Joan of Arc (1900)
A while ago, I discussed the Cecil B. DeMille version of Joan of Arc’s story, but he was not the first master film maker to take it on. In fact, Joan’s countryman Georges Méliès beat him to the punch by over fifteen years, and did in in (hand-tinted) color, too!
The movie (as we have it today) begins with the visitation of young Joan by angels who tell her of her mission to save France from occupation by the English. We see different angels appear before her and she falls prostrate before them. She then goes to tell her parents, who seem quite distressed by the news. The next scene shows the gate at Vaucouleurs, where the guard at first seems disinclined to admit her, but he is convinced when she demonstrates her faith in God and France, and he summons other guards to escort her to the master of the house. The tableau for this scene shows a raucous party going on inside the castle, with Robert de Baudricourt leading the festivities, while a fat curate toasts and drinks from a flagon. When Joan comes in, Baudricourt mocks her and invites her to sit on his knee, but her faith overcomes him and he agrees to give her soldiers to support her cause.
The commentary on my DVD refers to the next scene as “the endless parade,” although it is only about a minute and a half long. Joan rides a horse in armor, displaying her weapons, and leads soldiers through the streets of the city. Extras in period costume march behind her, extending the small number of extras by having the same people, sometimes in different costumes, march past repeatedly. The next scene shows the crowning of Charles VII in Reims Cathedral, which I suppose the original French audience knew without being told was a result of Joan’s victory at Orléans. The movie then deipicts its one battle scene, the Siege of Compiègne. Here, the French attack a gate in front of a castle, but while they are doing so, English soldiers come out and grab Joan, taking her inside the castle. The other soldiers valiantly attack the castle, despite gunfire from the arrow slits, and throw up siege ladders to take it, but they are unable to rescue Joan.
In prison, Joan has another dream in which she sees her visions again. Taken to the interrogation, Joan refuses to sign a retraction, and is condemned as a heretic. In the Rouen marketplace, Joan is burned at the stake. The wood carrier at the execution, bringing in fuel for the burning, dies on the spot from the fumes. In a final apotheosis scene, Joan rises to heaven, where she is greeted by God and the saints.
There is a missing scene at the beginning which apparently establishes Joan as a simple peasant girl leading sheep. I suspect there may be some other missing footage as well (the Star Films catalog lists it as running five minutes longer than the version I’ve seen), but the film was considered lost until 1982, so we’re lucky to have it at all. At more than ten minutes long, it almost qualifies as a “feature film” for its time. George Méliès played seven roles, or one in nearly every scene. Joan of Arc, although widely considered a saint in France, was not actually beatified until 1909, and not technically canonized until 1920 (four years after the DeMille version). This film in a number of ways reminds me of Guy’s “The Birth, the Life, and the Death of Christ,” and despite the use of camera trickery for the Angelic visitations and Joan’s entry into heaven, has a much more serious tone than other works of Méliès at the time. The film includes some shots where actors move closer to the camera than is usual for Méliès, I think simply because of the crowded sets, but the effect is to give us some medium-shots for once. Along with “The Dreyfus Affair,” it shows that Méliès regarded film as an educational medium as well as entertainment, and that he had a broader range than is often assumed.
Director: Georges Méliès
Starring: Georges Méliès, Jeanne d’Alcy
Run Time: 10 Min, 18secs
You can watch it for free: here.