This film (which originally aired as a television miniseries)
was a mixed bag. While most of
it is harmless enough, there are some inexcusable scenes
which are not only erroneous but truly defamatory. Overall, the plotline
bears very little resemblance
to history, the dialogue was straight out of a teenage sitcom, and
the primary theme - that Joan allegedly allowed herself to be captured in
order to 'make Charles VII a better king' - is baseless in fact and a
rather odd idea even for the Hollywood set. Nevertheless, in
relation to other recent films like "The Messenger",
and a great many pop
books on the subject, CBS' version at least captured the gist of most
of the major issues.
In summary: the film was in many respects less accurate than many
of the other efforts over the years; but after recent offerings have lowered
the bar even further, it's harder to complain.
- Joan did not voluntarily allow herself to be captured by the enemy
and put on trial. According to a number of eyewitness accounts from
people on both sides, she was captured while remaining with the
rearguard during a desperate retreat at Compiegne: one of the town's
drawbridges was raised prematurely by the garrison commander, Guillaume de Flavy,
thereby trapping she and the rest of the rearguard outside,
where they were soon surrounded. Joan initially
refused to surrender, and was finally pulled off her horse by a Burgundian
archer, after which she surrendered to a man named Lionel of Wandonne.
The scriptwriters decided to rewrite history to suit their own
theory as to her motives, never seeming to consider that any such theory, to be valid,
needs to based on the very accounts which are here being fictionalized.
The eyewitness accounts merely indicate that Joan knew that
she had been "betrayed" (by whom, we don't know) before leaving
Compiegne that day, but neither knew the hour of her capture in advance
(as she herself said), much less welcomed it. The issue of her
alleged goal of sacrificing herself to make Charles
a better king is dealt with in the section on Charles, farther below.
- The worst portions of the film were probably the following:
- The melodramatic scene during the final assault on Les Tourelles -
in which Joan orders Glasdale killed by archers after telling him she
will 'send you to hell' - was not only fictional, but wasn't even true
to the general form of the actual events nor the personalities of the
people involved. In reality, Glasdale drowned while trying to
escape over a burning drawbridge, which collapsed under the weight of
the armored men and horses. He and a number of other English lords
sank to the bottom of the river, and Joan wept at the sight, according to
eyewitness accounts. She had urged him to "Submit... to the King of Heaven"
just beforehand, saying that she had compassion for his soul.
She would never threaten to send someone 'to hell', a sentiment which is
considered a grave sin; the scriptwriters simply invented this line of dialogue,
straight out of the mouth of one of the nihilistic anti-heroes who are
such a staple of the American entertainment industry.
- In the VHS version of the film there was a similarly bizarre scene in which
Joan wants to make war against civilians, and La Hire - of all people - objects.
The real Joan, as described in
numerous eyewitness accounts, strongly opposed any actions against
civilians or their property, and constantly tried to force her troops
to take the same view. It was people like La Hire
(one of the more ruthless of the mercenary commanders) who were given to
pillage, not Joan.
- Despite numerous inaccuracies in the film's version, the trial was
nevertheless more or less accurately presented as a military
matter conducted by the English and their allies rather
than a valid ecclesiastic trial. In the original TV series, brief
mention was made of the (posthumous) retrial held towards the end of the war
when the Inquisition overturned the original verdict and declared Joan
a martyr; this was unfortunately left out in the VHS / DVD version.
Mention was also
made of the support given to Joan by the Church scholars at Poitiers,
although they ignored the ecclesiastic support that she had at the
trial itself (i.e., the clergy serving as notaries were apparently
sympathetic to her, and their testimony later helped reverse the conviction;
a number of the assessors raised objections to the methods used by Cauchon
and the questions asked of Joan during the trial, leading one
to be imprisoned and another to be threatened with drowning; most
of the clergy wept during the execution, including many of
the assessors themselves). Unfortunately, the scriptwriters decided
to reverse the roles of Cauchon and LeMaistre, while seemingly combining
the persons of Cauchon and Regnault de Chartres (two very different people
who belonged to opposite factions). In reality, Bishop Cauchon was the
one who pushed for a conviction, having long been an official in the service
of the English and Burgundians,
and he was accused by his own notaries of entering
fraudulent evidence into the record.
Vice-Inquisitor LeMaistre, on the other hand, took part in the trial
reluctantly, after being threatened, and was said by the eyewitnesses to
have been "troubled" during the course of the trial.
Nor was Cauchon ever an advisor to Charles VII (the scriptwriters are
confusing him with Regnault de Chartres, Archbishop of Reims), nor
was he the pillar of orthodoxy that films usually portray him as:
during his long and checkered career we know that he engaged in bribery
to corrupt justice in favor of the Duke of Burgundy (according to a letter
from Duke Jean-sans-Peur himself dated July 26, 1415); prior to that he
had been expelled from Paris for helping encourage a bloody revolt in
1413, again on behalf of the Burgundian faction. By the time of Joan's
trial he was a paid official of the English occupation government, which
arranged that he act as chief judge in her case.
