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TV: A different teen idol

Television | Joan of Arc: forerunner of the Religious Right?

Issue: "Saber savior," May 22, 1999

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.

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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.

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