The Cinematic Maid: Teaching Joan of Arc through Film

Volume 2, Issue 3

Depicting saints’ lives, and female saints to boot, is no easy task, although one that never ceases to attract film-makers. I was particularly aware of the pitfalls as I watched two new French films. The first is a pedestrian biopic of Bernadette Soubirous, the Lourdes saint canonized in 1933, Je m’appelle Bernadette, and the second yet another spin on Joan of Arc, Philippe Ramos’s Jeanne captive (film trailer hot linked to text), which opened in slightly more theaters, deservedly so, although garnering almost as little attention.  There isn’t much one can do with Bernadette except to depict her “simple faith” and the director has opted to contrast her calm certitude to the controversies that raged around her, although so programmatically and clunkily that, knowing the outcome, one does not much care. Joan has been portrayed in so many ways, as Dan Hobbins explains in his comprehensive review, that there aren’t many options left. This latest Joan is a lost and devastated young woman whose voices have abandoned her and who therefore refuses to speak. Yet she has such presence (aided by a magnificent performance by Clémence Poésy) that men cannot help trying to save her.  It is easier for modern audiences to view Joan as national heroine than as Christian martyr, yet as Hobbins reminds us, Maria Falconetti’s performance remains the most memorable and we must contend with the saint as well as the warrior and woman.

The Cinematic Maid: Teaching Joan of Arc through Film

Daniel Hobbins
Ohio State University


Is any woman the subject of more films than Joan of Arc? Not counting documentaries and television episodes, I know of nine commercially available films about Joan spanning the period from 1899 to 1999. These films are a wonderful way to introduce students to one of the most fascinating figures in history. Here I share my own approach to Joan through film, which I offer as a basic guide for those who have never taught Joan but would like to, and as a way to begin a conversation with those who have. My experience comes from teaching a course, together with David Mengel of Xavier University, on films with medieval themes. This focus allows us to devote considerable time to films about Joan of Arc. This is not a typical course, so I’ll also suggest three or four films that one might show in a class with more limited time, say in a medieval survey or a class on the history of women.

Students of history should expect films about historical events to deviate from the documented past in their portrayal of events.[1] After establishing this general principle, and providing students with a brief overview of the Hundred Years War, I find it helpful to focus students’ attention on a set of “pressure points” for films on Joan of Arc, that is, specific areas of Joan’s career that force the filmmaker to commit to a certain vision of Joan. These are cruxes in her story, and thus appear in some form in every film about her. I offer four while encouraging the students to look for others: her voices, the villain or villains in the story (or the lack of them), Joan’s deportment, and her death.

My first pressure point, Joan’s voices, is perhaps the primary pressure point for any interpretation of Joan of Arc across all genres, from film to academic monograph. While the author of a book might be able to bracket this issue, the filmmaker must confront it directly: how does one picture Joan’s voices, if at all? The earliest film treatments of Joan, such as Georges Méliès’ Jeanne d’Arc (1899) and Cecil B. DeMille’s Joan the Maid (1916), gave the voices a physical reality. They appear as angels visible to Joan and to the audience. (After repeated interrogation on this issue at trial, Joan herself identified her voices as Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine, and the archangels Saint Michael and Saint Gabriel.) Eventually, this option ceased to be attractive to filmmakers. But the voices remain at the center of her story, and they continue to demand some kind of response from the filmmaker.

Human drama has always craved villains, my second pressure point. (Recall that the classical definition of tragedy includes both protagonist and antagonist.) The story of Joan seems to come with a ready-made villain, her trial judge Pierre Cauchon, bishop of Beauvais. And indeed he appears as a cartoonish villain in several films, including DeMille’s Joan the Maid and Victor Fleming’s Joan of Arc (1948), starring Ingrid Bergman. Yet several directors have portrayed Cauchon with more sensitivity. In this respect at least, these directors have uncovered the central ambiguity of his historical situation. This contrast leads students to reflect more deeply on this problem and thus to challenge crude caricatures.

By Joan’s “deportment” – my third pressure point – I mean not only her physical appearance but her entire behavior and bearing. How does she conduct herself in battle and at trial? How is she dressed and what does her hair look like? All of these issues are raised in the trial, and together they help to constitute Joan’s personality. Fundamentally, what makes Joan tick? As the dramatic conclusion to her life story, Joan’s death by burning at the stake (my fourth pressure point) presents the director with a simple problem. If the film ends here, Joan’s life might be seen to end in failure. There are several obvious solutions to this problem, but each one helps to reveal the ideological commitment of the filmmaker.