- There is no evidence that Charles VII betrayed her, and in fact there
are a number of
documents which prove otherwise: The pro-English University of Paris
(the group that put her on trial) itself sent a letter to John of
Luxembourg frantically complaining that the people of Joan's faction were
attempting to do, quote, "everything in their power" to ransom her or
otherwise save her by "extraordinary means". This is also mentioned in an
entry in the archives of the Morosini family (Venetian merchants who had
dealings with the Royal court) which says that Charles VII tried to stop
the sale of Joan to the English and threatened to engage in similar
treatment with regard to his own prisoners if the deal went forward.
He may additionally have funded some of the rescue attempts which were
apparently led by La Hire in the winter of 1430-1431 and by Dunois
in March 1431.
The film's portrayal of Charles as a frivolous, carefree, and callous idler
seems to have been taken largely from the view made popular by fictional works such as
George Bernard Shaw's play 'Saint Joan', which was inaccurate on almost every count.
The documents, and the biographies written by historians who have
studied this monarch in depth, make it apparent that
he was a far more complex figure, with many facets to his personality,
both good and bad.
Like most of the kings of the Valois dynasty he had his share of phobias
and strange personality quirks, and the early years of his reign were
often marked by indecision; but he seems to have been a decent and normally
serious, even morose, man who was thrust at an early age
into a leadership role during one of the most difficult eras that any
French ruler has faced. His letters, and the surviving portraits, tend
to give the impression of sadness rather than frivolity; the clemency he
routinely granted to offenders of all descriptions implies a merciful
and compassionate temperament; his various mild neuroses imply constant anxiety.
The film's version, on the other hand, is a Hollywood caricature.
As for the notion that Joan was sacrificing herself
to make him a better king: this seems to have been loosely based on the
fact that the later portion of his reign saw the creation of a strong
central government and the first standing Royal army, with the scriptwriters
apparently deciding that such "must" have been part of Joan's
goal. There is absolutely no evidence for this, nor any indication of
how her sacrifice would have pushed him to take such measures, nor any reason
to assume that Joan had any interest in such policies. Her commanders
certainly did not, as a number of them
later rebelled against Charles in 1439 (a revolt known as "The
Praguerie") in response to his formation of a standing army in violation
of the nobles' traditional rights. Joan's stated goal was to crown Charles
as the legitimate heir to the throne because, as she said, such was God's
will; she tried to make him a better
ruler by asking him to abide by certain moral precepts.
- It was refreshing to see a reasonably accurate explanation for her practice
of wearing male attire (of a type which had "laces and hooks" to allow
the pants to be attached securely to the tunic): according to four witnesses at the
appeal of her case as well as other 15th century documents, she had
said that she wore such clothing and kept the pants "firmly laced and
tied" as a way of protecting
herself against the rape attempts that she had endured at the
hands of her guards, and this testimony further clarifies her own
recorded words at the Condemnation trial: to wit, she says that she would wear a dress
if they would transfer her to a Church prison (in which she would be
guarded by nuns rather than male guards), as was
standard Inquisitorial procedure.
In the end, she may have been
forced into resuming male attire when the guards took her female
clothing (according to the deposition of one witness), and
this was used as a pretext for condemning her.
She did not
wear such clothing as a "transvestite fashion statement", an absurd
claim which seems to have gained a degree of currency that it does not deserve.
The film, while taking
considerable liberties with the facts, at least got the basic
outline correct: at the trial
they have her say that her male attire helped to "save" her during
the times she was with soldiers in the field and with male guards
in prison; and there's a scene in which a guard is indirectly
ordered to abuse her
for the purpose of "tempting her" to go back to male clothing. The
latter scene seems to imply that she was raped, which almost certainly
didn't actually happen: while there were several witnesses who
testified to the attempted rapes and other abuse that
she suffered, none of these said that such attacks ever went farther than an
attempt, and her own words shortly before her death strongly imply that
no rape occurred. [click here
for further details] It's irresponsible to claim otherwise.
- The dialogue was pure Hollywood, unfortunately. We have many
quotations from the real Joan (click here
to see some examples in the original medieval French plus an English
translation), and yet the only authentic "Joanism" to make it into the film
was the phrase "God, the King of Heaven" (in medieval French: "Dé (Dieu),
le roy du ciel"). In the same vein, we also have quotes from many of the
people who served in her army and in
other capacities. While it's always difficult to convert 15th century
language into a modern English script, it's nevertheless possible to at
least make an attempt to approximate the authentic speech
of the era. If the characters sound like refugees from 'Beverly Hills 90210',
then that should alert even non-historians to an obvious problem.
- Unfortunately, the film portrayed her army in a sanitized fashion,
and some of her closest companions were oddly left out entirely. Of the
dozens of commanders who led the various contingents in her army
only La Hire (aka Lord Etienne de
Vignolles) was represented, and his film alter-ego comes off a bit
milder than the real person. A foul-mouthed mercenary from Gascony known for
the destruction of civilian property and violations of truces, he was among
those whom Joan had to frequently chastise. Among those captains who
were not shown were Lord Dunois (Jean d'Orleans), Duke Jean II d'Alencon
(whom Joan always called "my noble Duke"), Lord Sainte-Sévère, Sir Hugh
Kennedy (a Scot serving in obedience to the "Auld Alliance" between Scotland
and France), Bartolemew Baretta
(an Italian mercenary), Lord Guy XIV de Laval and his brother Lord Loheac
(who wrote a letter
on June 8, 1429 describing their meeting
with Joan), and dozens more. Strangely, Joan herself was never shown
performing her main activities in the army: scolding the troops for
swearing, forcing them to go to confession, and relentlessly driving out
the mistresses and prostitutes who congregated around the army camp.
