Dumbed Down Dame
Is poetic license a license to kill?
“Anything must be true before it can significantly claim other merits. Without truth, all else is worthless.”
– E. Gellner, Postmodernism & Reason
The French ecclesiastics delegated by the occupying English powers to the thankless chore of determining whether Joan of Arc was an impostor or a heretic guided by Satan have much in common with the new priesthood of popular culture. Luc Besson attempts to prove what even the best prosecuting clerics of her day could not: that Joan was a demented, misled, hysterical, confused and guilt-ridden phony. In those days the power structure was the Church, nowadays the multi-national corporations Gaumont and Sony. Neither the hooded inquisitors of Rouen nor the T- shirt deconstructionists of Paris can quite pull it off.
In the trial transcripts of 1429, under a months long grueling cross-examination, Joan herself identifies and describes encounters with the saints Catherine and Margaret. Why are these filmmakers not interested in taking Joan at her own words nor in the testimony of anyone else who knew her as recorded in voluminous first-hand accounts in the trial of rehabilitation conducted just twenty years after her execution? And why is no allusion made to the significance of these particular women saints to the French and English societies of this era? Could an impressionable young girl make a connection, forge an identification with these female role models from antiquity who renounced marriage for spiritual calling and salvation? And why no mention of Saint Michael, the male saint who she claims to have seen and heard? Did it matter to Joan, as well as to her contemporaries, that Saint Michael was the protector of the French people? That her countrymen were resisting a year long English siege at the shrine of Saint Michael himself at Mt. St. Michel? The difference between the story of a young girl who claims to have been visited by specific saints and one who is transfixed by thrashing winds, rushing clouds and a wolf pack on the hunt is the difference between the real life Joan of Arc and the fictitious marionette of this film.
The film begins with the child Joan witnessing the brutal murder and rape of her sister Catherine by marauding English soldiers. There is no evidence in the historical record that this ever happened and, in any case, it was not English soldiers who ransacked Domremy, but Burgundians from the other side of the river Meuse. Aside from the now antiquated notion that an artist should strive for the truth, why does this matter? It matters because, with the subtlety of a pole-axe, the filmmakers are desperate to provide the young Joan with “motivation.” Revenge, the all-purpose motivator of nineties movies! This graphically filmed scene (qualifying the film for an R rating, thereby keeping young people away from a story about a young person) is followed by a scene with a priest in which she rails at God for permitting these atrocities. There were many horrors that took place in the Hundred years War, and much to rage at both God and man, but this made-up incident wasn’t one of them.
When a film is founded on a lie, and a perverse one at that, nothing that follows can be trusted. In the case of “The Messenger,” a true story of love and sacrifice, of dedication and faith, is cinematically morphed to a false one of hatred, bitterness, fury and revenge. If there was any truth to this outrageous concoction, which there isn’t, this incredible revelation might have been noted by one of the following: playwrights Shaw, Schiller, Anouilh, Peguy, Brecht; historians Duby, Pernoud, Michelet, Warner, Fabre, Quichertat, Contamine, Luce; novelists Anatole France, Claudel, Delteil, Dumas, Malraux, Twain, Tournier, Vioux, Keneally; or filmmakers Dryer, Ucicky, Gastyne, DeMille, Fleming, Preminger, Robert Bresson, Enrico, Panfilov and Rivette. Calling attention to one’s own outrageousness as a filmmaker has always provided a fashionable haven for those who cannot or will not do the hard and patient work that leads to real insight, true understanding, gripping storytelling and work of lasting value.
This Joan, psychically removed from the medieval universe in which she lived, is not only strangely ignorant of the saints, she never utters the names of the Virgin Mary or Jesus. In reality she instructed that these names be sewn into her banner, regularly prayed, exhorted others to pray and regarded her own virginity as crucial to her mission. This question of her virginity, so significant to her contemporaries, is barely alluded to in this film. In the fifteenth century, all believers knew that Satan could not enter into the body of a virgin. That may seem a quaint notion to us now, half a millenium later, but it made all the difference to those who considered giving Joan their support and to those who would later seek to condemn her. Why this attempt to dilute Joan’s actual and specific faith into some generalized cosmic pablum?
The sets and costumes indicate a film set in the early fifteenth century, but nothing in the character and belief system of this portrayal takes the slightest step out of the pop culture of the late twentieth century. If the intention is allegory, why set it in its own physical context? Is this honest? Bertold Brecht, in “Saint Joan of the Stockyards,” transposes the scene to 1930′s Germany, where she becomes a “creditable visionary and worthy antagonist for powerful and nasty men.” In the Russian feature film, “The Screentest,” (1970), Gleb Panfilov sets Joan’s story in Moscow, wrapped within a film crew making a movie about Joan of Arc. Both are examples of poetic license and both stand as convincing portrayals of the character of the actual woman. Literalism is not the issue, fidelity is.
