My apologies to any of you that have been waiting on a review from The Legionnaire for a film you requested. You have our assurances that they will be seen and covered. However, when I saw how St. Joan of Arc was portrayed in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), it got me thinking about this famous French saint. In my review of that film, I briefly grappled with the oddity that is seeing her as essentially a 1980s teenager. Yet, why is she there in the first place? For whatever reason, the “Maid of Orléans” has occupied the attention of Western culture to some degree since she died almost 600 years ago. There have been a number of films done about her throughout the history of cinema. The one I will be focusing on today is The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999), which has all the bells and whistles you would expect from a big Hollywood film . . . and about as much substance.
As most stories about Joan of Arc (Milla Jovovich) do, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc starts with her early childhood (Jane Valentine). From the start, we see a pious little girl that goes to Confession every day (the only others I have heard of doing this are clergy) and being generally joyous. Then one day while gazing up into the sky, Joan received a Heavenly vision and a sword appears at her side. This is all a bit jumbled, and it features flashes of a Jesus-like figure, but the next concrete scene we have is Joan running back to her village. She arrives home just as it is being attacked by the English, and she has to witness her (fictitious) sister Catherine (Joanne Greenwood) being killed and then raped. These events haunt her, and they speak to a bigger problem in France at that time. France is a divided place in the early fourteenth century with a few factions claiming their right to place their king on the throne. The strongest claimant is that of the Dauphin, Charles VII (John Malkovich). It is to him that Joan travels when she is older, telling the would-be monarch that he is to be crowned the next ruler and she had been sent by God to effect this outcome. Initially he is skeptical, and tests her in several different (historically inaccurate) ways. When he is finally convinced, she is given a suit of armor, a banner, and allowed to ride to the main French army then besieging the important city of Orléans held by the English. It is here where Joan becomes maniacal, obsessed with driving the English away. To be fair, she gives them a chance to leave without a fight. Also, she does appear to be appalled by the bloodshed. When she is not screaming enraged support to the French soldiers, she acts in a motherly fashion towards the other noblemen in charge of the army. For example, she is quick to admonish the men when they swear, and she tells them to be careful as they climb siege ladders. Her efforts lead to victory, the English suing for peace, and Charles VII attaining the goal Joan had promised him. Success comes with a price, though. With Charles VII now on the throne, he no longer has any use for Joan. Thus she is not given the support she desires in order to continue her mission to drive the English out of France. Charles VII feels diplomatic negotiation is the preferred and cheaper route, and arranges to have Joan captured by the rival Burgundians, who then sell her to the English. In order to march into battle (and avoid being raped), Joan dressed in male clothing of the day, and for this act she was put on trial. Between hearings while in her cell, she is visited by another God-like figure (Dustin Hoffman) who questions whether her acts were for God or herself. At the same time, though the various clergy members gathered to examine are ostensibly pro-English, the ability and strength of Joan’s defense makes them doubt their purpose. They are actually on the verge of acquitting her when English soldiers go into her cell one night and force her to put on male clothing. Joan is seen once more as a heretic, and is about to be burned at the stake when she is offered one last chance to recant of her acts in exchange for fulfilling her desire to Confess her sins. She does so, but then immediately regrets it when she is visited once more by God. He tells her that she has betrayed everything for which she stood. Later, back behind bars, she is able to Confess directly to God, admitting that she had been prideful. In this act, she is ready to face her ultimate martyrdom.
Much of what you see in The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc is a bunch of made up crap. However, instead of shifting into historical nitpick mode (which would make this review ponderously long), I will paint with broader strokes. The most glaring problems with the film is how it shows St. Joan of Arc behaving in general. If you knew nothing else about the actual person you might conclude that she was a raving lunatic. Granted, she was a teenager and prone to flights of fancy, but the film takes it to the extreme. While history credits her with helping with some important victories, it also records that she was deferential to the actual commanders of the French army (and wore dresses when not in battle, by the way). Instead, director Luc Besson (who I normally enjoy) has her flying off the handle immediately when the army does not move as quickly as she desires, plunging recklessly alone into enemy lines at the start of battles, and being a jittery mess in between. I guess that is more dramatic? Look, just because you are shouting does not mean you are acting better, or being more interesting. I am also looking at you, Leonardo DiCaprio. I digress. It is hard to square this cinematic bundle of nerves with the “Maid of Orléans,” or figure out how she became as popular and influential a saint as she is today based on this film.
Having said how awful is the depiction of St. Joan of Arc in The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, there are a few aspects of it that are well handled. While it does call into question the veracity of her visions, never is there that scene where she completely abandons her mission. God seemingly tests her in a Job-like fashion towards the end, and that whole sequence is absurd. Yet it does say in other places how such occurrences are between yourself and God. God speaks to us all whether we acknowledge it or not. Most do not, unfortunately. And yes, God can take some unexpected people, even an illiterate French peasant girl, to effect human events. The Bible is full of such figures. The best moment comes when she is asked how she knows God is speaking to her. Is it a Heavenly event, trumpeted from the clouds? Does it come in the form of an angel? What she says is that it is her own voice. This is a tough concept for non-Christians and Christians alike. Prayer so often is just us talking to ourselves and we can begin wondering where God’s voice is at such times. Is that little whisper I say to myself me or the Divine? I do not know, but the historical St. Joan of Arc offers us a clue. When asked if she is in God’s Grace, she replies, “If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.” In other words, there is seldom a way to be sure of such things in this life. Absolutely, God can come down from Heaven and tell anyone definitively what to do. That has happened before, and seemingly happened to St. Joan of Arc. For the rest of us, such knowledge is ephemeral. But it is there to be found inside of us, and that is where is should reside. All outward actions should reflect the peace that comes from having God in our hearts.
Still, there are better movies you can watch than The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc in order to better understand how God speaks to us. The film is confusing and (I forgot to mention) quite violent. It is a bit on the long side too, and it particularly felt its length towards the end as you await the inevitable fiery conclusion. Nor does it explain how St. Joan of Arc became a modern, quasi-feminist symbol. Was it because she succeeded in a male dominated world? But then how does one measure success? In the end, it satisfies no viewer in what it attempts.