"Englishman, there is room in each heart but for one love - mine is for France!" ... what spiritually profound words by Joan the Woman, one of the most controversial figures in history: a simple peasant girl for her relatives, Joan the Milkmaid for the British conquerors, Joan the Leader for French army, and Joan the Witch for some clergy. Finally, Joan the Saint!
Having watched some silent movies of the 1920s, my interest in these films rose considerably. Not only me but a lot of other today's viewers find the power of non verbal acting pretty appealing and that occurs to be an absolutely justifiable opinion. The power of expression reached the climax in silent era feature films. And what comes to mind are the great productions like BEN HUR (1925), KING OF KINGS (1927), THE BIG PARADE (1925) and THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE (1921). After seeing these films, I directed my interest towards movies of the 1910s and the first epic movie by a top notch name, Cecil Blount DeMille. In 1917, just after two greatest movies by D.W. Griffith BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) and INTOLERANCE (1916), he brought to screen the story of the saint in JOAN THE WOMAN. And how I found JOAN THE WOMAN? Very worth seeing.
The content of the film can be divided into three subsequent parts: two parts (or epochs as referred to in the movie) include the story of Joan of Arc showed chronologically from her youth in Domremy till the Battle of the Towers, so to speak when the simple maid turns into the national hero; and her later story where the victorious savior turns into the falling martyr. The third part consists of 1917 propaganda: the short story set in 1916, during WWI somewhere in France where the soldier finds the sword of Joan and fulfills the duty to expiate a sin... The last aspect seems perhaps least appealing nowadays but means much historically for the sake of 1917 viewers who watched the movie and felt the link between the presence and the past (consider the absolutely different role of cinema at that time).
There are many visually stunning scenes which never stop astonishing viewers, not only silent buffs. When I saw JOAN THE WOMAN for the first time, I could not believe the fact the film was shot in 1917, purely at the dawn of feature films. As early as this, we can feel Cecil B DeMille's splendor and showmanship: hundreds of extras in battles, lavish costumes at royal court, very clear introduction of events, strict contrast between good and wickedness, overly preachy treatment of characters and pretty predictable action (which cannot be avoided in the story like this). Three moments remained in my memory as exceptionally powerful: the first one being Joan's visit at Chinon and her miraculous recognition of Charles, the second one the battle for Orleans and the third one the final sequence and Joan's martyrdom. The square at Rouen where Joan was burned is the most accurate in this movie: exactly that is what the place was like. Other scenes are also worth considering including the whole second epoch and the infamous trial for witchcraft, called Travesty of Justice, led by satanically envious bishop Cauchon (Theodore Roberts).
As for performances, this factor lies on the shoulders of three cast: Wallace Reid as proud, noble, shabby Eric Trent who gets through a change of love towards Joan from desire to respect but does not dare step into her mission (later it is him as the WWI soldier); Theodore Roberts as the wicked bishop Cauchon whose only way of act is conspiracy ruled by prejudice, fear for power, superstition and jealousy (his worth moments include the plan to poison Charles and the whole trial of Joan); and Geraldine Farrar as Joan of Arc. Although she is definitely too old and in no way looks to be the Maid of Orleans, she makes for this thanks to her brilliant acting that has not faded till now. She plays the saintly woman and a brave warrior alike.
The restored version of JOAN THE WOMAN on DVD has the additional music in which we mostly hear the organs. Although it may seem monotonous at some points, such score supplies the movie with additional entertainment. For me, the best musical and visual moment was the Long Night and the terrible contrast of tunes and visuals between Joan in prison and king Charles at the lustful party in his court. Some people criticize the film for being too long. Yet, I believe that the action is dynamic and though the events are predictable, the curiosity as to how the director wants to show them keeps viewer's attention.
JOAN THE WOMAN is a silent movie very worth seeking out. It's not a masterpiece but a brilliant glimpse at early feature film and early Cecil B DeMille. In spite of later productions about the saint, the best of which many people consider psychological masterpiece THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC with Maria Falconetti, Cecil B DeMille's 1917 movie is still one of the three best ones, for sure. It has dynamic action, it has stunning visuals, it has marvelous performances and a vivid interpretation. 7/10
Yes, her love was for France; yet her price was martyrdom. But the Cross she looked at helped her make good use of sacrificial suffering and become a terrifying warning against any of human judgments. Aren't they all so subjective?