Wednesday, August 18, 2010

JOAN OF ARC (1948)

In the 15th century, during the Hundred Years' War between England and France, Joan, a rural French teenager, is tormented by the voices of saints who tell her she should lead French armies into battle against the English. She cuts her hair, dresses like a boy, and makes her way to see the Dauphin, heir to the throne of France whose claim is cast in doubt when his own mother insists he is a bastard. As a prank, an impostor presents himself to Joan as the Dauphin, but she, apparently guided by her voices, finds the real Dauphin in the crowd. Despite having no military experience, Joan is allowed to lead the armies as a kind of figurehead; at the besieged town of Orleans, Joan is wounded but the army is successful. After more victories, Joan is present at the coronation of the Dauphin as King Charles VI, but he seems visibly upset by the kind of adoration Joan receives from the crowds. Joan wants to continue fighting to free Paris from the Burgundians, but feels betrayed when the King signs a treaty instead. She is captured by the English, and Charles refuses to ransom her. She is put on trial by an ecclesiastical court for heresy and ex-communicated, but refuses to accept the judgment, and is eventually burned at the stake.

I’ve never completely understood the appeal of the story of Joan of Arc. Though she is credited as a staunch nationalist, and she was obviously a victim of political chicanery, she was also pretty clearly a nutcase, and whenever I see a version of her story, I find it hard to be completely sympathetic to her. This film, the last one directed by Victor Fleming (GONE WITH THE WIND, WIZARD OF OZ), was a box-office flop, partly due to Bergman being on the outs with the American public because of her adulterous behavior. The movie, in Technicolor, looks ravishing, but its attempt at being a big epic adventure is hurt by very stagy sets, some ponderous dialogue, skimpy-looking battle scenes, and, of course, the fact that this is largely a personal story of religious faith (or delusion). Bergman (in her 30s playing 18) is actually quite good, and the large supporting cast is fun for a game of "spot the character actor": Ward Bond, J. Carroll Naish, Gene Lockhart, Shepperd Strudwick, Cecil Kellaway, and Robert Barrat among others. Unfortunately, at 145 minutes, the pace is too leisurely and the narrative too unfocused to be very compelling. [DVD]

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