I can’t let this day go by without noting it is the date, May 30, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake 585 years ago after being tried on a variety of charges, including wearing men’s clothing.
The French national heroine, who believed she had been given a divine mission to free France from English domination, had led French armies to a series of victories at a critical point in the Hundred Years War before she was captured by England’s Burgundian allies. A church court led by a French bishop who was also sympathetic to the English treated her with mockery and contempt during the trial, including for the idea that God would favour one Christian country over another. Time and again the learned churchmen tried to trip up the uneducated, young woman, aged about 19 at the time, but she gave as good as she got, and sometimes better, leaving her tormentors at a loss for words.
Twenty-five years after her death another church court re-examined the trial and declared it a miscarriage of justice that never should have been allowed to continue. Joan was finally declared a Saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 1920.
I’ve always had an interest in history; and St. Joan certainly is one of the most interesting historical figures. But who tells the story can make all the difference. And no one has told Joan of Arc’s story better than the great Danish film director, Carl Theodor Dreyer.
I’m not as much of a movie buff as I used to be, so I suppose it’s possible I’ve missed a lot of good movies in recent years. But, otherwise, throughout my adult life I’ve had a top-ten list of favourite movies. Several that starred Marlon Brando when he was in his young prime as a great actor have been on the list, including Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront. The first movie version of John Steinbeck’s novel of the Great Depression, Of Mice and Men, remains high up on my list, with Lon Chaney Jr. giving the performance of his life beside the great Burgess Meredith. Anybody with Burgess in their name automatically gets an “in” with me. (Hello Stuart.)
I went through an Ingmar Bergman phase and saw everything the Swedish master wrote and directed. My favourite Bergman films are Wild Strawberries and The Virgin Spring. I’m a huge fan of the great Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, starting with Rashomon, the film that introduced him and classic Japanese cinema to the West in the 1950s.
I will forever remember TVO’s Saturday Night at the Movies and its long-time host Elwy Yost for a lot of films I might not otherwise have seen; but one stands out above all the rest, the beautiful Russian film, Ballad of a Soldier, directed by Grigori Chukhrai. It was made in 1959, after Stalin’s death when the new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, was loosening some of the tight controls Stalin kept on artistic expression. I first saw it one Saturday night in 1961 or thereabouts.
Some aspects of Ballad of a Soldier are overly sentimentalized, but so much else is cinematic greatness, from the sweeping, characteristically Russian musical score, to sublime photography, especially the scene of the heroine drinking from the broken water pipe at the railway station. Though the ruin of war is everywhere, at that moment you can believe she is at the well of the pure water of life as love blooms.
It is, in my humble opinion, one of the most memorable scenes in cinema.
But Ballad of a Soldier now has to share first place on my favourite movie list since I discovered The Passion of Joan of Arc about eight years ago, thanks to YouTube. Another Carl Dreyer film, Day of Wrath (1943), was also on my favourite movie list, and I went looking for anything else I could find by the same director.
What I found was a cinematic miracle, especially considering it was made in 1928, still in the silent film era, but just barely.
I’ve never seen a movie by any other director in the early years of the art form, or the more modern years, that picks up so magically on the little gestures that reveal so much about the various characters: a church inquisitor at Joan’s trial, blowing on his fingernails, and polishing them on his robe in an utterly self-centred display of vanity; another absent-mindedly twisting his hair; an executioner going about his work of tying Joan to the stake, drops his knife; she picks it up and hands it back to him.
It is not an easy movie to watch. It is graphic, and the actress who played the part of Joan, Renee Jeanne Falconetti, gives a heart-rending performance, considered one of the best in cinematic history. She never appeared in another movie.
The other miracle about this great movie is that it has survived at all. In fact, all true copies of the film as edited by Dreyer, including the master negative which was destroyed by fire, were thought to have been lost years ago. There was a huge blank space in cinematic film history.
But in 1981 a janitor rummaging through a cleaning closet in a mental hospital in Oslo, Norway, found several film canisters labelled “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” It was an almost complete, original copy of the film. It was fully restored in 1985 and is now regarded as one of the ten best films ever made – a truly great work of art.
By the way a couple of other movies on my top-ten list are the original version of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) directed by Lewis Milestone, and The Informer (1935), directed by John Ford, and finally, Paths of Glory (1957), an early Stanley Kubrick film.