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Art Imitating Arc?
History vs. Joan of Arc vs. The Messenger
Joan of Arc Leelee Sobieski Milla Jovovich

Isn't it always the way. You wait six hundred years for a bio-pic, then two come along at once. Though actually, France's patron saint has been the subject of films since the very earliest days of cinema - George Melies made a 12-scene reconstruction of her life in 1900 - but for no readily apparent reason, 1999 saw both a feature and a TV miniseries covering the topic. Before we discuss those, some background, as is probably wise whenever you deal with movies based on historical events. Real life is rarely cinematic, and any conflict is liable to leave factual accuracy in the dirt, going "Did anyone get the number of that truck?" So, here is a potted biography of the Maid of Orleans

Born in the French province of Champagne in 1412, to a peasant farmer, Joan (or Jeanne - I'll largely stick to the Anglicization) never learned to read or write, but was regarded by her contemporaries as a highly pious child. It was at the age of 13 that she first heard voices, but it took several years before they convinced her to leave home and help the French king, who was engaged in a battle to liberate the country from England.

She presented herself to the local commander, who was skeptical at first, but was eventually convinced after Joan reported news of an English defeat before official confirmation arrived. Joan, clad in male attire to protect her modesty, travelled to see the king, and convinced him of the legitimacy of his claim to the throne, despite a faction of the court strongly opposing her influence. Her faith, simplicity and honesty won the day, and she acquired her sword, found buried behind an altar, in the exact spot she said it would be.

Although she did not engage in actual combat, her presence in the thick of battle acted as a unifying and galvanising force to the French, and she also imposed a pious attitude among her soldiers (no mean task, given they included the infamous Giles de Rais!), for example, driving away the camp whores. Joan's soldiers raised the siege of Orleans, despite her being shot in the shoulder by an arrow, and subsequent successes led to the coronation of their king in July 1429. Had she gone home at this point, as she wanted to, her life would undoubtedly have been longer and happier.

Instead, she continued her efforts to free her nation, and was injured again during an abortive assault on Paris, this time in the thigh. The following May, she was captured by John of Luxembourg, who sold her to the English. Charged with heresy, Joan continued to make a good impression, eventually causing the case to be held in camera.

This was nothing more than a show trial, despite the efforts of those in charge to find support: according to biographer Jules Michelet, one jurist said "that everything about the trial was wrong; that it failed to respect the proper forms; that the assessors were not free; that the sessions were held in secrecy; that the accused...could not be expected to argue with learned doctors" and finished by declaring that it "was a trial to impugn the honour of the prince whose cause this girl is supporting; you should frankly say so." Perhaps wisely, the holder of these opinions opted to leave France immediately for the safety of Rome.

Inevitably, her visions were declared diabolical in nature, and she was told to recant or face the stake. Initially, she refused, but faced with imminent death, her courage understandably failed and she gave in. Her death sentence was suspended, to the chagrin of the English, who wanted her disposed of permanently. However, shortly afterwards, she resumed her wearing of male clothes - perhaps to prevent her guards from raping her, or because her normal attire was taken away. This was sufficient to have her condemned as a relapsed heretic; she was burned at the stake on May 30th, 1431. Joan was just nineteen years old. Twenty-four years later, however, a new trial overturned the verdict (albeit rather too late), beginning the process of rehabilitation which would conclude with her canonisation in 1920.

So much for the historical record. What of these two 1999 productions? Are they accurate to the facts? And, perhaps more importantly, do they work as entertainment?

See also

The Messenger
Dir: Luc Besson
Stars: Milla Jovovich, John Malkovich, Faye Dunaway, Tcheky Karyo

"Joan's eminent originality was her common sense"

This was the the very first sentence of Michelet's classic biography, published in 1853, but you'd be hard pressed to recognise the same person in Besson's portrayal. A more accurate summary of this Joan would be the line spoken to her as she languished in prison: "You didn't see what was, Jeanne - you saw what you wanted to see..."

Besson comes down firmly in the school of thought which has Joan as a mentally deranged religious loony. While this is a viable theory, it doesn't work as played by Jovovich - all twitchy, rolling her eyes and staring off into the distance - since it becomes impossible to see why anyone would have followed her. Unless we assume the 14th century French population were entirely gullible, she should have spent her life quietly as some village's idiot. This cripples the film irreperably, since we feel little or no sympathy for a heroine depicted as a frothing zealot.

