Joan of Arc (1948)

Director: Victor Fleming Joan: Ingrid Bergman

In 1948 returning veterans wanted women to return too– to the home. Victor Fleming’s Joan of Arc movie tells them to do just that.

Ingrid Bergman is the most admirable and memorable Joan of Arc, but she’s no hero.

About 30 years after DeMille’s wartime Joan the Woman, Victor Fleming made another Joan of Arc film. This time the message had to do with the proper role of women at the end of a war.

Before WWII women were urged to contribute to the war effort by filling the places of the men in offices and in factories. In 1948, however, the returning vets wanted their jobs back so women needed to be urged to return to the home.

Fleming’s Joan is depicted as a gentle and unwilling participant in the work of war. All that prevents her from returning to the domestic sphere is the cruel, but inevitable operation of political and economic forces.

The Fleming film is my favorite in many ways. It is truer to the historical facts than the other five. The cinematography is exquisite, as are the costumes and the panoramic scenes. But Fleming, like DeMille, insists that Joan is less the warrior and more the woman out of her proper place.

Having firmly established Joan as a mere military mascot, Fleming emphasizes her gender as much as possible. La Hire calls her “girl” and “wench.” Various characters take turns calling her “a green country girl.”

She behaves in a motherly fashion to both the Dauphin and La Hire, talking to them in tones that one would ordinarily use with children. In the farewell scene with her captains after Charles has disbanded the army, Joan chidingly interrogates La Hire: “Did you say your prayers this morning?”

In their conversations at Chinon, Joan reassures the Dauphin as if he were a child in need of motherly encouragement. Other feminine traits–modesty, piety, deference, pity–are emphasized. Upon first meeting with the generals, Joan assures them that she will not meddle in military matters: “I shall not try to give any commands! I wouldn’t know what commands to give.”

She forbids her soldiers to gamble or to swear, and instructs them to send away their women. She weeps over the aftermath of her battles. (The historical Joan wept too, but she also carried a sword and led cavalry charges.)

Bergman’s Joan prays and invokes the will of God at every opportunity. In the scene at St-Ouen she is shown overcome with fatigue, unable to stand without the help of two sympathetic priests. She is ignorant of the word “abjure” and seems to be signing the document because of the insistence of women and children in the crowd. She does say that she would “rather abjure than burn.”

Back in her cell after the abjuration scene, she tells her Voices that she denied them, that she has damned her soul to save her life, but the viewer retains the impression that her abjuration was more the result of ignorance and physical frailty than of an unworthy (for a woman) desire to escape her ordained punishment.

Charmingly obedient to the end, she even assists the hangman. When a chain slips from her shoulder as she is being fastened to the stake, she retrieves it and holds it in place until the executioner is ready for it.

Joan of Arc as played by Ingrid Bergman is unforgettably lovely, gentle, good, and noble, but her chief characteristic is submissiveness to men. Instead of sending viewers away with an image of Joan of Arc as a successful military leader who changed the course of the Hundred Years’ War, the film’s Voice-Over sends us away with the assurance that Joan’s “bodily death… was her last and greatest victory.”

What this film tells us, as does all Western literature before it, is that what finally matters about a woman is not her life at all, but her death.

DeMille’s and Fleming’s Joan films, one made on the eve of the United States’ entry into World War I and one immediately post-World War II, are both war-related propaganda.

Both insist that women are out of place in the male sphere of war and that no matter how admirable or useful their efforts may be in times of emergency, their presence upsets the natural order; they need to get back to the domestic sphere as quickly as possible or suffer unpleasant consequences.

NOTE: This review is based on the 100-minute version of Fleming’s film.  A longer, 146-minute version has recently become available on DVD.  I’ll be writing a review of that one soon.