What's obvious from the outset is that CBS executives didn't know what to make of Joan of Arc, the subject of a high-dollar, sweeps-week miniseries that started on Sunday, May 16. So they made her a mixed bag: part beatific visionary, part Buffy the Empire Slayer.
Yet in the end, the Maid of Orleans wins out. Despite some annoying errors and misrepresentations, CBS's Joan emerges as a faithful servant of God. Her voices and her victories are portrayed as miracles, not as metaphors for progressive views.
This is just the latest of Joan's victories. In the 500 years since her death-and particularly during the last 100 years or so-Joan has conquered (if not converted) some of the staunchest secularists and rationalists of the day. Both George Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain wrestled with the question of Joan and her miracles. They reached different judgments, but both concluded that the facts defy rationalistic explanation. Her theology and her supposed revelations are certainly open to question. Nevertheless, she remains a compelling historical figure.
Right now, teen flicks are hot. In a season that usually presents teenage girls as social climbers, feminists-in-waiting, and sex objects, Joan of Arc is better than refreshing-she's inspiring.
Thankfully, the worst of CBS's silliness is over 60 seconds into the miniseries. It opens with the declaration that the story is set in the "Dark Ages," and that Joan was prophesied "In a Legend Foretold by Merlin." That's ridiculous, of course. Historically, there was no such legend, and if there was a historical Merlin, it's doubtful he would have cared much about happenings in France a thousand years later. And by "Dark Ages," CBS seems to mean a time when people wore drab clothing and had bad haircuts. The "Dark Ages" were the years of anarchy after the Roman Empire fell and barbarians vandalized civilization (rather like today). The "Middle Ages" began when the barbarians were converted to Christianity, whereupon civilization blossomed again-the age of chivalry, cathedrals, and Joan of Arc.
That's the worst of the silliness, but not the end of it. The lush production often bogs down in liberal politics. Joan, played by 16-year-old Leelee Sobieski, tells a soldier whose support she seeks, "I thought bigger towns would contain bigger minds-I was wrong." And a very progressive nun tells Joan, "I believe in the girl inside the costume. I believe she should believe in herself."
And yet Joan-the historical Joan, the illiterate farmgirl who broke the back of the Hundred Years War-shines through in the series' better moments. "We are all in God's hands," she tells an unbelieving captain, "even those who choose to think otherwise."
It's those moments that make this miniseries worth watching-because the historical Joan is someone worth learning more about.
She was born on a farm in Domremy, in the region of Lorraine, France, in 1412. There was nothing special about her, her family, or her upbringing. As Mark Twain notes in his excellent biography, Joan of Arc, "She had been nowhere and seen nothing; she knew none but simple shepherd folk; she had never seen a person of note; she hardly knew what a soldier looked like; she had never ridden a horse, nor had a warlike weapon in her hand." But as a child, she claimed to receive visits from Saints Margaret, Catherine, and Michael. They told her of her mission: Raise the English siege of Orleans and crown the Dauphin (the French title for the heir apparent) king at the cathedral of Rheims. And so at the age of 17, she asked a local lord to send her with an escort to Charles, who was in virtual exile at Chinon, hiding from the English and their allies, the Burgundians.
That lord, the Commandant of Valcouleurs, said she should be sent home to have her ears boxed. She refused to leave, and literally annoyed him into sending her to Chinon, if only to send her away. She traveled through English-occupied countryside to the Dauphin's court and spoke with the weak, indecisive Charles. He was persuaded. After being examined by church officials, she was sent with an army to aid the city of Orleans. God gets the credit for her military decisions and victories.
Really, CBS should be commended for even considering producing a miniseries like this; to studio execs, Joan must have looked disturbingly like a card-carrying member of the Religious Right. She mixed religion and politics, was unabashedly nationalistic, and forced her morality on the military by forbidding cursing and prostitution. When Charles offered her a reward for her victory at Orleans, she asked that her village be relieved of the burden of taxation.
But Charles was a weakling, and he allowed her to be betrayed into the hands of the English. She was captured at the battle of Compiegne. After an ecclesiastical trial in which she was provided no representation and allowed to call no witnesses, the English burned her at the stake at Rouen, on the charge of heresy. Just 25 years later, that trial was annulled. The Roman Catholic Church canonized her on May 16, 1920.
Twain's book, recently republished by Ignatius Press, provides the best historical account of Joan's life. It seems odd that the work is now all but forgotten, considering how Twain himself felt about it.
"I like Joan of Arc best of all my books," Twain wrote. "And it is the best, I know perfectly well."
He spent 12 years researching the book, and that research included months of archival work in France. But what drew this satirical skeptic to this particular story? After all, he considered himself a "historical determinist," with an early modernist's rejection of the miraculous.
He simply couldn't get around the nature of her visions. "She foretold her first wound and its character and date a month in advance.... She foretold her martyrdom, using that word and naming a time three months away, and again she was right."
Twain's book was first published anonymously, serialized in Harper's magazine beginning in 1895 (that was the Victorian Age's version of the sweeps-week miniseries). It was written as the personal recollections of one of Joan's childhood friends. The dialogue, of course, is fictional, but Twain worked very hard to make his account historically accurate.
He owed it to the Maid of Lorraine, he said. "There is no blemish in that rounded and beautiful character."
If Twain's book was a work of devotion, then George Bernard Shaw's play, Saint Joan, was something like a work of deconstruction. In his preface (which is longer than the play itself), he makes his opinion very clear: "I cannot believe, nor, if I could, could I expect all my readers to believe, as Joan did, that three ocularly visible, well-dressed persons, named respectively Saint Catherine, Saint Margaret, and Saint Michael, came down from Heaven and gave her certain instructions with which they were charged by God for her," he wrote. Evangelicals, of course, will feel the same way.
And like CBS, Shaw also tries, at times, to make her a paleo-socialist. He even attempts to make her an honorary member of the Fabian [gradual socialism] Society. "If Joan had to be dealt with by us in London [today], she would be treated with no more toleration than Miss Sylvia Pankhurst, or the Peculiar People, or the parents who keep their children from the elementary school, or any of the others who cross the line we have to draw, rightly or wrongly, between the tolerable and the intolerable."
And yet-and yet!-Joan wins out, shining through Shaw's socialistic claptrap.
In the strange epilogue, Shaw has Joan visiting Charles in a dream, 25 years after her death. Into the scene come other spirits and souls; it's all a mystical mess with the good guys in hell and the bad guys waxing philosophical (the archbishop Cauchon tells Joan, "The heretic is always better dead"). Even that fails to spoil the story; as Joan's executioner tells the character Warwick, "Her heart would not burn, my lord; but everything that was left is at the bottom of the river. You have heard the last of her."
Warwick replies, "The last of her? Hm. I wonder."
And this isn't the last we'll hear of her; two feature films centered on Joan are currently in production. Columbia Pictures will release Joan of Arc, starring Milla Jovovich, in November, and a second film version of the story, starring Mira Sorvino and Albert Finney, is now being shot.