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SAINT JOAN(director: Otto Preminger; screenwriters: Graham Greene/from a play by George Bernard Shaw; cinematographer: Georges Périnal; editor: Helga Cranston; cast: Richard Widmark (The Dauphin, King Charles), Richard Todd (Dunois, Bastard of Orleans), Anton Walbrook (The Bishop of Beauvais), John Gielgud (Warwick ), Felix Aylmer (Inquisitor ), Jean Seberg (Saint Joan), Harry Andrews (John de Stogumber ), Archie Duncan (Robert de Baudricourt), Kenneth Haigh (Brother Martin); Runtime: 110; United Artists; 1957)
“Hollywood adaptations of plays rarely come off much worse than this B&W one did.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Hollywood adaptations of plays rarely come off much worse than this B&W one did. There is no kind way to put it otherwise, or to say if only it did this or that the film could have been saved, nor is there a reason to say if the acting was better the film could have been bearable. No. This was nearly a complete miss and the director, Otto Preminger (Advise and Consent/ Whirlpool /Laura), must bear full responsibility. He took the agnostic George Bernard Shaw’s intelligent story and had the very able Catholic novelist Graham Greene act as screenwriter, which should have guaranteed a good script. But, what results is a story that seems unintentionally comical.

The problem with the film starts with the casting of the two main actors. Whenever they were onscreen, the film was unbearable. The first-time actress who was chosen as a result of a national talent search for a newcomer to play Joan was won by the Iowa teen-ager, Jean Seberg, who doesn’t have whatever inner strength it takes to be Joan of Arc. At least, she doesn’t have it at this point of her career. Her shrill voice does not make for a naive peasant girl who hears the voice of God, nor does the closing of her eyes portend that she is a visionary. Richard Widmark plays the future King Charles VII, the Dauphin, as if he were Jerry Lewis in one of those stupid Lewis and Martin comedies of the 1950s. He appeared to be making spastic gestures, as if he was in the wrong film and didn’t understand that this one wasn’t meant to be a slapstick comedy.

The story had no emotional appeal or urgent power, and seemed like it was shot by a rank amateur who had no idea how to get coherence from a scene and real passion from his performers. In a story that was supposedly all about passion, this one had none. It was an exercise in arrogance on the part of the director, a thumbing his nose at anyone who doesn’t think that he is a great filmmaker and who criticized him for his publicity stunt in hiring the untested Jean Seberg. It is no surprise that there was no audience for this film, that the film critics roasted it, and that the ever-arrogant Preminger continued to sneer back at them in contempt. You cannot compare this film with Carl Dreyer’s passionate masterpiece “The Passion of Joan of Arc”(28) and get the same feeling for Joan’s courageous beliefs and stand.

The film opens as King Charles is in his pj’s tossing and turning in his castle bed, and the ghost of Joan appears to him; and, through the use of flashback her rise and fall is traced.

Leaving her small-town farm and family the illiterate Joan declares that God has chosen her for battle, that she is a soldier for God and he wants her to lead the French forces against the English. She knows what to do because she hears the voice of St. Catherine, St. Marguerite, and the angel Michael. She talks the captain of the army into getting her an audience with the Dauphin after she proves she is a saint by getting the hens in the small-town who stopped laying eggs, to lay them on her command. Inside the castle she handles a soldier who is harassing her, by saying God has told me you don’t have long to live. Well, naturally, the repugnant soldier drops dead on the spot as if he were struck by a bolt of lightening. That scene is one of my all-time favorites for incredulity. It’s worth seeing the film just for that. With Joan, all high-and-mighty on her steed, shouting out things like “I get my orders from God.” With lines like that, this film just seemed to be too much of a Hollywood brain-drainer to be taken seriously.

Some more minor miracles come about for Joan as she meets the future king for the first time (having to pick him out of a crowd of court favorites), where she urges him to act like a man and not be afraid of all those around him who treat him like a fool. The archbishop (Anton Walbrook) recognizes her usefulness and gives the church’s blessing confirming that she is actually a saint, and that she should be allowed to go to Orleans in 1428 and lead the soldiers in kicking the English out of France.

Another miracle occurs in Orleans, as the French troops won’t fight until the wind changes directions. But Joan proves once again that she can perform miracles with the aid of God, as the wind changes directions and the men cross the bridge and win the battle; and, all because they fervently followed her intrepid lead into battle.

But things start to change as the weak Charles is at last made king and the church is satisfied with their victory, not wanting to fight the English anymore. It is only Joan who wants to finish the fight with the English and kick them out of Paris. Her king would rather sign a truce and live with the spoils gotten from battle and not wage the continuation of an expensive and dangerous war. All the ones who mocked Charles previously are rewarded by his coronation and newly gained power, but the one who made him king receives nothing but humiliation. The two-faced archbishop tells Joan if she doesn’t stop disagreeing with the church he will have her ex-communicated as a witch, which means being burnt at the stake.

Well, if you’re in Joan’s shoes and you really believe you’re tuned into God, you have no choice but to continue to listen to those voices in your head.

Joan is arrested and tried at Rouen, and charged with 12 counts by the church for being a heretic. The most important charges being that she hears evil voices directed by the Devil and she dresses like a man. The church decides to try her in their court; the English have 800 soldiers in town and await the church’s decision under the command of the Earl of Warwick (John Gielgud), who presses for her death sentence.

What was a great actor like John Gielgud doing here and, to the bargain, why was he wasted in such a small role? Maybe, if he could have played both Joan and King Charles, the film would have been saved!

The filmmaker tried hard to make something of the trial and of the intrigue and irony that went on at the court, that was certainly shown in Shaw’s striking work to be a mockery of a trial. The church court got the girl to retract her former statements but convicted her anyway, giving her a life sentence. But she changed her mind again and chose death rather than live with such despicable people as her accusers. The film never made it seem like she was anything but a quack, committing herself to a self-imposed death.

Preminger takes a cue from one of the lines in the film, when Joan says: “I always know I’m right- because I hear the voices.” He must have felt that same awesome egomaniacal power when he put this bow-wow together.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”