Joan of Arc (1948)

American epic historical drama film directed by Victor Fleming, and starring Ingrid Bergman

Article by Felicia Feaster. Turner Classic Movies.

Many actresses have played Joan of Arc in film treatments of the French martyr. But Ingrid Bergman delivers an especially memorable performance in the 1948 film about the 15th century teenager who led the French military in defiance of their British occupiers. Her crystalline eyes welling up with tears, or exhausted to the point of hopelessness, Bergman makes an indelible impression (and received an Academy Award nomination) for her role in Victor Fleming’s Joan of Arc(1948) as the maid of Orleans.

Guided by the voices that have spoken to her since she was thirteen, Jeanne travels from her home in Lorraine, at their instruction. The voices have commanded her to lead the French Dauphin Charles VII (Jose Ferrer)–and prophesied future king of France–in battle against the British, first in Orleans but then in successive victories that rally the French people around Jeanne during the Hundred Years War.

But Jeanne’s growing stature–a threat to the monarchy–and the king’s greed lead Charles to trade French autonomy for money. He makes a deal with the British, who then capture Jeanne, imprisoning her and subjecting her to a farcical trial whose only goal, despite the semblance of fairness, is to burn Jeanne at the stake as a heretic. The trial is led by the corrupt, politically motivated Pierre Cauchon (Francis L. Sullivan) who harangues and tortures Jeanne until she is nearly broken. But even her British persecutors cannot stop Jeanne from achieving sainthood with her immortality assured when she is burned at the stake.

Director Victor Fleming (The Wizard of OzGone with the Wind, both 1939) was well versed in film spectacles, and did an especially impressive job in the epic battle sequences that give his Joan of Arc its rousing properties. According to film scholar Robin Blaetz in Visions of the Maid, the film’s financier, RKO Pictures, insisted upon “spears and swords and flames and blood and horses and banners and roughhouse and armor,” which Fleming delivered in spades. The famous burning at the stake took place on the RKO medieval set for the 1939 The Hunchback of Notre Dame, according to Michael Sragow’s Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master. It was Fleming’s last picture and also independent producer Walter Wanger’s attempt at age fifty-two to make “the crowning glory of his career” according to author Matthew Bernstein. It was a film Wanger conceived of as “a spiritual blockbuster,” created under the auspices of Sierra Pictures by Wanger, Bergman, Fleming and Bergman’s husband Petter Lindstrom.

Ingrid Bergman said that one of her life goals was to play Joan of Arc and in keeping with that ambition, she delivers a remarkably poignant, emotionally overflowing Joan in Fleming’s production. Bergman had worked with Fleming before on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941). When he contacted Bergman about playing Joan, Fleming was 62, with a drinking problem and a heart condition to boot, an already complicated situation further stoked by the prolonged affair the distinguished director and his lead actress engaged in during the making of Joan of Arc. Fleming was as infatuated with Bergman the star as with Bergman the woman. “Ingrid’s like a Notre Dame quarterback” he cooed. “An onlooker can’t take his eyes off her!” (from Notorious, Donald Spoto’s biography of Bergman).

Bergman later expressed thanks that her Joan would finally reach the screen. “All my life I dreamed of playing her” she told Look magazine. “She became the character I liked to play most. She, too, was a timid child, but with great dignity and courage,” Spoto recounts. At the time she came on board for Joan of Arc, Bergman was at the peak of her popularity, appearing in Spellbound (1945), Saratoga Trunk (1945), The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) and Notorious (1946). She was, along with her The Bells of St. Mary’s co-star Bing Crosby, the top box office attraction of 1946. The role was memorable for Bergman on many levels. Whenever she would return to France custom officials would inevitably greet her with “Ah, Jeanne d’Arc–welcome home.”

The Joan of Arc story was first conceived as a vehicle for Jennifer Jones by producer David O. Selznick and at one point George Cukor and Katharine Hepburn were bandied about as a possible director and star. “Despite Anderson’s objections that it would make the film seem like a schoolbook assignment (exactly what it turned out to be), Sierra officially bought the title Joan of Arc from Selznick for $25,000.” (from Victor Fleming by Michael Sragow).

Based on Maxwell Anderson’s hit play which opened on Broadway in 1946 starring Ingrid Bergman (who won a Best Actress Tony for her performance), the screenplay for Joan of Arc was a distinct challenge for Anderson. There were script troubles galore, from debate about whether or not to include Joan’s voices in the script, to the increasing role Bergman intended to play in shaping the script. Worried about the translation of Anderson’s vision from stage to screen, Fleming and Wanger brought screenwriter Andrew Solt onto the project. Solt had just realized enormous success for his work on the Mervyn LeRoy comedy Without Reservations (1946). Additional precautions were taken by the film’s producers in handling the delicate religious material, especially its scathing depiction of the Catholic power structure of the time. Fearful of what the Legion of Decency and the Production Code officials would have to say about the film’s pillorying of Joan’s religious inquisitors, Fleming and Wanger employed a French Jesuit scholar Father Doncoeur to serve as consultant on the film.

Unfortunately for Wanger, Bergman and Fleming, Joan of Arc was not a great success; it was deemed too long and too expensive to recoup the staggering investment in post-war America’s shaky economy, of $4.5 million dollars. Though the film was a box-office bomb, it yielded advantages for some involved in the production. The movie was a boon to Jose Ferrer as the memorably weaselly Dauphin, who found his role helped advance his career as an actor and director. “I chose him,” said Fleming, “not only because he approximates a physical resemblance to the character, but because I knew he would attack the part with more enthusiasm than some actor who wished to return home to the swimming pool,” biographer Sragow recounts. And the striking tunics and leggings designed for Joan of Arc by Barbara Karinska resulted in the first-ever Academy Award winner for costume design. The film also secured cinematographer Winton Hoch’s reputation, gaining him a Best Cinematography Oscar® alongside the top-ranking Joseph Valentine. Hoch went on to a partnership with John Ford and a second Oscar® for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). In total, Joan of Arc was nominated for seven Academy Awards, though it won just those two.

Fleming died four months after the release of Joan of Arc, in January 1949 of heart failure which some attributed to an after effect of traumatic dental surgery. The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote of Bergman “while handsome to look on, has no great spiritual quality. Her strength seems to lie in her physique rather than her burning faith.” And The Los Angeles Daily News jeered “Joan of Arc sprawls awkwardly, in episodic lumps.”

Producer: Walter Wanger
Director: Victor Fleming
Screenplay: Maxwell Anderson (screenplay and play); Andrew Solt (screenplay)
Cinematography: Winton Hoch, W. V. Skall (Technicolor photographer); Joseph Valentine (director of photography)
Art Direction: Richard Day
Music: Hugo Friedhofer
Film Editing: Frank Sullivan

Cast: Ingrid Bergman (Joan of Arc), Francis L. Sullivan (Pierre Cauchon, Count-Bishop of Beauvais), J. Carrol Naish (John, Count of Luxembourg, Joan’s captor), Ward Bond (La Hire), Shepperd Strudwick (Father Massieu, Joan’s bailiff), Gene Lockhart (Georges de la Trémouille), John Emery (Jean – Duke d’Alencon), Leif Erickson (Dunois, Bastard of Orleans), Cecil Kellaway (Jean le Maistre, Inquisitor of Rouen), José Ferrer (The Dauphin, Charles VII, later King of France).


Article by Felicia Feaster. Turner Classic Movies.