more range as an actress. Nothing in the history books claims Jeanne was beautiful. She wasn't unattractive, but she wasn't a beauty; she was just ordinary looking - short and strong with dark hair. If movie makers would stick to the truth of who she was, they would have more flexibility in casting an actress who can act.)
The facts are that even her most prejudiced adversaries were struck by her great faith. At her burning in Rouen, the English troops were under strict orders against outbursts of emotion as was the crowd, yet many wept at what they saw and left the scene proclaiming, "We have burned a saint!" In the end, Jeanne thought she'd failed; so did the English. Both were wrong.
How frustrating this production was! All that money, all that research - CBS and its producers were so close. To be fair, there were some scenes I thought turned out well. The courtroom scenes flowed the best (although greatly inaccurate), but that makes sense given the history of this particular script (originally written by a lawyer). I thought the coronation scene (up until Joan joined Charles on the steps of the cathedral) worked well except their failure to show Jeanne prostrating herself was an inexcusable omission. The sense of place was strong throughout the movie especially during the battle scenes; the costumes were convincing except for the omission of Joan's eternal "patched red dress" even up to and including her two trips to Vaucouleurs which were also misrepresented in this project.
One thing seems clear. Creation by committee simply does not work. I'm certain that the men and women associated with this production started with the best of intentions, and look what they produced: A completely erroneous and distorted version of the Jeanne d'Arc story. How frustrating for them; how frustrating for us. What an international travesty; no wonder the French so dislike Americans! I'm most disappointed in Director Christian Duguay. He should have known better.
I can hear the CBS reaction to this and other unfavorable reviews: "Yes, but look at the critical praise we've received about the show; we may even get nominated for an Emmy. Look at the people who wrote to tell us how much they enjoyed it." And I reply, those same people would have enjoyed the "Joan of Arc" miniseries just as much - if not more - had CBS presented the truth.
As it is, these uninformed viewers think this "miniseries" version of history is the truth because they saw it on television. What makes the situation worse is CBS and those who work with them know that. They and the television industry as a whole see people's gullibility or ignorance of history as license to rearrange truth in the name of ratings or holding an audience. "What's our share?" has become their only sacred mantra. What ever happened to integrity or honesty - not because they "have to," but because it's the right the thing to do?
Freedom of speech has responsibilities, and it could have begun with the people at CBS and the entire production team for "Joan of Arc: The Miniseries." All of these highly talented men and women could have made "getting it right" their highest priority. That's what Jeanne would have wanted. For her, truth always mattered.
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Mike MacCarthy is Publisher/Editor of San Diego Writers' Monthly and a
nationally published ghostwriter, editor, and publishing consultant.
He can be reached at: email@example.com or