Ingrid Bergman shows France the way in po-faced epic Joan of Arc
Director: Victor Fleming
Cast: Ingrid Bergman (Joan of Arc), José Ferrer (Dauphin Charles), Francis L Sullivan (Bishop Cauchon), Roman Bohnen (Durand Laxart), Geoge Coulouris (Sir Robert de Baudricourt), George Zucco (Constable of Clervaux), Gene Lockhart (Georges de la Trémoille), John Emery (Duke d’Alençon), Richard Ney (Charles de Bourbon), Lief Erickson (Dunois of Orleans), John Ireland (Jan de la Boussac), Hurd Hatfield (Father Pasquerel), Ward Bond (La Hire), J. Carrol Naish (Count of Luxembourg), Frederick Worlock (Duke of Bedford), Shepperd Strudwick (Father Jean Massieu), Alan Napier (Earl of Warwick), Cecil Kellaway (Jean Le Maistre)
A light descends from heaven, and a young girl is seized with a sense of purpose. Joan of Arc (Ingrid Bergman) believes – as do her countrymen – that she received a message from heaven to help deliver fifteenth-century France back to the French, and out from under English occupation. For three years, this young woman strikes fear into the hearts of the English, inspiring the French into a series of victories (most of all at Orleans) and improving the French position such that the ambitious Dauphin (José Ferrer) is crowned Charles VII. But Joan is a target for the English, and she’s eventually captured and burned for heresy after a trial notably free of justice at Rouen.
A huge investment at the time, with its colossal cast and loving recreation of medieval France, Joan of Arc is historically a luckless film. Despite its box-office winnings, it failed to cover its immense cost. It gained seven Oscar nominations (and four wins!) with no nomination for Best Picture. Its director, its cinematographer and actor Roman Bohnen (playing Joan’s uncle) all died prematurely after its release. Ingrid Bergman was caught up in scandal – and effectively exiled from Hollywood – shortly after when her affair with director Roberto Rossellini became public knowledge. Producer Walter Wagner was imprisoned three years later for shooting his wife’s lover. The film itself had 20 minutes sliced from it and, for decades, was only available in its truncated version.
Aside from these historic curiosities, Joan of Arc is a well-made, handsomely mounted but fundamentally rather dry and at points rather dull historical drama, mixed with more than enough touches of Biblical worthiness. Victor Fleming himself felt the film was a disappointment, that a trick had been missed – perhaps aware that his own old-fashioned, rather flat direction fails to bring any inspiration out of the drama.
If drama is quite the right word for what, all too often, are too many scenes made up almost solely of a group of men sitting around a table in medieval garb talking at length of current affairs. Too many of these scenes lack in pace or urgency and many end up feeling forced, with too much of the dialogue reduced to recounting events rather than driving the story.
The structure of the story feels off as well: it can be split into three rough acts: Joan’s search for her purpose, Joan’s time as the inspiration of the French, and Joan’s imprisonment and trial. The trial, in particular, takes up almost the final 45 minutes of the film. The play the film is based on used a troupe of actors performing the life of Joan as a framing device for further insight into the life and impact of the saint. Without this framing device, the actual film becomes a rather dry history lesson.
It’s not helped by Bergman’s performance, which serves to capture in capsule the film’s po-faced piousness. It was a dream of Bergman’s to bring her Broadway performance of Joan to film. Sadly, the script’s lack of wit (or insight into the personality of Joan), means the majority of her scenes fall into a stock pattern: her lines are delivered with a breathless intensity with her hands are clasped across her chest. Aside from a few brief scenes where Joan questions why her voices have fallen silent, there are very few moments where either Bergman or the film seek to delve down into the motivations and inspirations of Joan. Like the film, her performance is bereft of any wit or warmth – instead it is almost devotional in its careful respect.
It’s part of the film’s seriousness. It makes some excellent points on the lasting impact of Joan, the horrific unfairness of her trial and the fact that, by burning her, the English merely cemented her hold on the French people rather than ending it. But too many other issues are pushed to the wayside, along with Joan’s character and motivations. No questions are raised around Joan’s interpretation of her visions. The conflict between faith and war is unexplored. The film sets its store out clearly: this is a devotional work and we should take it as that, and any questions around faith, legitimacy or what drove a fanatical teenager to embrace a life of military campaigning goes unexplored. In truth, we know as little about Joan at the end as we did at the beginning.
Which isn’t to say the film doesn’t have its plusses. As a piece of devotional film-making, it has a lovely score from Hugo Friedhofer, with just the right uses of heavenly choirs singing through the most devout sections. The design of the film is beautifully done, heavily inspired by medieval manuscripts, with the same striking primary colours and framing. It has in fact a beautifully old-fashioned look to it, a wonderfully designed artificiality. The siege of Orleans is a dramatically staged sequence, with a particularly striking orange-drenched sky. Visually you can imagine this as an incredibly stuffed-shirt Adventures of Robin Hood, but still glorious to look at.
Bergman is also wisely surrounded by a strong cast of character actors, all providing the sort of colour and corruption that Bergman’s stiffly written Joan can’t provide. José Ferrer landed an Oscar nomination for his film debut as the ambitious, weak-willed and envious Dauphin, more interested in realpolitik than doing the right thing. Francis L Sullivan connives and blusters wonderfully as corrupt Bishop Cauchon, fixing the trial. George Coulouris gives his usual hurried authority to de Baudricourt, while Cecil Kellaway inverts his Irish kindness as Joan’s Inquisitor. Off-the-wall casting choices like Ward Bond as a French captain surprisingly tend to pay-off. Shepperd Strudwick makes the biggest impression though as Joan’s sympathetic bailiff (he also speaks the prologue).
The overall film though is one more for history buffs than for movie goers. With its seriousness, odd pace (some events take forever, while others – such as Joan’s capture – either rush past in seconds of happen off-screen) and general lack of any humour or warmth, it’s not always an engrossing watch. Well-made as it is, it’s also directed with a certain flat professionalism rather than inspiration and Bergman seems constricted by the script and the part. A curiosity, but not a complete success.