We might think of these four themes as the grooves in which Joan’s story must be told. By comparison, many historical themes and episodes have no clear narrative — for example, the Black Death. For Joan we have two collections of documents, her heresy trial and conviction in 1431, and the legal process that culminated in 1456 with the nullification of that conviction. Whether or not a film rests on these records (some films adapt literary treatments of Joan such as Shaw’s Saint Joan), the documents nonetheless serve as the primary source of our knowledge about Joan’s life. For this reason, I assign large parts of my translation of the trial records, especially the interrogations, and a few excerpts from the nullification trial, including testimony about Joan’s mistreatment in prison – an episode that is often dramatized in film.[2]

Now to the films themselves. The classic film interpretation of Joan of Arc is Theodore Dreyer’s silent-era masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). If one were to show only one film, this should be the one. In my experience, most students can readily overcome the barriers of a silent film in black and white. (To heighten the dramatic impact of the film, I always show it with the score composed for the most recent release of the film, Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light, which is so good it’s almost distracting.) Rather than tell them in advance that the film is in many people’s top ten list of the greatest films of all time, I simply ask them to write a one-page reaction to the film, as well as to answer questions about how the film succeeds (here I’m tipping my hand) in conveying a central message. Even in classes of just six or seven students, at least one student (usually more than one) recognizes the implicit comparison in the film’s title to the Passion of Christ. And students also readily identify the symbolism in the film that communicates this message: the frequent crosses, the “crown” that Joan wears, her mistreatment by English soldiers, the skull meant to echo Golgotha, the unjust trial itself, and so on. The power of the film, then, has little to do with its capacity to recapture the historical Joan of Arc. Rather, the comparison to the Passion of Christ raises the stakes of Joan’s trial. We now see Joan not as a defeated and confused young woman, abandoned in the end by her king and even by her voices. Instead, she becomes a universal symbol of human suffering in the face of unjust oppression.

This point needs further emphasis. The claim is sometimes made that Dreyer’s Passion succeeds because it is faithful to the historical Joan as she appears in the trial text. Dreyer himself seems to lend support to this in a prologue at the beginning of the film. We are in a library and see one of the original manuscripts of the trial, copied in a fifteenth-century hand; we are told that the questions and Joan’s answers at trial were copied there with great precision. The implication is clear: the text gives us a window onto the past; the film, based on the text, will allow us to peer through and to glimpse the historical Joan of Arc. But students who have read the trial will recognize the sharp contrast between the Joan of the trial text and Dreyer’s Joan. Renée Maria Falconetti delivered one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema, embodying the suffering not just of one young woman, but of women themselves down through the centuries, and of France in its struggle for freedom from an occupying force. Dreyer’s Joan is simple, innocent, and meek in the face of oppression. In fact, anyone who has read the trial will have difficulty finding this Joan in the text itself. We find there instead a woman with enormous self-confidence (or confidence in her voices), refusing to answer, taunting and even threatening her judges in the belief that her rescue was imminent. As a historian, I find this exercise particularly valuable. By casting Joan as a Christ-figure, Dreyer clarifies the historical Joan. It is a misreading (and of course quite intentional), but one that pays enormous dividends. We should savor the memory of a great work of art – but not confuse the Joan we have just seen with the Joan of the trial text.

Dreyer communicates primarily through visual clues, and especially through closeups of the human face, which serve as his narrative canvas. These closeups of Joan and her judges are the most striking visual feature of the film. Contemporary reviews of the film remarked on this as well.[3] And yet these closeups bear considerable narrative weight in communicating the raw human emotion of the trial and its aftermath: anger, perplexity, condescension, amusement, even sympathy and sadness from the judges; simplicity, ecstasy, pain, and despair from Joan. The film’s visual vocabulary is quite foreign to that of modern film, especially to Hollywood film, and some students frankly have difficulty making sense of it all (which is another good reason for them to watch the film). I suggest to the students that the visual elements of Dreyer’s film represent a path not taken in modern cinema. Soon the human voice would take over the task of narration. Dreyer’s emphasis on the human face lost its relevance.

