Joan of Arc (1999)

Director: Christian Duguay Joan: LeeLee Sobieski

When Duguay’s Joan of Arc movie aired as a mini-series on CBS in 1999, a great many high school history teachers rushed to tape it for their classes, feeling that the casting of a sixteen-year-old would make it appealing to teens.  Unfortunately, the film is useless as a teaching tool because it misrepresents Joan of Arc and the period in which she lived.

From the opening epigraph to the scene at the stake, Duguay’s Joan of Arc is a historical joke that belongs in the same category as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989).

The first warning comes with the words that roll down the screen at the beginning:

Once in a time known as the Dark Ages
There lived a legend whose coming had been foretold
by the great prophet Merlin.

For starters, the “Dark Ages” refers to the period of European history from 476 to 1000 CE.  The term is no longer used by historians, who now refer to that period as the Early Middle Ages.

Joan of Arc was born in the year 1412. The Renaissance had already begun in Italy. Her brothers’ children lived to hear about the discovery of America.

The Duke of Burgundy, played  by Jaimz Woolvett as a hen-pecked oaf, was in real life a mature, cultured prince of 32 when Joan appeared on the historical scene. Burgundy’s third wife was the sister of Henry the Navigator, who died 30 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Calling Joan a “legend” and Merlin a “prophet” adds to the confusion.

Legends have grown up about Joan of Arc, but she was a real person.  Merlin was a fictional character invented in the 12th century.

The nature of this review doesn’t allow me to tick off every historical inaccuracy in Duguay’s awful movie.  For that you’ll have to wait for my guide, A Joan for All Seasons. Readers will be able to see for themselves which movies best represent the historical figure and the period she lived in.

However, here are a few of the most notable howlers in Duguay’s film.

• Joan’s father, played by Powers Boothe, wants to drown Joan at birth. He is later shown to be grasping and unkind to the poor.  Joan’s historical father  was a prosperous, religious man. He would not have considered drowning one of his children. He was generous to the poor.

• Snow is shown falling at Joan’s execution (May 30). Snow is on the ground when the siege is lifted at Orleans (May 8).  The winters were abnormally cold at that period, but by May the snow would have been gone.

• Bishop Cauchon (Peter O’Toole) is presented as the Dauphin’s spiritual adviser. Cauchon was on the side of the Burgundians and the English. He was Joan’s implacable enemy. Charles probably never met him.

• “Mother Babette” the supportive character played by Olympia Dukakis is invented. Joan had male servants to help her with her armor in the field.

• “Madame de Beaurevoir” the character played by Shirley MacLaine, is invented. There were several ladies who lived at a place called Beaurevoir who were kind to Joan in captivity, but none of them would have dared to give the Duke of Burgundy a tongue-lashing.

• Joan did not have a romantic relationship with Jean de Metz and deMetz was not as young as he’s portrayed in the movie. He was about 40 years old when Baudricourt assigned him to escort Joan to the Dauphin.

Of the film’s miscasting, the worst is that of Leelee Sobieski as Joan of Arc.  She sits her horse in outsized armor that makes her look like a mannequin in an iron football uniform.  In the thick of the battle she sits motionless, managing at the most a flick of the wrist when she hurls her challenge at the hapless Glasdale.  Her monotonous delivery goes well with her paralytic movements.

Peter O’Toole won an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in this series.  He certainly had a lot of scenes and I’m happy that he won, since he didn’t get Oscars for the performances that deserved them: Lawrence of Arabia(1962), Lion in Winter (1968). As Pierre Cauchon, however, he was miscast and his acting was melodramatic. In fairness to him,  the part was illogical and badly written.

Neil Patrick Harris plays the Dauphin as a womanizing political schemer.  Charles VII did take a mistress  in his later years, but when Charles knew Joan, he was 26 years old and still very much ruled by his mother-in-law and other advisers. He was genuinely religious and not at all good looking.

Duguay and his writers manage to transform the military leader and saint into a a surly rebellious teenager who “shows” the adults in her life by getting herself burnt.

This is a dreadful movie.

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