If “The Messenger” is an attempt at fabricating a feminist Joan, one who carries the torch of womankind into a man’s world, the filmmakers would have done well to avail themselves of Christine de Pizan’s epic poem on Joan, the only poem written by a contemporary. It is a paean to womankind, an ode to Joan as liberator and woman of faith in the tradition of Judith and the selfless saints of antiquity whom Joan herself adored. If Joan was indeed the boorish, screaming, hysterical, frenzied, petulant, angry and weepy female as portrayed in this film, the salutary proto-feminist poet would not have written about her, nor would anyone of either sex have followed her out of her pasture, let alone into a campaign to liberate France.
The film does try to portray Joan as a warrior, which is in welcome contrast to the sometimes limited view of Joan as simply a pious victim. As expected, there are hacked off limbs, decapitations with blood gushing forth, maulings and maimings, and spilled entrails – plenty of superficial movie mucous. But there is none of the dark beauty of equally violent films such as Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” or “Sanjuro,” with their existential undertones and potent sense of character imbedded and connected to a specific time in a specific place. Ms. Jovovich’s Joan is a thoroughly modern Milla who struts and poses across the battlefield as if she’s having a temper tantrum in the middle of a photo layout for Vogue. She is surrounded by a motley crew of armored buffoons and clowns who have as much to do with Dunois, Lahire and Giles de Rais as La Cirque du Soleil. Real jeopardy is replaced by theatrical bravado and cliched camaraderie, the kind of movie where every other stunt is supposed to be a joke. So much so, that Joan’s wounding at Les Tourelles arouses neither sympathy nor apprehension. It is emotionally empty. When it comes to scenes of battle, this film has neither the character based grittiness of Kenneth Branagh’s nor the sheer visual splendor of Laurence Olivier’s “Henry V” films, both set in precisely the same epoch.
In our modern world, persons who claim to hear voices are sometimes thought to be delusional or schizophrenic. At the very least, the sound of bells ringing in one’s ears can be diagnosed as tinnitus. In Julian Jayne’s fascinating treatise, “The Origin of Consciousness . . . ” he suggests the relationship of the brain’s left and right lobes as separate entities in a life-long dialogue. Such an exploration might have made for an interesting and worthwhile film, but this film tosses out the possibility of a delusional Joan like a sensational expose in some glossy gossip weekly instead of as a valid idea to be seriously explored as was the case with films that at least tangentially deal with these themes such as “Breaking the Waves,” “The Anchorite,” or “Therese.”
Near the end of the film Dustin Hoffman appears as one of her voices, ostensibly her conscience, his mission being to debunk the mythology of Joan’s belief system. There follows a laborious sequence where the miraculous appearance of Joan’s sword in her youth is recalled and then explained by circumstantial evidence. The beautiful photography, insisting score and weighty authority of Mr. Hoffman’s performance cannot hide the fact that Mr. Besson is setting up an historical straw man just so he can tear it down. In keeping with all the other historical infidelities of this film, there was no sword in the field, and the real Joan never claimed that her sword fell down to her from heaven.
The point, however, is not that this or that miracle occurred or didn’t occur. The “miracle” is Joan herself. How did a seventeen-year-old girl, a peasant from the fringes of the kingdom, manage to enlist the trust and support of a nation and play a pivotal role in expelling a foreign invader? Not only does this film fail to pose this central question, it seeks to remove the authenticity of Joan’s faith and the faith of her countrymen as at least a factor in these complex events.
This cinematic hocus-pocus is revealing of a more profound absence in this film, the inability to comprehend and to express the miraculous while simultaneously adding to the clutter and confusion which has over the centuries accumulated to the Joan story like barnacles.
A film that separates fact from fiction would be welcome. What is the point of a film that further obfuscates, that makes the already murky waters an impenetrable tar? Beyond the mythology and folklore lived a real person in real times who said and did real things. The known facts, or even the events as conjectured by the best historians, are infinitely more interesting and dramatic and fantastic than any of the lame inventions of this film. When you haven’t taken the trouble to learn about the real civil war in France between Armagnacs and Burgundians, about the actual intrigues inside the Valois court, about the centrality of faith to fifteenth century peoples, about the schism in the Catholic Church, about mystics and witchcraft and the nascent Inquisition, about pilgrimages and crusades, about symbols and chivalry and the circumscribed role of women in medieval societies – all forces that swirled around Joan, informed her world view and shaped her destiny – then you’re left with nothing but to make it all up. The result is “The Messenger,” which only pretends to portray Joan of Arc, informed as it is by nothing more than hand-me down folklore, pop psychology and the current maxim to make it “relevant” and “accessible” to a modern audience, to squeeze Joan’s immense cosmology into the narrow confines of fashionable skepticism and the cinema of “cool.”
Ignorant of cinema or literary tradition, bereft of the insights of generations of historians, vacant of the least comprehension of faith and not the least bit curious about what might actually have motivated Joan, the film derives its conceptual take from nothing more than its own claustrophobic surroundings and attitudes. But even in its choice to pose as modern, it fails to connect Joan with anything in the present to which she might legitimately be connected, for example Mother Teresa’s work with the poor, Dorothy Day’s political activism, Anne Frank’s compassion or Rosa Park’s stoic courage. Or, perhaps to the slick denizens of the super cynical these women were phonies as well.
