You just can't keep a good woman down, it seems. Five centuries after her grisly execution at the hands of political hatchet men in judges' robes and clerics' collars, Joan of Arc is still a favorite subject of our most popular storytellers. Everywhere you turn lately, there she is, from television to the big screen, most recently in director Luc Besson's currently playing film, "The Messenger."
This fascination with the Maid of Orleans is nothing new, of course. The story of her martyrdom has inspired storytellers in virtually every medium down through the centuries. Filmmakers certainly have been no exception. For a sampling of how earlier movies have treated this legendary figure, look for these titles on home video.
"Joan the Woman" (1916). The story of St. Joan takes place on an epic canvas, making it an ideal subject for a Cecil B. DeMille picture. This was, in fact, DeMille's first movie epic, and remains one of his best. I've always found DeMille's later films to be a bit stodgy, but his silent films strike me as much more visually inventive and more tightly told. The title role is played by Geraldine Farrar, who began her performing career as a star of the Metropolitan Opera before moving on to screen acting.
"The Passion of Joan of Arc" (1928). Many people, myself included, regard this silent masterpiece as the greatest Joan of Arc film ever made, or ever likely to be made. Unlike DeMille's broad canvas, this version from Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer confines itself entirely to Joan's trial for heresy. Renee Maria Falconetti, in her only film appearance, gives a heart-rending performance as Joan. Dreyer's camera tells the story of the trial almost entirely in close-ups of Joan and her inquisitors. Fortunately, this powerful, unforgettable film has just been made available in a newly restored version on DVD from the Voyager Criterion collection.
"Joan of Arc" (1948). The standard Hollywood treatment of St. Joan's story from the sound era is this epic production directed by Victor Fleming, who was no stranger to big productions, having directed both "Gone With the Wind" (1939) and "The Wizard of Oz" (1939). Ingrid Bergman is radiant in the title role, a part with which she would be identified for the rest of her life. The script was adapted by Maxwell Anderson and Andrew Solt from Anderson's play "Joan of Lorraine."
"Saint Joan" (1957). George Bernard Shaw's play of the same title formed the basis for this version of the story from producer-director Otto Preminger. By this time the role of St. Joan had grown into an incredibly daunting thespian Everest, owing to the fact that any actress who took the part must inevitably stand in the shadow of Falconetti and Bergman. After a long talent search, Preminger cast screen newcomer Jean Seberg in the role. Measured against her formidable predecessors and found wanting, Seberg was uniformly maligned by the critics. Judged on its own merits, her performance is certainly adequate, but with the memory of Bergman's Joan still so fresh she never had a chance.
"Joan the Maid" (1993). Yet another cinema heavyweight weighs in with this French interpretation of the familiar story. Director Jacques Rivette is one of the elder statesmen of the French New Wave that shook up world cinema in the late Fifties. His muse tends toward long, long productions and this film is no exception. Its total running time is nearly six hours, divided into two parts ("The Battles" and "The Prisons"). Sandrine Bonnaire stars as a somber and stoic Joan. This film, which never received a general release in the United States, can now be seen on video in the form in which it was released in Britain. This version is just under four hours in length, and has been released to video as two tapes, one for each part.
I should mention that the Victor Fleming film with Ingrid Bergman has been put on hiatus after many years in video release, and so can only be accessed by renting existing copies. Also, another significant version of the story, director Robert Bresson's "The Trial of Joan of Arc" (1962) remains completely unavailable on video. Still, given the current wave of interest in St. Joan, and as the hundredth anniversary of her canonization draws near, don't be surprised if these also turn up in newly minted video versions.