No other film about Joan of Arc comes anywhere near this level of dramatic impact. Nor does any other film quite transcend the story of Joan to address universal themes. But other films still have much to offer, and many of them explore historical areas that Dreyer could not in his focus on the trial and execution of Joan. The Passion of Joan of Arc, for example, has nothing to say about the political context of the Hundred Years War, for instance the tension between those advocating a diplomatic solution (specifically an alliance between France and Burgundy) and those (like Joan) pushing for further military action. Other films do more to evoke the pastness of the past, the material reality of fifteenth-century life. The Passion of course limits itself to the characters at the trial, and even these are never named and therefore remain anonymous. Other films by contrast can describe the rich tapestry of characters that filled Joan’s world: the peasant world in which Joan lived most of her life; the world of the powerful, of Charles VII and other nobility at court; and the world of soldiers and siege engines, the glory and the misery of war. The text of the trial, which tells Joan’s entire life story, invites dramatic reconstruction of all these things and many others.

In fact, most films about Joan attempt to tell her entire life story. We see this even in the earliest films about Joan, such as Georges Méliès’s Jeanne d’Arc, which segments Joan’s life into eleven scenes. The exceptions to this are Dreyer’s Passion and Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), which also deals only with Joan’s trial and execution. Those wishing for an interesting comparison to Dreyer might well choose Bresson’s Trial, a film that seems designed to invert Dryer’s Passion at every turn. Where Dreyer infuses the trial with universal significance, Bresson empties it of any meaning beyond the naked text. We might imagine this film as a bare skeleton of words stripped of any flesh of gestures and emotion. In an interview included with the DVD extras (and worth showing), Bresson explains that he wanted to strip the trial down to its raw components, as if stripping bare an electrical wire. The actors do not act (they are not even professional actors), they recite their lines without the slightest emotion.

Another film that presents a fine contrast with Dreyer’s Passion, and perhaps an even better film for the classroom than Bresson, is Jacques Rivette’s sprawling Joan the Maid (1993), released as two DVDs: Part 1, “The Battles,” and Part 2, “The Prisons.” At a basic narrative level, it turns both Dreyer and Bresson inside-out: it dramatizes the whole life of Joan (played here by Sandrine Bonnaire), and yet it bypasses the trial itself. It is as though Rivette, conscious of his predecessors, wanted to break free from the one episode in Joan’s life that colored the rest of it. It’s a clever tactic. Avoiding the trial allows him to emphasize the mundaneness and quotidian detail of Joan’s life.

Rivette presents Joan as a very human heroine or perhaps anti-heroine, who leads through her simple willingness to move forward in the face of danger rather than through any dramatic gestures or intense religious fervor. No music plays during her great victory at Orléans except for a clarion to signal the charge. This refreshingly dull approach to a larger-than-life figure allows him to show Joan stumbling, even failing. I don’t recall another film, for example, that shows Joan’s failed attempt to escape from prison. It’s a healthy demythologizing of the Joan legend – whether or not that is what Rivette intended.

I show excerpts of both Bresson and Rivette. In the case of Bresson’s Trial, I like to show some of the interrogation at the beginning, the scene in which Pierre Cauchon defends his handling of the trial, Joan’s breakdown in her cell (the one time she shows emotion), and the execution. In the case of Rivette’s film, one could show almost anything to convey his basic approach. I like scenes that communicate the ordinariness of Joan and her surroundings. I also show her failed escape and the end of the trial to emphasize the difference in approach from other treatments.

Besides Dreyer’s Passion, I show one other film – Luc Besson’s The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999) – almost in its entirety (I reduce the film from 142 to 100 minutes by skipping most of the epic battle scenes.) This film arouses strong feelings and contains one particularly disturbing scene. We meet Joan (played by Milla Jovovich) in childhood, a fairly normal girl but with a tendency to see and to hear voices that take the form of a young boy. One day, during a raid on her village, she is forced to watch helplessly through the cracks of a closed door as a Burgundian soldier stabs and murders and then rapes her older sister (the historical Joan had a younger sister who survived her). Joan’s helplessness gives way to frustrated anger and eventually to mental instability. Her desire for revenge, channeled into the war effort, brings her spectacular success in battle but also unhinges her and drives her into the disastrous siege of Paris. Her bloodthirstiness shocks Charles VII (John Malkovich), who prefers a diplomatic solution to the war. In prison, Joan sees her voice (embodied by Dustin Hoffmann) who proceeds to challenge Joan for her claims to revelation. He insists: “You didn’t see what was. You saw what you wanted to see.” In the end, her acceptance of this failure gives her some peace of mind and perhaps even salvation before her execution.

