Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Victor Fleming's Joan of Arc was a famous flop in the United States, an independent picture
the brunt of the scandal that followed Ingrid Bergman when she left her husband to live with her
new love, an Italian filmmaker. Fleming clearly wanted this film to be his Gone With the Wind
out from under the shadow of David O. Selznick, and even the main titles are arranged similarly.
The movie was reportedly a success in Europe but didn't do well here; and has only been seen in a
hacked-up panic version prepared by its producer soon after it opened.
Image's beautiful DVD lets us see this version of Joan of Arc at almost its full length,
so we can judge for ourselves if it deserved its boxoffice fate.
Joan of Lorraine (Ingrid Bergman) is a peasant whose visions of angels prompt her
to demand to lead France's army against the English invaders. By some strange happenings, she's
allowed to do so by the Dauphin (José Ferrer) and, inspiring the troops with religious
fervor, leads the army from victory to victory. But the royals fear her power and a deal is struck
to allow her to be captured by the enemy - whose deposed Bishop Pierre Cauchon (Francis L. Sullivan)
cannot wait to make Joan into a martyr.
The last version I had seen of this story is 1999's Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc and
I was surprised to find out that both outings use almost the exact same story framework - Joan
comes out of nowhere to inspire victories from the jaws of defeat, and is made to take the fall for
ambitious royals. Cynically used and callously discarded, Joan is martyred through political tricks.
The facts can be spun to make her look like a deluded farmgirl out of her depth, or a divinely inspired
and committed idealist with a lesson in faith worthy of sainthood. This version opts firmly for
the second approach.
Maxwell Anderson's version celebrates the religious angle while deeply underscoring the political
ugliness in Joan's martyrdom, which if anything is even more complicated than that shown in the
Milla Jovovich version. The web of perfidious Frenchmen is a lot wider here, with José Ferrer
(in his first screen role) being only the tip of the iceberg. The actual historical politics are
still unclear to the casual viewer, which probably contributed to the film's lack of success. But
the film has a wide range of villains - shaky royals eager to keep their positions and fence-straddlers
who support the Brits or get rich by selling Joan out. American films of the time were so dominated
by pro-English sentiment that the brutal Brits seen here probably confused audiences. The sneeringly
evil Bishop played by portly Francis L. Sullivan (Night and the City) added fuel to the
Ingrid Bergman adultery scandal by making the Catholic church of the middle ages seem like a bunch
of petty inquisitioners. Duh!
All the standard story points are here, including the initial digust of the generals at having a
nineteen year-old girl as their commander in chief. There's also the arrow wound that hastens
victories by starting rumors that Joan herself is a divine messenger of God. Joan is literally
sold to the enemy for some cheap concessions, the last betrayer being an evil Count played by
J. Carrol Naish with a terrific makeup job by recent Universal dismissee Jack Pierce.
The script is by necessity talky and has a number of thudding lines that weigh the film down.
"Death by fire is a horrible thing" muses Joan early in the show. Stiff lines are one thing, but
the fact is that in 1948 America was in the midst of a realism kick that rejected some sentimental
movies in favor of tough tales with grim endings. Film noir was at its height, and delicate
about ancient France and religion must have seemed remote to audiences who rejected It's a Wonderful
Life but flocked to Kiss of Death to see an old lady pushed down the stairs. 2
The battles aren't large of scale but they are well-shot and briskly edited. The first half of the
show has perhaps too much courtly pageantry and the second is confined to Joan's prison chambers, but
that's the nature of the story. Excellent special effects are provided by Gone with the Wind
veteran Jack Cosgrove, aided with opticals by Jack Pierce's co-Universal dismissee John Fulton. The
"inspirational" views of churches and clouds parted by heavenly rays of light are tastefully done.
