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Joan of Arc (1948)

by Glenn Erickson Mar 31, 2018

 

Does every great actress see Joan of Arc as the ultimate serious role? Ingrid Bergman ran into serious career trouble while this picture was still in release. Its cast and credits are packed with star talent — is it a misunderstood classic with a great central performance? Ms. Bergman was so enamored with the character that she played it twice.


Joan of Arc
70th Anniversary Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1948 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 146 100 min. / Street Date March 27, 2018 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Jos&eacute Ferrer, Francis L. Sullivan, J. Carrol Naish, Ward Bond, Shepperd Strudwick, Gene Lockhart, John Emery, Leif Erickson, Cecil Kellaway.
Cinematography: Winton Hoch, William V. Skall, Joseph Valentine
Film Editor: Frank Sullivan
Special Effects: Jack Cosgrove, John P. Fulton
Original Music: Hugo Friedhofer
Written by Andrew Solt, Maxwell Anderson, from his play
Produced by Walter Wanger
Directed by
Victor Fleming

 

What becomes of a grandiose epic that the public didn’t embrace? It gets cut down, and the original version might be thrown away. America didn’t make this movie a runaway hit, especially when Ingrid Bergman suffered a negative political onslaught that made blacklisting seem tame. The unforgiving public were not happy when ‘everybody’s favorite screen nun’ left her husband to run off with an Italian filmmaker, who was also married. The gossip columns vilified Bergman with the same lynch mob vehemence reserved for Charles Chaplin.

Producer Walter Wanger and Victor Fleming formed ‘Sierra Pictures’ to make Joan of Arc, a show as expensive and sprawling as any studio picture. Fleming and Bergman were now out from under the shadow of MGM and David O. Selznick, and clearly wanted this film to be their Gone With the Wind. Even the cast names in the main titles are arranged similarly. At two hours and twenty minutes (the length of the uncut The Wild Bunch and 1941) it was an unusually long picture. It was not a full Road Show attraction like GWTW or For Whom the Bell Tolls, but it did initially play exclusive engagements in November of 1948, distributed by RKO.

The movie was reportedly a success in Europe. It was considered a flop in the United States, but that assessment was tainted by the media campaign against its star. A version cut down by 45 minutes was reissued in September 1950, long after the scandal broke that Ingrid Bergman had left her husband to live with her new love, Roberto Rossellini. It wasn’t seen again at its full length until the DVD era. The version on Kino’s 70th Anniversary Blu-ray is said to be almost full length, allowing viewers to decide its merits for themselves.

Although not the crashing bore reported by some critics, the show is a rather rigid pageant. Peasant girl Joan of Lorraine (Ingrid Bergman) experiences angelic visions thats prompt her to demand to lead France’s army against the English invaders. Through a bizarre set of circumstances the Dauphin (José Ferrer) gives her the command. To the surprise of all, Joan leads the army from victory to victory by inspiring her troops with religious fervor. But the royals fear her power. In a complex series of betrayals, a Burgundian count (J. Carroll Naish) strikes a deal to hand Joan over to the enemy — whose deposed French Bishop Pierre Cauchon (Francis L. Sullivan) cannot wait to turn her into a martyr.

The story of Joan of Arc has been revisited by filmmakers great and small: Cecil B. DeMille, Robert Bresson, Jacques Rivette, Christian Duguay. A 1935 German version distorted the story to equate Saint Joan with Hitler as reluctant warriors. The persistent all-time classic is Carl Dreyer’s silent The Passion of Joan of Arc with Falconetti, which contemplates the nature of faith and martyrdom with such intensity that it almost literally becomes a religious experience. The next famous version was that of producer-director Otto Preminger, whose failed 1957 attempt nevertheless made a star out of Jean Seberg. The latest epic version is Luc Besson’s 1999’s Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. The historical facts can be spun to make Joan look like a deluded farm girl out of her depth, or a divinely inspired and committed idealist worthy of sainthood. This version adapted from Maxwell Anderson’s play opts firmly for the second approach.

Fleming’s film celebrates the religious angle while deeply underscoring the political ugliness in Joan’s martyrdom. The actual historical politics are still unclear to the casual viewer, which probably contributed to the film’s lack of success. The web of perfidious Frenchmen is a lot wider here, with José Ferrer (in his first screen role) being only the tip of the iceberg. The film has no lack of villains — royals eager to retain their shaky privileges and fence-straddlers that support the Brits or get rich by selling Joan out. American films of the time were so dominated by pro-English sentiment that the brutal Brits seen here likely confused audiences. The sneeringly evil Bishop played by portly Francis L. Sullivan (Night and the City) persecutes Joan with an intense fervor. Viewers aware of Ingrid Bergman’s horrible treatment by the American press will see an immediate parallel.

 

All the standard story points are here, including the initial disgust of the French generals at having a nineteen year-old girl as their commander in chief. There’s also the arrow wound that adds to the legend that Joan is a divine messenger of God. Joan is literally sold to the enemy for some cheap concessions. Her last betrayer is an evil Count played by the great character actor J. Carrol Naish (Sahara). His terrific makeup job, an S- shaped scar down one half of his face, was created by the recently dropped Universal veteran Jack Pierce.

