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Ingrid Bergman's Joan of Arc

Guest Author - Peggy Maddox

About 30 years after DeMille's wartime Joan the Woman, Victor Fleming made another Joan of Arc film. This time the message had to do with the proper role of women at the end of a war.

Before WWII women were urged to contribute to the war effort by filling the places of the men in offices and in factories. In 1948, however, the returning vets wanted their jobs back so women needed to be urged to return to the home. Fleming's Joan is therefore depicted as a gentle and unwilling participant in the work of war. All that prevents her from returning to the domestic sphere is the cruel, but inevitable operation of political and economic forces.

The Fleming film is my favorite in many ways. It is truer to the historical facts than the others I'll be discussing. The cinematography is exquisite, as are the costumes and the panoramic scenes. But Fleming, like DeMille, insists that Joan is less of a warrior and more of a woman out of her proper place.

Having firmly established Joan as a mere military mascot, Fleming emphasizes her gender as much as possible. La Hire calls her "girl" and "wench." Various characters take turns calling her "a green country girl."

She behaves in a motherly fashion to both the Dauphin and La Hire, talking to them in tones that one would ordinarily use with children. In the farewell scene with her captains after Charles has disbanded the army, Joan chidingly interrogates La Hire: "Did you say your prayers this morning?"

In their conversations at Chinon, Joan reassures the Dauphin in his bouts of uncertainty and arrogance as if he were a child in need of motherly encouragement. Other feminine traits--modesty, piety, deference, pity--are emphasized. Upon first meeting with the generals, she assures them that she will not meddle in military matters: "I shall not try to give any commands! I wouldn't know what commands to give."

She forbids her soldiers to gamble or to swear and instructs them to send away their women. She weeps over the aftermath of her battles. She prays and invokes the will of God at every opportunity. In the scene at St-Ouen she is shown overcome with fatigue, unable to stand without the help of two sympathetic priests. She is ignorant of the word "abjure" and seems to be signing the document because of the insistence of women and children in the crowd. She does say that she would "rather abjure than burn."

In her cell she tells her Voices that she denied them, that she has damned her soul to save her life, but the viewer retains the impression that her abjuration was more the result of ignorance and physical frailty than of an unworthy (for a woman) desire to escape her ordained punishment. Charmingly obedient to the end, she even assists the hangman. When a chain slips from her shoulder as she is being fastened to the stake, she retrieves it and holds it in place until the executioner is ready for it.

Joan of Arc as played by Ingrid Bergman is unforgettably lovely, gentle, good, and noble, but her chief characteristic is submissiveness to men. Instead of ending the film by sending viewers away with an image of Joan of Arc as a successful military leader who changed the course of the Hundred Years' War, the Voice-Over sends us away with the assurance that Joan's "bodily death... was her last and greatest victory."

What this film tells us, as does all Western literature before it, is that what finally matters about a woman is not her life at all, but her death.

These two Joan of Arc films, DeMille's and Fleming's, one made on the eve of the United States' entry into World War I and one immediately post-World War II, resemble one another in that both are war-related propaganda. Both insist that women are out of place in the male sphere of war, that no matter how admirable or useful their efforts may be in times of emergency, their presence upsets the natural order and they need to get back to the domestic sphere as quickly as possible or suffer unpleasant consequences.

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Content copyright © 2015 by Peggy Maddox. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Peggy Maddox. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Angela K. Peterson for details.


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