The depositions of
her former comrades at the appeal are full of accounts of these
- The film exaggerates the extent to which Domrémy was subjected
to attacks during this period. I know of only one raid, in July of
1428, unless you count the incident in 1425 when a Burgundian commander
named Henri d'Orly stole the villager's livestock (before being induced
to return the lot through the efforts of two local nobles). The
film, presumably for dramatic purposes, gives the
impression that Domrémy was almost constantly under assault, which
wasn't the case.
- The opening captions dealing with the "prophecy by Merlyn"
did nothing to enhance the film's historicity. Yes, there was a
prophecy which said that "France will be lost by a woman and saved
by a virgin from the oak forests of Lorraine", and yes, this was
brought up during the trial and by a number of people who met Joan
during her military campaigns; but the prophecy is more credibly
attributed to an English monk and historian named St. Bede the Venerable,
rather than the fictional "Merlyn".
- The role of Jean de Metz was greatly exaggerated. He was one of several
men who escorted her to Chinon, but after that point he virtually
disappears from the accounts. He was not in Rouen during her trial,
nor was he present at her execution (the cross was held up for her by
one of the assessors, Friar Martin Ladvenu, who was sympathetic
to her). The caption at the end stating that Metz "never married" seems
to have been an attempt to imply that there was some sort of romantic
interest between them, another hackneyed Hollywood element without factual
basis. Additionally, the film's version of their first meeting was inaccurate:
rather than making a suggestive comment, he simply asked her what she was doing
and made an odd remark about the current state of affairs in France.
(Click here for the full
quote from their first conversation, and a brief summary of Jean de Metz'
- The characterization of her father was entirely fictional, and entirely
unfair: he never tried to have Joan killed as a baby, nor is there
any evidence that he was intemperate
with alcohol, which seems to be implied in the wedding feast scene
(the notion that he drank too much is simply based on a supposition
dreamed up by a single author who based his view solely on the fact
that Jacques spent a couple months in Reims while Joan was in the area
after the coronation.
This fellow leaps to the conclusion that, since Reims was known for
its wines (as indeed many French towns were, and still are), Jacques
must have stayed there for the booze rather than out of a desire to
see his daughter).
Most of the family went to see Joan at Reims,
something which was left out in the film. Similarly, two of her brothers
(Jean and Pierre) accompanied her in the army, whereas in the film
Pierre is the only one who comes along. Erroneously, Pierre is killed
in the film, whereas in reality both brothers survived to receive
prominent positions from Charles VII's government and (in the case of
Pierre) a grant of land from Duke Charles of Orleans; both produced
a number of offspring. Click here
to see the family tree.
- It was nice to see that care was taken in designing her battle
flag, which was reasonably close to the historical descriptions. There
were a few nitpicky deviations: surviving accounts describe God or Christ
being shown holding an orb representing the world (the latter of which doesn't
seem to have been included in the film's version, nor did they include
the fleurs-de-lis which were strewn over the field). The size should
probably have been larger (her primary flag was described as
"ung grant étendart" - a large standard - and standards in that
era were around 8 feet long). Somewhere, it might
have been nice to see her smaller flag, a pennon
which is said to have had an Annunciation scene with an angel presenting
a lily to the Virgin Mary. Click here
to go to this site's page dealing with her banners.
- Joan did not have blond hair: the eyewitness accounts consistently
say it was "black". The spectacle of LeeLee Sobieski with barrettes
holding her perfectly combed and styled hair in place while riding across
the fields near her family's farm was rather startling, and again
reinforced the feeling that one is watching something lifted out of
the prime time sitcom slot.
- The attack on Les Tourelles during the siege of Orleans was, predictably,
something straight out of Monty Python, or 'Braveheart'. The fortress of Les Tourelles
was a pair of
towers on top of Orleans' bridge, fronted by an earthwork (called a
'boulevert' in medieval French) on the shore, to which it was connected by
a drawbridge. It was this earthwork that
was the main focus of the final assault on May 7th. The film's version
erroneously showed a stereotypical blockhouse, oddly guarded by foot soldiers
placed outside the walls rather than inside; no earthen rampart was
visible, and the fortress was on land.
- Although the armies of Joan's era made extensive use of various
early gunpowder weapons, and her own army was equipped with a large
number of well-documented
cannons (some of whose nicknames are recorded), only one was
visible during the entire film, and it seemed to be firing exploding
shells (which would not be invented for centuries). Similarly,
the construction and form of this cannon was also inaccurate for the period.
There was no sign of any of the culverins (small 'hand-cannons') which
were a prime feature of this phase of the war.
Copyright © 2002, Allen Williamson. All rights reserved.