Saint Joan (1957)

Director: Otto Preminger Joan: Jean Seberg

Otto Preminger was less interested in bringing Shaw’s play to the screen than in creating his own idea of Joan of Arc according to Preminger.

Otto Preminger’s film about Joan of Arc is remarkable in the apparent disregard the director

Bass poster for Saint Joan

had for the central character. The main poster for the film doesn’t even show the heroine’s face, just her armor from the waist down–and a broken sword. In the cast listing given at IMDb, the character of Joan is listed at the very end, on the jump page. A more disrespectful attitude to the character of Joan and the woman that played her is hard to imagine.

Preminger cast seasoned actors in all the other parts: John Gielgud as Warwick, Richard Widmark as Charles VII, and Anton Walbrook as Bishop Cauchon, but he conducted a “star search” for a young woman who possessed the qualities of Joan of Arc. The rest of the cast needed to be able to act, but all he wanted for Joan was an image of spiritual purity.

Preminger’s approach to casting Joan of Arc shows how powerful and primitive male prejudice against women is: a man can be expected to play a part, but a woman can only behave according to her nature. In this kind of thinking, an actor is more than an actress, just as a hero is more than a heroine. Preminger was resorting to magical thinking when he threw Jean Seberg into his cast of accomplished actors.

Eighteen-year-old Jean Seberg’s only acting experience had been in school plays. She was cast as Joan after a media circus that had more in common with a beauty contest than a talent search. The result was predictable. Seberg was too inexperienced for the part and Preminger made matters worse by preventing her from “being corrupted by the other actors as they intellectually prepared their roles.” When the critics panned the film, they laid most of the blame on Seberg.

Preminger’s Saint Joan is boring. There are no battle scenes and no villains. What conflict there is lacks any quality of suspense. Graham Greene’s adaptation of Shaw’s play bleeds it of the original’s wit and pacing. Preminger makes little use of the capabilities of film. He does provide a scene showing Joan at the stake, but very briefly and without any dramatic buildup.

The film’s framing element is a night time scene in which Richard Widmark as the elderly Charles VII is visited by Joan and characters from her story, It is very like Scrooge’s night time adventures in A Christmas Carol when he’s visited by the spirits of Christmas.

Jean Seberg’s Joan is beautiful and touchingly young. Her awkward performance does not seem to me to be any worse than Widmark’s silly interpretation of Charles VII, or Gielgud’s languid delivery as Warwick.

Preminger’s film marks a change in the treatment of Joan of Arc in the movies. Apart from looks and youthful energy, the most striking characteristic Seberg projects as Joan is the bullheaded adolescent belief that she is right and everyone else is wrong. The saint depicted by Dreyer and Fleming is nowhere to be seen. Seberg’s Joan is feisty, but ordinary, and–most importantly–explicable.

After Preminger’s disrespectful treatment, the way was open for Duguay and Besson.

NOTE: Saint Joan has never been released on DVD. It  exists on VHS tape. Be careful when you order. Some versions out there are non-USA format.