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Joan of Arc
Victor Fleming's Joan of Arc was a famous flop in the United States, an independent picture that bore 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.
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 stories 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 Morris Ankrum (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.