Review of CBS' "Joan of Arc" Miniseries (1999)

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.
Specific comments:
  • 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, seemingly borrowed 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 activities.
  • 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' life).
  • 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.
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.

Copyright © 2002, Allen Williamson. All rights reserved.


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