Historically too, it gets off to a bad start - an entirely fabricated incident in which Joan sees her sister first killed, then raped by an English soldier. This provides a spurious ground for Joan to hate the invaders, when contemporary accounts tell of her concern being almost equal for both sides. Also made-up is her finding a sword in a field, and there is a sudden leap, with Joan arriving to an audience with the King - in truth, she talked her way up the hierarchy. A rather lurid scene (missing from the US theatrical release) where Joan's virginity is verified, marks the end of a troubling first act.

Once her campaign begins, though, the film improves drastically, with excellent (if somewhat implausible - did they really use something resembling helicopter rotors as weapons?) battle scenes, that are at once enthralling and grim. It's understandable when they unhinge Joan's sanity even more; another of the themes seems to be that her mission was really non-Christian, in that it led to the deaths of so many people. Something about "thou shalt not kill", though given the bloody history of Christianity, singling her out seems somewhat unfair. Tcheky Karyo delivers a fine performance as the leader of Joan's army, facing the difficult task of balancing her expectations, with prosaic things like, oh, not getting killed.

Joan's capture, trial and execution are fairly close to the truth, though in reality, the King was less involved and more concerned for Joan than shown. It certainly is reasonable to suggest that a naive innocent such as Joan would have been used for political ends. Once she'd outlasted her usefulness - and with the king on the throne, she quickly became more a hindrance than a help - she would have needed to be disposed of. Must confess, I quite like the concept of Joan as a medieval version of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Dustin Hoffman's appearance as Joan's conscience is another neat touch, and his sarcasm works well. Indeed, the film is one good performance from being excellent. The bad news is, it's Jovovich who is the culprit (a messenger who deserves to be shot?), though Besson and co-writer Andrew Birkin perhaps warrant most of the criticism for twisting facts and characters in order to fit a predetermined goal. Their Joan is so far from the historical record, they'd have been better off placing their character in an entirely fictitious setting.

Joan of Arc
Dir: Christian Duguay
Stars: Leelee Sobieski, Neil Patrick Harris, Peter O'Toole, Chad Willett

One problem with history is that viewers likely know how it ends: if you want to surprise them, why bother making a historical drama? Joan of Arc knows this, so starts with her burning at the stake. It's a bit of a double-edged sword: it robs the climax of its striking power, yet acknowledges without doubt, that this is a tragedy.

The theme of manipulation is again strong here, with Joan discarded after having outlived her usefulness, despite an odd character change in the second half, where she drifts for a jarring moment into petulant bitch mode. It's almost as if the makers hinted at a megalomaniacal side, crazed by power, and her fatalistic approach to her capture rings false - probably because it is nowhere near the truth. There's more fabrication early on, with Joan an unwanted daughter who sees a friend (blind, no less) killed by enemy soldiers - must she always be some kind of post-traumatic stress survivor?

Once it hits its stride, however, there is rarely a wrong step, at least dramatically speaking - the French king again comes off as far more implicated in Joan's death than evidence suggests. Neil Patrick Harris is convincing as Charles, who moves from self-doubt to certainty in his divine right to be king, then on to using that power against the one who put him there. Peter O'Toole too turns in a fine performance as Bishop Cauchon, though more facts are tampered with, allowing him to act as Charles' spiritual advisor when he was actually always on the English/Burgundian side.

That it's a TV miniseries is apparent, with 15th century France populated by remarkably clear-skinned and straight-teethed people. There's even hints of romance between Joan and her companion, Jean de Metz, which serves little purpose. The battle scenes, too, are all but bloodless - I wasn't expecting the decapitations and arterial spurting seen in Besson's film, but I didn't really want the Middle Ages, sanitized for my protection. Even the guy dying of plague looks pretty good. [Chris noted a glaring continuity error at the end: on her way up to the stake, Joan is wearing shoes, but by the time she gets there, she's barefoot!]

However, the main difference between this and The Messenger is that Joan of Arc is convincing. Perhaps with the advantage of having extra time (the DVD of the miniseries runs 189 minutes), they make the effort to show her interacting with other characters, and Sobieski's calm, complete assurance is a striking contrast to Jovovich. The viewer can see why people would believe her, and it naturally follows they will too - Sobieski's Emmy nomination was entirely well-deserved.

Despite playing fast and loose with the facts (another example: Joan's brother was not killed in battle, but lived to see her trial verdict overturned), this strong central performance holds the film together and, with the aid of the other fine actors, makes it eminently watchable. It may not be historically accurate, but it does a fine job of explaining why her myth is still honoured in the third millennium, without coming down in one camp or the other regarding the source of her visions. There are few TV miniseries worth watching, and fewer still worth owning, but this one comes highly recommended.

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