Joan of Arc (1948)
D. Victor Fleming
Consider this a companion piece to my post about The Passion of Joan of Arc here…
Joan of Arc starts off like a trainwreck headed for nowhere and ends up going…somewhere.
The first half hour has everything possible going against it: The star, Ingrid Bergman, who had won a Tony playing the title role on Broadway (albeit there, as Joan of Larraine, it was a dual part, with a modern framing that was ditched for the film), is too old for the teenage Joan and too worldly for a French peasant village girl, even if she weren’t also an iconic, world class Hollywood beauty. The stodgy voice-over that was a plague of Hollywood’s Golden Age historical epics is dull as ever. Worse, the dialogue is devoid of wit or snap and the action scenes, including the assault on Orleans that made Joan’s legend, are staged with little context and less imagination.
A disaster waiting to happen then, or at least an excuse for a long nap…
Until it is rescued by Joan herself.
Joan of Arc is a sufficiently tricky character–or legend–to have defied definitive interpretation, whether on stage, page or film. To get the full measure of her, a narrative would have to capture the village maid inspired by voices, the improbable military genius and the clever illiterate, unable to sign her name, but fencing ably with her learned tormentors as she stands trial for both her life and her immortal soul, then wrap such disparate, often contradictory traits as all that implies, around a central, unifying persona.
This Joan does not come close to accomplishing all that.
It does not repeat the mistake of Dreyer’s silent masterpiece in selling the Maid’s faith short. But, for its first two stages–Joan’s village life and her rise to military glory–it goes too far in the other direction. Religious transcendence is never well understood by those who haven’t experienced at least some small version of it. If its paradox of liberation and awesome responsibility–suddenly you are called to save the world–has ever been fully caught on film, I’ve missed it. Certainly that does not happen here. Bergman was one of the screen’s greatest actresses as well as a luminous star–but through these early scenes she simply seems overwhelmed. Yes, Joan would have been frightened by visions that ordered her to do no less than save France. But she would have been exhilarated too. I’ve known God was on my side for perhaps five minutes in my life and those five minutes–bereft of grandeur though they may have been–left me sick to my stomach and ready to take on the world. I can only imagine what Joan felt, but I doubt it was either the benumbed humility that Bergman conveys in her village scenes or the flush-with-common-valor gung-ho of the battle sequences. There would have been a quiet, but abiding confidence in there somewhere, not mention a rush of exhilaration now and again. In this part of the film and the performance those crucial elements go missing.
But there’s always that third phase of the Joan narrative-the trial–and its interconnection with fifteenth-century realpolitik. Here, every writer has access, for once, to Joan’s actual words. And it’s here, as in Passion (where it’s the whole story), that the story, and the remarkable figure at its center, come alive.
I wouldn’t claim Bergman disappears into Joan. She’s far too strong a screen presence and far too obviously miscast as a physical type for that.
But you can, at least, feel Joan at her back, perhaps even whispering in her ear. Yes, this is how I would have played it….How I did play it!
And in these scenes, Bergman’s natural star power works in her favor. We don’t know much about what Joan looked like. But it’s safe to say it’s been rare for a woman to inspire as she did without having something or other that men, in particular, responded to, either with awe or fear or both. Bergman could hold her star charisma in check, but the inner light still shines. It might be more Sex than Faith, but here–in well written scenes that incorporate, but are not limited to, Joan’s actual testimony–you can see how close the two might have ridden together. That the script allows–almost insists upon–the idea that the Maid was tortured by rape or threats of rape in order to get her to recant her visions (the main purpose of her trial), does more to condemn her English judges (the acting rises a notch in these scenes, too–villain or hero, Hollywood always did do well by the Brits) than a thousand oily sneers or tortuous professions of profound belief.
In other words, the last half of the film works beautifully. Once the story is all Joan’s, rather than a screenwriter or playwright’s speculation, all the professional Hollywood spit and polish that made the first half a drag comes to its rescue. Joan herself couldn’t have asked for a better setting to deliver the careful, cutting phrases that have rung through the centuries.
All to the same tragic end of course and director Victor Fleming died shortly after thinking the film a failure.
That’s too bad. He and Bergman did not produce a masterpiece. But they did add something to a bottomless narrative that is one of the central stories of Christendom, one which, if it can never quite be caught entirely, still throws off flashes of lightning, be it in the starkest black and white….
…or the most glorious Technicolor.