Ingrid Bergman is a fine in the role David O. Selznick wouldn't let her play, and she nullifies her
advanced age through earnest acting. When she shouts out orders and oaths to her troops, her Swedish
accent is a bit overwhelming, but there's nothing really wrong with her performance. Audiences may
have been unmoved because she'd played religious characters before and Joan doesn't give them
the sexy Ingrid nor the funny one. The film has a surplus of gigantic Technicolor closeups of
Bergman's face, far more than in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The Ingrid Bergman fans who are
bound to be this film's key audience will probably decide that Joan of Arc is perfect. 1
José Ferrer is excellent as the Dauphin and is the film's most interesting character. Before
showing his colors as a complete rat, he's a very sympathetic royal in a bind that requires
double-crossing somebody. For a while it looks like the Dauphin will lose everything, and he refuses
to squirm. Unfortunately for Joan, his salvation requires that she be sacrificed. The great faith
Joan inspires in her troops across France benefits the royals but isn't really valued. As Joan
was not of noble blood, she becomes expendable.
The rest of the casting necessariy suffers from the faces of dozens of familiar American players,
a lot of whom bring strong associations with different kinds of roles that interfere with the story.
People like Shepperd Strudwick as a Priest helping Joan aren't so well known, but Gene Lockhart
(Hangmen Also Die!), John Emery and
(Kronos), Leif Erickson
(Invaders from Mars), Henry Brandon
(Vera Cruz) and William Conrad
(The Killers) all stick out like
sore thumbs. Less jarring are Cecil Kellaway, Roman Bohnen, George Coulouris, Hurd Hatfield and
Alan Napier - Joan of Arc would make a good actor-spotting quiz. J. Carrol Naish
(Sahara is perfect as usual in
anything and everything, but even though Ward Bond is very good as a doubting general who comes
over to Joan's side, he's just too familiar from John Ford westerns. Fantasy adepts will quickly
realize that in his chunky silver armor and helmet, Bond looks just like Mecha-Kong from the Japanese
King Kong Escapes!
Typical of actor associations confusing the story are Joan's first two squires. The
soft-eyed Richard Derr
(When Worlds Collide) is one, and
the other is Ray Teal, an actor known for playing hick cops and western characters almost exclusively.
When American studios started producing in England in the 1950s, costume dramas like this became
the domain of English actors - Americans are more apt to accept them as period characters.
Image's DVD of the 1948 Ingrid Bergman Joan of Arc is a very positive surprise. The earlier
Image disc of
Under Capricorn looked reasonable,
but the handling of this title is exceptionally good. The restoration was done by the
UCLA Film Archive and the final transfer to video and DVD rivals the quality of major MGM and
Warners restorations. The colors are intense. The registration is excellent in all but a couple of
shots. The musical score isn't that memorable but it sounds great in the clear audio track.
Joan of Arc has no extras but it does come with a well-written, unattributed set of liner
notes on a paper insert. I am told that the actual premiere print was a little longer than this
version. Also, the insert implies that Bergman's Stromboli movie was released first, when it
came two years later, unless the IMDB and another source are wrong. America was angry at Bergman for
running off with Italian lover Roberto Rosselini, but she was apparently fed up with Hollywood as
well; she wanted to film Maxwell Anderson's multi-level original play-within-a-play, but was instead
stuck with this straight telling rewritten by Andrew Solt.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Joan of Arc rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 16, 2004
1. Ingrid shouting to the
troops reminds me a bit of (honestly) the Cannon Film Masters of the Universe. In it Dolph
Lundgren had to be carefully looped. In chains, he shouts his defiance at the evil wizard in a
sing-songy Danish twang: "AH WIL NEHVER KNEEL BEH-FORH EYOOO!" I'm part Swede, and I still think the
accents can be amusing, even if El Brendel and "dumb Swede" humor are long-gone in the past.
2. It's fun to read Frank Capra wailing and screaming about this trend
in his slanted autobiography, as he blames cynical and violent films for pushing his ever-softer
movies out of favor.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson