In 1456, French King Charles VII recalls the story of how he met the seventeen-year-old peasant girl Joan of Arc, entrusted her with the command of the French Army, and ultimately burned her at the stake as a heretic.
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Young Joan of Arc comes to the palace in France to make The Dauphin King of France and is appointed to head the French Army. After winning many battles she is not needed any longer and soon she is thought of as a witch.Written by
Preminger's adaptation of G. B. Shaw's ''Saint Joan''(screenplay by Graham Greene) received one of the worst critical reactions in it's day. It was vilified by the pseudo-elite, the purists and the audiences was unresponsive to a film that lacked the piety and glamour expected of a historical pageant. As in ''Peeping Tom'', the reaction was malicious and unjustified. Preminger's adaptation of Shaw's intellectual exploration of the effects and actions surrounding Joan of Arc(her actual name in her own language is Jeanne d'Arc but this film is in English) is totally faithful to the spirit of the original play, not only on the literal emotional level but formally too. His film is a Brechtian examination of the functioning of institutions, the division within and without of various factions all wanting to seize power. As such we are not allowed to identify on an emotional level with any of the characters, including Joan herself.
As played by Jean Seberg(whose subsequent life offers a eerie parallel to her role here), she is presented as an innocent, a figure of purity whose very actions and presence reveals the corruption and emptiness in everyone. As such Seberg plays her as both Saint and Madwoman. Her own lack of experience as an actress when she made this film(which does show up in spots) conveys the freshness and youth of Jeanne revealing both the fact that Jeanne la Pucelle is a humble illiterate peasant girl who strode out to protect her village and her natural intelligence. By no means did she deserve the harsh criticism that she got on the film's first release, it's a performance far beyond the ken and call of any first-time actress with no prior acting experience. Shaw and Preminger took a secular view towards Joan seeing her as a medieval era feminist, not content with being a rustic daughter who's fate is to be married away or a whore picked up by soldiers to and away from battlefields. Her faith, her voices, her visions which she intermingles with words such as "imagination" and "common sense" leads her to wear the armour of her fellow soldiers to lead them to battle to chase the invading Englishman out of France.
And yet it can be said that the film is more interested in the court of the Dauphin(Richard Widmark), the office of the clergy who try Joan led by Pierre Cauchon(Anton Walbrook, impeccably cast) and the actions of the Earl of Warwick(John Gielgud) then in Joan herself. The superb ensemble cast(all male) portray figures of scheming, Machievellian(although the story precedes Niccolo) opportunists who treat religion as a childish toy to be used and manipulated for their own ends. The sharp sardonic dialogue gives the actors great fun to let loose. John Gielgud as the eminently rational Earl whose intelligence,(albeit accompanied by corruption), allows him to calculate the precise manner in which he can ensure Joan gets burnt at the stake and Anton Walbrook's Pierre Cauchon brings a three dimensional portrait to this intelligent theologian who will give Joan the fair trial that will certainly find her guilty. Richard Widmark as the Dauphin is a real revelation. As against-type a casting choice you'll ever find, Widmark portrays the weak future ruler of France in a frenzied, comic caricature that's as close as this film comes to comic relief. A comic performance that feels like an imitation of Jerry Lewis far more than an impetuous future ruler of France.
Preminger shot ''Saint Joan'' in black and white, the cinematographer is Georges Perinal who worked with Rene Clair and who did ''The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp'' in colour. It's perfectly restrained to emphasize the rational intellectual atmosphere for this film. Preminger's preference for tracking shots of long uninterrupted takes is key to the effectiveness of the film, there's no sense of a wasted movement anywhere in his mise-en-scene.
It also marks the direction of Preminger's most mature(and most neglected period) his focus is on the conflict between individuals and the institutions in which they work, how the institution function and how the individual acts as per his principles. These themes get their most direct treatment in his film and as always he keeps things unpredictable and finds no black and white answers. This is one of his very best and most effective films.
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