I was speaking to one of my students the other day and we were talking about women in medieval history. He asked me about Joan of Arc, saying that he thought she would be quite an interesting person to study, since female military leaders were very rare. I agreed, and so the thought of Joan was in my head when I searched for “medieval film” on Amazon. Lo and behold, there was this thing, which I believe to have been part of a miniseries. I cued it up.
I am justly slain with my own treachery.
The credits are your first sign that all is not well: Olympia Dukakis, Powers Boothe, Shirley Maclaine, Neil Patrick Harris, Maximilian Schell, Maury Chaykin and Leelee Sobieski in the title role. (I quite like Leelee Sobieski, as it happens, but she was in In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale. That’s the kind of viewing that stays with you.) Oh, and we have Peter O’Toole in an “and” role.
Anyway, so we open with Joan being burned at the stake, looking up at heaven and saying “thank you.” That’s quite an interesting thing to say while being burned; perhaps this is going to be an exploration of the martyr’s mentality? And then …
Oh, hmm. I’m not sure I really think of the Hundred Years War as part of the Dark Ages per se, but maybe it’s just poetic licence …
Wh … bu … whth …
A quick trip to the kitchen helps me enlist the aid of my longtime film-watching partner Mr Dalwhinnie. Let us resume.
Flash back to Joan being born. Powers Boothe is dad, and he is concerned about the approaching English. He’s going to kill Joan, I guess? I’m not completely sure why. Anyway, the peasants are fleeing and Joan’s eyes are very blue. Flash forward ten years and Joan is an adorable moppet running around with sheep and a ruined castle. You know most castles in the middle ages weren’t actually ruins, right? That’s when they had castles.
Joan is prattling about “the Maid,” who is gonna come and save them. She has a freakout in church. Everything is dull brown because the middle ages. Nice archway on the church. Hey, it appears that St Catherine is speaking to Joan, which I believe is accurate. I can’t believe I’m nearly 400 words into this already. Time to speed up. The priest has an illuminated manuscript showing the Battle of Agincourt, which considering that it’s only 1422 and the battle was in 1415 is pretty up to date. The priest straight-up draws her a map of France and explains where everything is, including explaining the Burgundians.
Flash forward to 1429. Joan is Leelee Sobieski, who is riding around on a horse, hanging out with her friend Emil and gazing into the distance with a pure and noble gaze.
She shows compassion to some poor refugees, but Powers Boothe is not impressed. Joan explains about Saint Catherine to the priest. Blah blah destiny blah blah. Dialogue is not good, but points for casting Leelee Sobieski in the role of the person who stares at things intensely. The Burgundians show up and kill poor blind pal Emil.
Joan: NOOOOOOO! WHYYYYYYY?!
The Lord appears in the form of some unconvincing special effects and Joan decides she has to go see the Dauphin, as one does. The French troops show up apologetically in the form of Maury Chaykin, who is delightful in his role as a lazy, greedy, amoral son of a bitch. Joan goes off to see the prince, but there is a lot of malarkey along the way. She starts accumulating followers to defend Vaucouleurs from the Burgundians. This is actually not historically off — there was a lot of rigmarole between Joan and Sir Robert de Baudricourt (Chaykin); the two soldiers who befriend her are also characters from history. There’s a good-looking one and a less-good-looking one, so I’m guessing the good-looking one is going to be the love interest.
Some of these sets don’t look so bad, but the production of the whole thing has the stink of cheap on it.
In some ways, this is more historical than its fellow 1999 effort, The Messenger … on the other hand, at least Luc Besson splashed out for some actual French people.
Anyway, there’s a long journey, and Joan gets hold of a sword via a miracle. Skeptical soldier Jean de Metz, who wears his mail in the middle of the night for some goddamn reason, appears convinced. The Burgundians are killing random possible Maids-of-Lorraine, and Joan and her escorts get chased. The French soldiers’ armour is so unconvincing; it must be just as difficult to make this stuff as it is to make something a little more authentic.
Anyway, some dude called Raymond that we have not met until now gets killed in slo-mo. Also, Joan gets a haircut. The soundtrack slobbers all over it.
The Dauphin is Neil Patrick Harris, and he’s debating finance and church policy with Peter O’Toole.
Am I imagining this? It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing I would imagine, but it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would exist in reality either.
Cauchon: As His Majesty’s church-appointed spiritual advisor, I advise His Majesty not to ignore the advice of His Majesty’s church-appointed spiritual advisor.
I can’t tell if that’s genius or madness.
Anyway, the king does the old pretend-to-be-a-courtier trick, talks to Joan, blah blah blah. “No one believes in France anymore,” the Dauphin whines. Joan’s shirt is made from grommets for some reason.
Charles: The army will never follow the Dauphin, but they might follow the Maid of Lorraine.
Joan: I’m not the Maid.
Charles: You’ll have to learn to stop saying that.
I actually really like Harris’s brainy schemer here.
Anyway, Joan gets armoured up and goes off to lead her army, somewhat hesitantly. No one sees fit to give Jean (the handsome soldier) a coif that isn’t just a tea towel covered in grommets. Mother Babette (Olympia Dukakis) tells Joan to believe in herself, since this is a movie. The heads of the army drag their heels, but Joan takes no shit. Anyway, they plan an attack that relies on starting a fire. It’s always fires in medieval films. The French line up on horseback and it’s all very inspiring. Their map is a beautifully-illustrated three-quarter view of the castle, which seems implausible.
I am way less bored than I expected I would be from a 1-star Lovefilm movie. In fairness, I’m watching this and writing two blog posts at the same time. The super unconvincing armour keeps distracting me, though. They shoot at a tower, which immediately explodes into a million pieces. The French charge their cavalry right at the English tower, for some damn reason. Cheveaux-de-frise pose a problem, but the English have made the critical mistake of deploying a huge number of their dudes outside the castle,and they get mown down. The not-so-good-looking guy keeps shooting his flaming ballista bolts at the castle to start a fire; surely a ballista is the worst type of early siege weapon for the job? You want a nice easy lob over the wall.
Anyway, Joan is unprepared for the furious battle, but the French, inspired by her presence, give it some elbow. Joan gets winged by an arrow and her horse is also hit. There is quite an impressive fall! Her horse rolls over her and you can really see how that would mess someone up; it’s one of those stunts that is way more impressive than it looks. Joan’s armour looks veeeery plastic, though. Surely this thing is almost over. Anyway, Joan, wound or no, displays great courage and fortitude, remounts and renews the attack. She gallops off, and End Part One.
You know, I wound up liking this more than I thought I would. It’s bad by almost every standard, but there’s something about it. Maybe it’s just the longer length, but it does give some sense of the hesitation and weirdness of the story that’s missing in a more compact tale like The Messenger. I dunno.
I might watch Part Two. Maybe.