Friday, June 12, 2020

Joan of Arc Month: Joan Goes Hollywood

Joan of Arc
The CW Network (and its deceased parent networks, the WB and UPN) receives much rightful grief for having actors in their twenties play teen characters. (Conversely, their parents are played by actors in their thirties.) This week’s Joan of Arc Month movie beat TV to this trend by decades by having 33-year-old Ingrid Bergman play the teen Joan. And, as on those youth trending networks, our heroine has to be hot. (The Dauphin, played by Jose Ferrer, remarks that people follow Joan because she is so attractive. Quite the Hollywood perspective of politics.)

As a whole, this 1948 telling of the Joan of Arc story tries to be much prettier than the 1928 version we looked at last week or, more importantly, the historical record. It makes sense; this is the Hollywood telling of the story as opposed to the French telling of the story. The French tend toward a more cynical view of the Church -- to put it lightly (see the murder of priests and nuns during their Revolution in the late 1700s). Hollywood in the Golden Age usually deemed it best to treat the Church with kid gloves. It isn't surprising that Victor Fleming, director of Gone With the Windmanages to make the Hundred Years War nearly as picturesque as the American Civil War.

So let’s look at how churches and clergy are presented in the film (since that's the point of this blog). The film begins with an abstract presentation of the inside of a basilica with heavenly light shining upon it and a narrator pronouncing the canonization of Joan. Bells chime and candles flicker, and we are assured from the beginning that eventually the Church will get things right as to the significance of the Maid of Orleans.

The next church we see looks like it got bombed in the Blitz. We see a young Joan praying in a small church in ruins. We learn that it is the village church of Domremy, Joan’s home town. But it is in ruins, perhaps because of the Hundred Years War? The altar is fine, as are the pews, but the stone walls have very large gaps. Joan (or Jeanette, as she is generally called in her hometown -- before her name changes for reasons the film does not explain) is beseeching her “Voices” to speak to her and give her direction.

Her father enters the church to order his daughter to make breakfast, reprimanding her for “thinking of nothing else but this church.” He lectures her about neglecting her friends and family for her “daydreaming” about saints. At that breakfast, the family has a visitor: Joan’s uncle who has been off at the battles.

Her uncle tells about the horrors of the war and is much harsher in his denunciation of the Burgundians (French who fought against their countrymen) than the English. (This make sense for the filmmakers of the time and filmgoers who had just fought WWII with the English as allies while the French were divided between the Vichy who allied with the Third Reich and the Resistance who opposed it.) Without her parents’ permission, Joan joins her uncle as he returns to the battle.

She explains to her uncle, “It’s more than four years since I first heard the voice of saints in my father’s garden. I am only a poor girl of the farms, I am not fit to talk to great people.” But she feels she must approach “great people.” Eventually, she is able to see the Dauphin, Charles VII, the uncrowned king of France. Joan tells him that he will be crowned.

She tells the Dauphin that God has called her to join the army against the English. (Those who disagree sarcastically sneer that Joan can join the army as a “camp follower,” a prostitute.) Some worry her “Voices” might not be heavenly. Before she can join the troops, she is asked if she has studied witchcraft (she responds with an emphatic “No.”) A priest is brought in to examine her.

The priest asks Joan if she is from God, and if she is, to come near. Joan approaches the priest and asks for his blessing. The priest assures all around that “she’s no sorceress, the devil has no part in this woman.” The priest treats her kindly, calling her “my child.”

When Joan joins the army, she insists that the men change their behavior. First of all, she orders, “There will be no swearing in camp.” A soldier (Ward Bond) responds, “You want the army to be mute?” She tells the generals and troops, “From now on there won’t be much time for games. Pick up your dice. They tell me there is no changing of armies. We must be on God’s side. There must be no gambling, no swearing, or taking God’s name in vain; and camp women must be sent away. And you must go to confession. There is no strength in our hands, our strength is in our faith. We can win only if we become God’s army. It is not easy to ask this. It is not easy to do.”

Joan leads the French army to victory but is wounded by an arrow to the shoulder. A soldier asks her if she wants to “Hold my amulet; it will hold away the pain.” 

Joan responds, “I would rather die than use sorcery.”

When Joan sees the devastation of the English army, she cries, “I have no hatred for the English.” but she is encouraged when she is told that she has given faith to the people of France.

Joan attends the coronation of Charles VII in a church, and it is indeed a worship service. Charles bows before the altar and the Bishop. It is a worship service, and, of course, is in Latin.

Alleluias are sung as Charles is crowned King. Joan says, “This is the day we have fought for and it is here.” 

All shout, “Long live the King!”

But of course, not all are pleased with the victory. The Burgundian Pierre Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais (Francis L. Sullivan), says, “This is no subject for jesting. She is victorious and has made no mistakes so far. The church has had to deal with many heretics, but none as dangerous as this one. She would have been declared a heretic if I had been there.” Pierre gets his chance later, as he judges Joan's heresy trial.

Joan’s victory is short-lived. Her beloved King, Charles, betrays her by signing a truce with the English. Joan is turned over to the Burgundian clergy for trial. (Joan asks for French clergy to try her rather than English clergy. She is granted this request to some degree, but they are French clergy sympathetic to the English.)

Joan’s trial is not proper; there are many laws of the church broken. Joan should have been guarded by women in a women’s prison, but she is sent to a men’s prison with soldiers as guards. She appeals to Rome and asks to be tried by the Pope (who is “subject to no king”), but this lawful appeal is denied. And she is denied the Sacrament of the Eucharist unless she signs a confession.

Throughout the trial, Joan is supported by Father Jean Massieu (Shepperd Strudwick), her counselor.  He voices his concern and support for Joan throughout the trial, but his opinion is overruled. (Several priests  who support Joan are arrested.) Eventually, Joan is convinced she should deny that she's been hearing voices from God.

As history tells us, Joan renounces her confession and sent to the stake to be burned. As she's led to the place of execution, she's forced to wear a hat that calls her, “Relapsed heretic, sorceress, blasphemer, idolatress, apostate,” and that hat becomes the sign on her stake.

The Bishop reads the charges against Joan before the crowd, and he turns her over to the civil authorities to be executed. Joan dies, yet cries out to Jesus. Triumphant music and a shot of the heavens assure us that really, all is well.

The Church is presented positively at times in this film, but it is still responsible for the torture and murder of an innocent woman, so a Two Steeple rating is the best we can do.

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