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The elusive Joan of Arc


Part of the enduring attraction of the character we know as Joan of Arc is that, in spite of the published evidence from her trial and execution as a heretic in 1431, and the volumes of testimony from hundreds of witnesses at the reinvestigation 20 years later, she remains an elusive figure.

Illiterate, she could never write her own story -- she could barely write her name. None of the likenesses of her in painting or sculpture were done by artists who had seen her in the flesh.

So, like the artists, novelists, musicians, playwrights, and film directors -- like Shakespeare, (Henry VI, Pt. I), George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Francois Villon, Jean Anouilh, Verdi, Maxwell Anderson, Victor Fleming and actress Ingrid Bergman -- and like the 15th century peasants, soldiers and nobles who remade her image according to their own hopes, ambitions, voices and visions -- we are free to fill in what is lacking in the historical portrait and to find in her what we want.

And so is CBS.

CBS has decided to take up her cause for their “epic” offering in the ratings race in the May spring sweeps period. Rival NBC offers “Noah’s Ark,” where Noah, responding to God’s voice, saves his family from Sodom and Gomorrah -- and the Flood. ABC puts its money on a remake of “Cleopatra.” The New York Daily News reminds us that “Cleopatra’s” first promo ran on “20/20,” when Barbara Walters interviewed Monica Lewinsky. “Cleopatra” is to be a show about a “young woman whose sexual allure snared a world leader.”

We can imagine the first story conferences that got “Joan of Arc” -- a four-hour miniseries to be broadcast May 16 and 18 -- underway. They certainly had a great story.

The time is the early 15th century, the Hundred Years’ War, during which France, in political and economic chaos, struggled with England for full control of French territory. On the map, the British controlled the North; their allies, the Burgundians, had Flanders and territory east of the Loire River; and the French loyal to the House of Valois, held south of the Loire. The weak-kneed, uncrowned Valois king, Charles VII, the dauphin, cowered in his castle at Chinon.

In February 1429, a 16-year-old farm girl presented herself in men’s clothes at his court to tell Charles that her “voices” -- Ss. Margaret and Catherine and the Archangel Michael, who had been speaking to her for three years -- had sent her to place him on the throne of France. He had her examined by theologians and, for a variety of reasons, chose to believe her -- or, rather, to use her for his purposes.

Charles VII was a corrupt, dishonest, manipulative man. Moreover, the idea that God worries about the map of Europe and decided in 1429 to back the French (who were no more Catholic than the English) is hard for the contemporary, or any, mind to accept.

Nevertheless, dressed in full armor, equipped with a Crusader’s sword she found in a church, joined by her brothers Jean and Peter and 3 to 4 thousand men, and carrying a white banner designed for her, Joan set out in April to rescue the city of Orleans.

Though she had no military training, she nevertheless insisted that her “voices” told her when and where to attack. Her commanders had to jockey between ignoring her advice and following her as an inspirational figure. In the battle for Orleans she took an English arrow in her shoulder, had it pulled out, remounted her horse, and galloped back into the fight.

Victories piled up, and on July 17, Charles was crowned at Reims. Mission accomplished, Joan could have returned to her farm; but, perhaps not confident that her new king had the gumption to continue the fight, she goaded him into attacking Paris -- where Joan was wounded again and the campaign failed. Charles’ desire to rule every foot of France was not as strong as Joan’s; he made truces with the hated Burgundians and failed to press the war against the British. Joan’s fortunes slipped, her voices fell silent.

Meanwhile the two forces that hated her -- the British, for obvious reasons, and the church, who could tolerate no spiritual authority other than its own -- conspired. In May 1430 the British captured her at Compiegne and handed her over to the church for trial as a heretic.

For four months, February to May, she stood before the court. Her judges were Pierre Cauchon, the count-bishop of Beauvais, and Jean Le’Maitre, vice inquisitor of France. Cauchon hated Joan bitterly; Le’Maitre was uncomfortable with the whole procedure and absented himself often. The goals: humiliate Charles VII by proving he had listened to a heretic and witch, and get this troublesome woman who had rekindled French nationalism out of the way.

