Joan the Woman (1916)
Cecil B. DeMille enters the arena of the historical epic with this depiction of France’s most famous saint, starring Geraldine Farrar, who had been very successful in “Carmen” the previous year. While a bit rough in places, it is likely to be a major contender in this year’s Century Awards.
This is one of those silent movies that, unfortunately, begins with several minutes of intertitles explaining the plot. Most silent directors did their best to avoid this, but DeMille may have felt that because he was dealing with such a “serious” subject, his audiences would need a little priming to get into the mood. Anyway, after five minutes of introductory reading, we finally get to an unnecessary wraparound story. We begin in the trenches in France in 1916, where a young English soldier is digging in the dirt wall for some reason, and pulls out a sword, apparently buried there since the fifteenth century. He speculates that some “queer bloke” must have wielded it, and then responds to a call for volunteers from an officer. The officer is looking for someone to carry a very unwieldy bomb across no-man’s-land to destroy an enemy trench. He tells the soldier to think about it until midnight before making a decision whether to take on the suicide mission. Once back in his barracks, the soldier sees a vision of Joan of Arc and the real movie finally begins!
At the opening of the main storyline, Joan is a young peasant woman living on her parents’ farm in Domremy. A war is raging with the English, who have infiltrated French high society to undermine France’s power to wage war, and keep the King poor and dependent, thus ineffectual. A deserter from France’s army stumbles onto the farm, and Joan chastises him for his lack of patriotism, but the deserter points out that if the King himself won’t fight for his country, why should he? Joan is clearly unsatisfied, and tells him that his sword, once unsheathed for France, may never be cast aside.
Now a group of English soldiers attack, and plans to head for the hills with her family to hide until they are done looting, but she convinces the deserter that he should stay behind and “parley” with them. Once he sees her leave, he runs to hide in a hayloft. Joan sees this and goes after him, to shame him into doing his duty. However, she winds up encountering the English, and she tells them to turn back, which causes them to drag her into the hayloft. One of them (Wallace Reid) sends the others away, and menaces her, but then the deserter rallies and conks the Englishman out with his sword from above. Joan now seems to notice that the English soldier is kind of cute, and stops the former deserter from finishing him off. The deserter now goes outside in time to see the rest of the English marching off with whatever loot they’ve been able to collect, and Joan takes care of the wounded English soldier.
For a while, we are led up a garden path of seeing this as a typical star-crossed romance, with Joan hiding Eric Trent, as the Englishman is called, in the hayloft and him slowly falling in lover with her. But, DeMille isn’t playing that fast-and-loose with the facts, and pretty soon Joan has the first of her double-exposure visions, a sword that hovers before her when Trent tries to propose. He leaves in frustration while she stares at it, and an angel appears to tell her of her mission to go to the King and rally forces to fight the English in the name of God. This is understandably difficult, but Joan believes wholeheartedly in her visions and soon visits the governor. He pulls out his sword, but she chops it in half with her dagger and he is convinced to arrange an audience with the King.
King Charles VII (Raymond Hatton), we now learn, has fallen under the influence of a shady financier called “the Spider,” who always has enough money for wild parties at the court, but never enough for military funding. The King has yet to be crowned, although he’s been the nominal ruler for some time. When Joan shows up, the Spider immediately tries to convince the King that she’s a phony, and suggests “testing her” by leading her into the room without telling her who the King is and seeing if she can identity him without his crown. She does so immediately, the King is overjoyed, and fairly easily persuaded (considering the outrageousness of the request) that it would be a good idea to give her soldiers and weapons. Some of the nobles rebel at first, but Joan speaks patriotically and convinces them to follow the flag, if not her personally.
Joan leads her forces to the besieged town of Orleans, where citizens and soldiers are starving in the streets, and the English have secured a nearby fortress. She warns them of divine retribution and they laugh at her. Some of her captains, seeking glory, initiate a failed attack on their own, and she rides to a heroic rescue, routing the English and proving herself worthy. Eric Trent is recaptured in the process, but Joan sees to it that he is well-treated. Then she arranges for the King’s coronation, which alarms the Spider and also a slimy bishop (Theodore Roberts) who has a sidekick known as “the Mad Monk.” They have taken to alleging that Joan makes the people bow down to her and that she plans to usurp the throne and become Queen. This isn’t enough to stop the coronation, however, and so the bishop tries poisoning the King’s wine. Joan sees another vision of a sword and warns the King, who tests it on a servant, who dies instantly. The King dismisses the bishop, but he can’t execute him for fear of offending the Church.
