Joan the Woman (1917)

Director: Cecil B. DeMille Joan: Geraldine Farrar

The historical Joan of Arc was a genuine hero, physically courageous and driven by a desire to right what she saw as a wrong. But as far as the film-makers who have put her story on the screen were concerned, she was first of all “only a woman.”  DeMille’s Joan the Woman is the first of six 20th century films that shape Joan’s story to make it fit cultural expectations of female behavior.

Joan the Woman (1917) by Cecile B. DeMille exists in two versions, one for American audiences and one for French distribution. It is the version shown in the United States that launched the image of Joan of Arc for Americans.

With silent films, it was easy to replace inter-titles and rearrange scenes for the desired emphasis.  The purpose of the American version is to define the role of women in wartime. Joan represents the idea that women are both the inspiration and reward of men.  The “American” Joan is a reluctant warrior who permits love to interfere with her mission. She is given an English sweetheart named Eric Trent whom she hides from the French and later rescues from execution.

The French version presents Joan as the symbol of France. Her purpose is to inspire the French people to national pride and self-sacrifice. The part of Eric Trent is edited so as to make him into a different character altogether and Joan remains focused on her mission.

DeMille presents Joan the Woman as a “frame” story.  That is, he frames the fifteenth century story of Joan in the Hundred Years War between France and England with a modern story set in 1917 France during World War I.  A young soldier dreams Joan’s story and then, after she is executed, he wakes and goes to volunteer for a dangerous mission in which he will be killed.

Despite the facts that the script was written by a woman, Jenny MacPherson, and that the part of Joan was played by Geraldine Farrar, an opera diva known for her liberated personal life, this film presents Joan as a female stereotype.  The title itself, Joan the Woman, makes it clear that DeMille’s subject is neither the Saint nor the Warrior.  The first words following the title tell us that the film is

Founded on the life of Joan
of Arc,
the Girl Patriot,
Who fought with Men,
Was Loved by Men
and Killed by Men–
Yet Withal Retained the Heart
of a Woman

Throughout the film Joan is kept strictly feminine.  For starters, Geraldine Farrar has the body of a fully mature, child-bearing woman.  She’s shown to be happy in such female roles as spinning and shelling peas.  In two scenes she holds an infant.  Even when she has assumed “masculine clothing,” her armor is draped with a skirt-like fabric that falls well below the knee and looks more like a woman’s dress than a knight’s surcoat. On the battlefield at Orléans she sleeps in a feminine nightgown, and when she is a prisoner at Rouen her tunics again fall well below the knee.

When she is with Trent or merely speaking of him to others, she adopts an eye-rolling, simpering attitude. The historic Joan talked back to her judges, but DeMille limits his Joan to one question which she answers  in an otherworldly, saintly, modest manner.

DeMille prefers the torture chamber to the court room and gives us a scene that is almost pornographic, showing Joan totally helpless in the hands of men who wish to invade her body with pointed instruments. When Joan is finally burnt at the stake, her execution has less to do with her mission than with the fact that Trent fails in his attempt to rescue her.

By giving Joan a lover and showing her leadership to be flawed because of her gender, DeMille sends the message that women are out of place in the male realm of war and politics and that it is, after all, the job of men to get things done.  By enclosing her story in the frame story, DeMille effectively reduces Joan’s reality to a vision, a mere fairy tale.


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