That’s the raw material. But what have the TV scriptwriters done with it? What led the corporate bosses to believe that this story might attract a big Sunday night audience? Sanctity? Chastity? Religion?

Maybe the success of Academy Award nominee “Elizabeth,” with its burning heretics and murderous priests, egged them on. More likely the popular TV program “Xena, the Princess Warrior,” a female Hercules who can beat, kick and slash the heck out of a forest full of males, was at least part of their inspiration.

The Daily News describes it as a “coming of age tale as seen through the eyes of a teenage Joan,” and executive producer Ed Gerson calls it an “inspirational story of self-sacrifice. It should make us think about who we are in the world and whether we’re able to make a difference.”

Well, maybe. My thoughts did turn to Kosovo as I watched. The scenes of the refugees for whom Joan shows compassion could have come from last night’s TV news. On the other hand, this morning’s paper announced that some of the new Apache helicopters, those low-flying superweapons whose firepower will make mincemeat out of the Serb troops, will have women pilots. It’s never been clear to me that giving women all the opportunities to kill that used to be exclusively male has improved the status of women.

Above all, this production comes across as the story not so much of a Catholic saint as of a tough, strong-willed, independent woman who listens to no one but herself and defies the religious authoritarians who destroy her.

Like the 1948 Victor Fleming film version, which starred Ingrid Bergman as Joan and Jose Ferrer as the dauphin, the producers have assembled a strong cast -- including Maximilian Schell as Le’Maitre, Jacqueline Bisset as Joan’s mother, and Shirley MacLaine as Madame de Beaurevoir, a Burgundian noblewoman who tries to win Joan to their side. I wish I could say that Leelee Sobieski -- who at 16, Joan’s age when she started, is just beginning her film career -- is a powerful screen presence. But what we gain with her in authenticity, we sometimes lose in dramatic force.

Peter O’Toole, on the other hand, as Cauchon, with his red robes and leathery face and a voice that roars and whispers, commands every scene in which he appears. His Cauchon is the worst kind of “spiritual” authority, the cynic. Joan’s voices are not from God, he says, but he allows the people to believe in them because they are “useful for the faith.” He is profoundly evil, yet ambiguous -- single-minded in destroying any threat to his power, yet, we sense, intelligent enough to sense that he might be wrong.

The production strives for epic scale without the budget that big studio productions once allowed. They shot the film last fall in the beautiful castles and countryside around Prague. For crowd scenes, special effects transform a mere 200 extras in a cathedral or battle into thousands. Repetitious slow-motion charges, cameras focused on galloping horses’ hoofs and blurred battle close-ups become signals that the filmmakers are saving money, and we long for the simple realistic drama of a face-to-face encounter.

We also wonder about some liberties with the historical record. We know that Joan’s parents sheltered her during adolescence; her father was once frightened by a dream that she would run away with soldiers and become a camp follower. But there’s little evidence that the father was the bigoted, heartless brute portrayed here or that her brother, Peter, died in the failed battle for Paris, causing the father to resent Joan all the more.

The trial is a great encounter as Joan matches her quiet courage and peasant wit against Cauchon. When the questioners get nowhere they threaten her with torture but see it would be useless. Suffering from her imprisonment, a confused Joan at one stage agrees to recant; but, for motives historians have not figured out, she redons her male clothing -- interpreted as a sign of defiance -- and is taken to the stake.

Historians tell us how much Joan cherished her virginity and that it remained intact in spite of a marriage offer and rough treatment in prison. Although there is no evidence supporting it in the several sources I consulted, the CBS script indicates that the inquisitor, Le’Maitre, planted the male clothing in her cell and that, at the priest’s command, Joan of Arc was raped.

Not satisfied with a heroine who loved the church even as its ministers oppressed her, who won battles and gave hope to a whole nation, who slept in the fields beside hundreds of men, who cherished her virginity as she did, the CBS scriptwriters -- eyes on the audience -- felt they had to make her a rape victim as well.

What Joan of Arc protected all her life she has lost on American TV.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is assistant dean of Fordham College.

National Catholic Reporter, May 14, 1999