The coronation goes smoothly and Joan continues to win victories for France. The King offers her anything she asks as a reward, and she asks two boons: free Eric Trent and grant her home village freedom from taxation forever (the second seems the more problematic one, economically speaking). The King finds them both bizarre, but complies. Trent thanks her for saving his life a second time, and they almost confess that they are in love, but Joan’s devotion to France prevents it. She knows from her vision that she only has a little time left, and that doesn’t leave any room for personal feelings, as she explains to an emissary from her village who tries to take her back to see her parents.
Now the forces working against Joan get to work overtime. The Mad Monk continues to spread allegations, making the King wonder if she might be conspiring against him, and the Spider keeps feeding his bad habits. Meanwhile, the English learn that Joan will be traveling with a small party on a certain road, and they send Trent and his men to capture her. Trent initially refuses, but has to obey when it is put as an order from his King. The capture goes smoothly, and she is put up for ransom, as was usual at the time. What is unusual is that the English, instead of naming a price, agree to give her to the highest bidder. Trent tries to buy her freedom, but he is outbid by the bishop. Joan holds out for the King’s ransom, but he is convinced by the Spider that she could be a danger, and besides, he still doesn’t have as much money as the bishop. So, the bishop takes her off.
Now in the hands of the Church, her trial for heresy can begin. She acquits herself well, but when the ecclesiastical interrogators use torture, she caves and signs a document condemning herself. Now Trent attempts a desperate rescue, which is foiled because the bishop is spying on her cell at all times. The bonfire for her burning is built, and this is cross-cut with images of the King’s court in a wild orgiastic party. When a loyal soldier appeals to the King to help Joan, he appears too debauched (or too hungover) even to understand the request. Trent, for some reason still at liberty, attends the burning and gives Joan a small cross as she walks up to the pyre. As she burns, he cries out, “We have burned a saint!”
The story returns us to 1916, and the young soldier, inspired by his vision, accepts the mission. He tries to sneak across no-man’s-land with the bomb, but he is caught in a searchlight and shot. With his dying breath, he hurls the bomb and we see a report at headquarters: The enemy trench has been destroyed.
This movie was quite long, but it held my interest pretty well. I suspect that the version I watched may have been at a low frame rate, because at times people seemed to move very slowly, but that may also have been an aspect of the performances: The actors might have been moving slowly to give their actions more significance. The sets, battle scenes, and orgy scenes (a DeMille specialty in later years) are quite successfully spectacular, and I was also impressed with the costumes and camerawork. We get some very nice tracking-backward shots as Joan triumphantly rides into Orleans and in the setup to her capture. The soldiers all manage to appear uniformed yet distinguishable as individuals, and someone realized that not everyone carried a sword and even tried to show the proper use of polearms (pretty much impossible to simulate without hurting the horses, but a good try). The sets aren’t quite as impressive as those used for “Intolerance,” but assuming more realistic budget, they are really good, especially the town and fortress at Orleans.
I also thought that Farrar did well in the role, and displayed considerable range, when compared to her performance in “Carmen.” Her Carmen is brazen and free-spirited, while her Joan of Arc is determined and single-minded. I know that some have criticized her as “miscast” (including Leonard Maltin, who I routinely disagree with), but I would beg to differ. I suspect that some feel she was too old for the part (she was 34; the real Joan of Arc died at nineteen), but I didn’t find this a problem. She doesn’t look nineteen, but she does pull off peasant stock convincingly, and has the solid look of someone who could wield a sword without worrying about breaking a fingernail. To my mind, it would be a bigger problem if Joan of Arc were a cutie.
The bigger problem I have was with the wraparound story, which looked tacked on for no reason, maybe to appeal to the increasingly belligerent mood of American audiences. The movie would be fine without it. Somehow, it is implied that one British soldier is giving his life to make amends for English wrongdoings in 1430. Huh? Tens of thousands of English dying on French soil wasn’t enough already? And how is this poor guy responsible for what Eric Trent or the King of England did five centuries ago? The attempted tie-in is awkward and for me unsuccessful. It also tends to take attention away from the bulk of the film: the plot summary on Wikipedia only devotes one sentence out of five to Joan of Arc, the rest is a description of the ten-minute wraparound story. Apart from that, the whole romance with Eric Trent seems a bit overplayed and hokey, but at least DeMille didn’t totally re-write history to forefront it.
I would recommend this as an important milestone in DeMille’s career, even if I didn’t like it as much as “The Cheat” or “Carmen.” Silent cinema will return to the story of Joan of Arc again, perhaps more successfully, but this is definitely an interesting example from the early period.
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Camera: Alvin Wyckoff
Run Time: 2hrs, 15min