Might this film be Vanity Fair or, to put it in its proper historical context, a bonfire of the vanities? The term originated in feudal times, when the populace were exhorted to dispense with the trinkets and trivialities of their earthy excesses, hurling dice, ornaments, fancy clothes and playing cards into the flames in an orgy of self-purification. Perhaps this film teaches us what should be relegated to the flames: the vanities of arrogance (thinking a film on Joan can be made with no regard to the research and the record), of self-adulation (believing that cleverness can substitute for a genuine search for the truth), and of vanity itself (the obvious way in which the role was cast and the reason for which the movie itself was made.)
Notwithstanding other qualifications and talents, can a filmmaker attempt a film on Joan of Arc without a sense of humility and a willingness to listen; perhaps not to the Saints who visited Joan, but at least to the hundreds of real life people who knew her and whose testimony has been recorded for posterity, to the hundreds of scholars who have studied her over the centuries and to the artists who have written poems and plays and novels and made movies about her? Would there be something innately authentic in availing one’s self of this kind of knowledge, in submitting one’s self to this kind of discipline, in modestly accepting one’s valid place in the collective effort of generations seeking illumination and truth? In such organic context could a filmmaker make a lasting contribution to our understanding and our continuing fascination with this remarkable woman?
Regrettably, “The Messenger” stands off by itself, disconnected from any authentic witness or tradition or community, whether religious, artistic, cinematic, historic or psychological. It is the ultimate ego trip, the polar opposite of the historical Joan, who surrendered her ego to what she herself saw as a higher calling. She came to be a liberator at the head of armies because she earned their trust, because she was self-less, she was viscerally connected with her people, she was authentic, she was faithful and she was loving — immensely loving. That is partly an understanding of her power — the power to rally soldiers, inspire the common people, win over princes and prelates, and the power to endure in our hearts over the centuries. All else is mystery. The inability to distinguish between what is historical and what is mysterious, compounded by the inadequacy in rigorously pursuing either choice, is the failure of this motion picture.
In 1899 Georges Melies produced the very first film on Joan of Arc. There is more truth in any single frame of that silent, awkward beginning than in this entire inflated state of the art mega-mess. It’s not Joan who should be judged as a fraud. It’s this silly, heartless, mean-spirited, small-minded and phony film.
-Ronald F. Maxwell
November 12, 1999
“Ride With The Devil”
By the time of the firing on Fort Sumter in 1861, which marks the beginning of the American Civil War, a gruesome prologue was already long underway in Missouri and Kansas. May 24, 1856 was the night that John Brown’s self named Army of the Lord hacked, shot and stabbed a grisly human swath along Pottawatomie Creek. What followed in this territory west of the Mississippi and continued nearly unabated until even after the collapse of the Confederacy in 1865 were events and atrocities most un-informed Americans would more readily associate with Kosovo than with the good ol’ USA. It is in this uncertain and dangerous world that Ride With the Devil is set. The film takes an unflinching look at the brutality from both sides and refreshingly refrains from sweeping moral judgements. Free of pandering to cliched expectations and the constraints of a politically correct point of view (such as, the confederates defended the institution of slavery therefore any atrocity committed by Yankees is justifiable and even heroism on the part of rebels is despicable) the film can explore deeper, more complex themes.
Ride With the Devil explores a tragic subject without being a tragedy. We follow a small group of Sesech partisans across seasons and battles, witnessing through their eyes the unpredictable violence, the vulnerability of civilians, the total war of guerrilla armies. But at its heart, amid all this mayhem and death, friendship, loyalty and generosity survive – even a sense of humor. And, without giving away the ending, there is metamorphosis and resurrection.
This is classic filmmaking with a sure and steady hand. No razzle-dazzle here, no self-conscious use of the camera, no tricks. It’s that rare Hollwood event, a story of substance told with genuine artistry. The first thing the filmmakers got right was the jargon. These characters talk like they couldn’t be from anywhere else but mid-19th century America. Nearly all Hollywood historical films get the sets and costumes right, and this film is no exception, but rarely do they capture the moral universe, the defining idiosyncracies of peoples who lived in their own particular times. Human life is universal, but it is always expressed in individual ways. Ride With the Devil captures the authenticity of the character in time and place, and therefore tells a story we are willing to believe.
Considering what gets “green-lighted” these days, its nothing short of a miracle that this film got made, and made with an outstanding cast of new-comers at that. The Sesech partisans are Tobey McGuire as Jake Roedel, Skeet Ulrich as Jack Bull Chiles, Simon Baker as George Clyde and Jeffrey Wright as Daniel Holt. Holt is Clyde’s former slave, fighting with his former master, which will startle audiences most of whom were never told that some blacks fought for the Confederacy. Those who may want to delve further into this subject will want to read “Black Confederates and Afro-Yankees in Civil War Virginia, ” by Afro-American University of Virginia scholar Ervin L. Jordan, Jr. Sometimes the movies really do reflect the mystery and contradictions of human existence. Sometimes friendship and personal loyalty trumps ideology and politics. Sometimes it doesn’t. Ride With the Devil is not only first class entertainment. It’s a liberating experience.
-Ronald F. Maxwell