The script is by necessity talky, and seems stagey despite the lavish interior sets. The first half of the show has perhaps too much courtly pageantry and the second is confined to Joan’s prison chambers, but that’s the nature of the story. Some statements are a bit too portentous, as when when Joan sees an enemy general throw himself into a conflagration and muses, “Death by fire is a horrible thing.” The acting overall could not be bettered — Joan’s confrontations with the Dauphin and her persecutors are first-rate.

The one break from the pageantry is the Battle of Orléans, battles aren’t large of scale but they are well-shot and briskly edited, with impressive stuntwork and gory slayings. The excellent special effects are provided by Gone with the Wind veteran Jack Cosgrove, aided with opticals by Jack Pierce’s co-Universal dismissee John Fulton. The ‘inspirational’ effects are tastefully done: stately churches under clouds parted by heavenly rays of light. The famous montage director Slavko Vorkapich is listed as an associate director; he likely planned out the effects-laden transitional scenes, and perhaps storyboarded the battle. What’s lacking is the superior designs provided by William Cameron Menzies in the earlier Road Show pictures — the many Technicolor composite shots are beautifully executed, but they don’t add another dimension of drama. The show’s deliberate pace reminds us that there’s only one way the show will end, at the stake.

 

Ingrid Bergman is a fine in the role David O. Selznick wouldn’t let her play. She nullifies her advanced age through earnest acting. When she shouts out orders and oaths to her troops, her Swedish accent can be a bit thick, but there’s nothing really wrong with her performance. She’s convincing when inspired, and writhes in agony when she thinks the heavenly voices have abandoned her. Audiences may have been unmoved because Joan never gives them the Ingrid Bergman they liked, neither the sexy Ingrid nor the funny one. This martyr acts in deadly earnest from beginning to end, with little opportunity for Bergman to flash her winning smile.

The film does have a surplus of gigantic Technicolor close-ups of Bergman’s face, far more than in For Whom the Bell Tolls. They carry the entire load of representing Joan’s state of inspiration. The capper close-up shows the weakness in relying on the star in this way, as no matter how she suffers, Bergman always looks drop-dead gorgeous; even at the point of death, the camera retreats before her Technicolor countenance is affected by the flames. Falconetti’s haunted, beaten appearance is five times more expressive. The Bergman fans likely to be this film’s key audience will probably decide that Joan of Arc is perfect.

José Ferrer is excellent as the Dauphin, the film’s most interesting character. Before showing his colors as a complete rat, he appears sympathetic. It’s not his fault that he’s in a royal in a bind that requires that he double-cross somebody. Unfortunately for Joan, his salvation requires that she be sacrificed. Like Jesus Christ, she is transferred to the custody of several more villains that see her as an obstacle, or a source of ransom money. When captured, the great faith Joan inspired across France is seemingly forgotten.

The rest of the casting necessarily suffers from the faces of dozens of familiar American players. All act well but many bring strong associations that interfere with the story. People like Shepperd Strudwick as a helpful Priest, and Richard Derr (When Worlds Collide) as a knight aren’t so well known, but Gene Lockhart (Hangmen Also Die!), John Emery and Morris Ankrum (Kronos), Leif Erickson (Invaders from Mars), Henry Brandon (Vera Cruz) and William Conrad (The Killers) all stick out like sore thumbs. Less jarring are Cecil Kellaway, Roman Bohnen, George Coulouris, Hurd Hatfield and Alan Napier. It’s obvious that everybody wanted to be in this movie — Joan of Arc would make a fine actor-spotting quiz. J. Carrol Naish is never less than excellent. Ward Bond is very good as a doubting warrior who comes over to Joan’s side, but he’s just too familiar from John Ford westerns. When American studios started producing in England in the 1950s, costume dramas like this became the domain of English actors — Americans are more apt to accept them as period characters.

Six years later, for the last of her films with her second husband Roberto Rossellini, Ingrid Bergman returned to the role of Joan for the much different Giovanna d’Arco al rogo. It reportedly tells the story on a small scale, sometimes using symbolic visuals. The most moving picture that Bergman made in religious mode are not her two Leo McCarey ‘nun’ movies, but the Roberto Rossellini drama Europe ’51. Bergman plays a well-to-do Roman socialite who casts off her privileged life to devote herself to helping the less fortunate. Neither her friends nor her family nor society itself will tolerate her attempt to live out her moral ideals. The Italian movie is emotionally shattering.


The KL Studio Classics 70th Anniversary Blu-ray of Joan of Arc is a good encoding of the original long version of the film, that was considered lost until twenty years ago. UCLA performed the restoration, which may have come directly from a surviving print. This Blu-ray looks better than a DVD released in 2004. Some transitional scenes are a bit soft but the many close-ups of Ingrid Bergman are real dazzlers. The fans won’t be disappointed.

Hugo Friedhofer’s music score isn’t that memorable but its clarity does remind me of the compositions of Jerome Moross, who is credited with the orchestrations. Kino has no direct extras but does include a brace of trailers for costume pictures.

The old disc came with an informative essay, which stated that the actual premiere print was a little longer than this version — did it perhaps have an intermission? Ingrid Bergman wanted to film Maxwell Anderson’s multi-level original play-within-a-play, but was instead talked into this straight narrative rewritten by Andrew Solt. With Victor Fleming’s death not long after the premiere Bergman was apparently fed up with Hollywood and looking for a major change in her life and career. And she certainly got that with her move to Italy.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Joan of Arc
70th Anniversary Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent – minus
Sound: Very good
Supplements: trailers for other costume epics
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 29, 2018
(5685joan)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.