Besson takes more liberties than most with the story of Joan. But again, if we understand the film genre we expect some changes to the historical record, and his changes serve a clear narrative purpose. One could argue that this film addresses the central problem of Joan’s voices more clearly and directly than any other film on the subject. In fact, what is a modern audience to make of those voices? Are we to suppress them and to turn her into a powerful woman or an inspirational leader? Or to accept them at face value, as in the CBS two-part miniseries Joan of Arc (1999)? The answer here is not simply that Joan of Arc was mentally disturbed. It is – as I interpret the film and the Dustin Hoffmann character – that the trauma of Joan’s youth twisted and distorted her own reading of her voice, which was already speaking to her before she witnessed up close the horrors of war. In any case, the film does propose perhaps a partial solution to the problem of Joan’s voices that a modern person can accept, even as it undermines Joan as a clear-cut heroine.

That approach has not gained much sympathy for the film. For who does not admire Joan of Arc? Yet even beyond her claims to special revelation – to hearing the voice of God through his saints – there is a basic problem with the substance of that claim that all of these films ignore. Joan stated that her voices told her that God favored the French against the English and Burgundians. God, she insisted, would give the French victory. If we accept this, then we accept the idea that God takes sides in dynastic conflicts between Christian kingdoms. Her trial judges saw this problem clearly and trained their interrogation on it several times.

One treatment of Joan confronts this issue squarely: not a film but a self-contained seven-minute segment of a Simpsons episode, “Tales from the Public Domain” (2002, episode 13:14). At the trial, God (in the form of a spotlight from above) takes the witness stand in Joan’s defense and declares that he told Joan to lead the French to victory. An English soldier immediately jumps up to challenge his testimony, claiming that God told him to lead the English to victory. Confronted with his contradictory promises, God hums and haws, says that he never expected the two of them to be in the same room together, then abruptly says goodbye and vanishes. I show the episode not just for laughs (and Joan’s story desperately needs comic relief), but to clarify the difficulty with Joan’s essential claim. Nothing does this better than the Simpsons.

I’ve mentioned other films, most of them readily available in libraries, which students could use for comparative projects (for example: compare Bishop Cauchon in three films).[4] With all of the technology available today, students might even produce their own documentaries of Joan or explore some feature of her life and times. Cinema on Joan need not be an end in itself. Joan lived at the center of a fascinating world that is still largely hidden from view. Cinema on Joan opens the door to that world and invites us to step inside.

  1. Robert Brent Toplin, Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood (2002) is particularly helpful in establishing this point and in providing a critical framework for a course that focuses explicitly on history in films. See also his frequent column in Perspectives on History, the newsletter of the American Historical Association. For a trenchant criticism of historians’ inconsistent approach to historical film, see Robert A. Rosenstone, “The Reel Joan of Arc: Reflections on the Theory and Practice of the Historical Film,” The Public Historian 25 (2003), 61-77.
  2. Daniel Hobbins, The Trial of Joan of Arc (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005). Instructors who would like to include more selections from the nullification trial as well as from other historical texts might choose instead to assign Craig Taylor’s collection of documents, Joan of Arc: La Pucelle (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007).
  3. See for example the review of the film in The New York Times, 31 March 1929, available online.
  4. For a complete listing, see Kevin J. Harty, The Reel Middle Ages, 2nd ed. [2006].

Carl Theodor Dreyer, Director, The Passion of Joan of Arc, (1928), Black and White, France, Société générale des films, Running Time:  varies, restored DVD, Criterion collection: 82 min.

Robert Bresson, Le procès de Jeanne d’Arc [The Trial of Joan of Arc] (1962), Black and White, France, Agnès Delahaie Productions, Running Time: 65 min.

Jacques Rivette, Director, Jeanne la Pucelle, [Joan the Maid] I. Les Batailles, [Battles] II. Les Prisons [Prisons], (1994) France, France 3 Cinéma, La Sept Cinéma, Pierre Grise Productions, Running Time:  I. 160 min; II; 176 min.

Luc Besson, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999)

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One thought on “The Cinematic Maid: Teaching Joan of Arc through Film

  1. Great review!

    We’re linking to your article for Academy Monday at

    Keep up the good work!

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