Monday, October 25, 2004

La Pucelle

I saw a most peculiar movie the weekend before this one just past - The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. I first caught a glimpse of it on the TV but, pressed by other matters, saw only the beginning. It seemed well-acted, professionally filmed, artfully directed (by Luc Besson) and opened with a scene depicting the child Joan's love of confession and her engaging, almost touching, dialogue with the priest. But then things took a bizarre turn. We are introduced to her supernatural visitations. The representations are visual, dizzily so, eerie and spooky. There is nothing beautiful, peaceful, or even fearful about these visions. They are simply strange. They seem more as what we might expect from someone afflicted with incipient madness. (This struck me as doubly odd since, in life, though Joan admitted to seeing her visitors as plainly as she saw her inquisitors, she resolutely refused to describe them, referring instead, and quite insistently, to her "voices.") And so the director's rendering of it at once plants suspicion in the viewer's mind: he does not take Joan at her word. He has his own theory.

This is followed by a scene of such depravity that it was difficult to watch, but it rather takes one by surprise. While Joan hides in a closet as her village, Domremy, is being burned and pillaged by English mercenaries, three of the brutes enter her cottage and one of them commences to molesting Joan's older sister, Catherine. She is defiant, and for her reward has her clothes ripped open, is lifted off the ground by her assailant's hand to her throat, and run through with a sword which pierces the door near Joan's head. The fellow - surpassingly ugly with a head full of rotting teeth - then rapes Catherine's dead body as she hangs by the sword. When he's done, he turns to his mates and says, "Your turn."

I am no scholar of Joan's history. I have never even felt a particular devotion to her. She's one of those saints I have always thought I might get around to one day. But there's nothing like a Hollywood director to re-ignite one's hatred for lies and damned lies, the industry's stock-in-trade. They simply cannot tell a story with the facts at hand. Apparently, if one's protagonist is a dead person, anything is permissible.

I pulled out the little biography of her that I hadn't looked at in years and found out what I already knew: that the burning and pillaging occurred on at least one occasion, but that the rape and murder had not. It was a complete fabrication, and its purpose in the film was transparent: to cast over all subsequent events a terrible shadow, that what Joan's life came to was a prolonged act of revenge, not of obedience to God's command nor zeal in His service.

I rented the movie and, in summary, was predictably depressed by the diabolical mixing of fact and fancy, every moment of genuine power thoroughly eviscerated by its mendacious successor. (You can read a thorough review of it here.)

Considering the time of year, I think it appropriate to spend a little of it reacquainting ourselves with, and paying tribute to, the real story of the Maid of Orleans. Next to that of Our Lord Himself, it is one of the most remarkable in history. And it begins about here:

In the English camp the soldiers lay exhausted in their sodden tents. Some were ill; all were hungry, dirty, and unkempt. They had stormed Harfleur, losing many of their numbers in the business and many more had died of dysentery. They had set out to march to Calais to wait there until more men from England could join them. But the French set out after them and now they had caught them and there were three Frenchmen to every Englishman. There was jubilation in the French camp. At last, after many, many years of savage fighting, the English were to be destroyed.

The dawn came slowly, for the clouds were low and heavy with rain. The English rose and constructed before their ranks a palisade of sharply pointed stakes sloping toward the enemy. The archers assembled. Their weapons were a bow of yew wood five feet long and a bundle of arrows each two feet six inches in length, tipped with steel and flighted with the feathers of the gray goose. The arrows could drive through an armored breastplate and through the body of the man behind it. The English bowman was the most formidable killer in Europe. He did not look it. He was short and stocky, usually dirty and ill-shaven, wearing a patched or torn leather doublet and a rusty light helmet. He could, of course, neither read nor write. He drank a lot and swore more or less continually. His favorite oath was "God damn," which was so commonly on his lips that throughout France the English were called "Godons," the nearest the French could get to the native pronunciation. But he had no rival in the art of shooting an arrow with immense power, accuracy, and speed. The high, unending whistle of the English arrows was a sound of terror. For a century it had meant defeat and death. And, most important of all, the English bowman was the freest man - of his condition - in all Europe. He was not a serf. Nor did his king and the great barons despise him. They knew his worth too well. They were all bound together in a rough camaraderie. So on that gray autumn morning, king, lords, and bowmen faced the French, ready to die together but quite sure that, once again, victory would be theirs.

A spectator would not have had that certainty. The French were a formidable host, seemingly invincible. In immaculate armor, the chivalrous Frenchmen sat astride their heavy chargers. Very few men were on foot, only a handful of pikemen and the cross-bowmen who used the slow and cumbersome machine which fired a bolt released by a trigger. Banners and pennants were flying; there were shouts and laughter and the neighing of horses. All were well armed and supremely confident, and they outnumbered the English by three to one. All they had to do was charge and trample the English into the mud. But, as even the most patriotic French historian admits, the leaders of the French at that time were stupid and incapable of learning the simple, bloody lessons the English had given them over and over again. They persisted in believing that battles were won by nobles encased in armor and sitting on steeds as strong as cart horses and not much more agile. They despised foot soldiers and made little use of them. If they got in their way during a battle, they rode them down.

And so, at about ten o'clock on that particular morning, they and their horses advanced to slaughter the English. A great line of metal-clad figures moved at a clumsy gallop across the soggy ground. It was magnificent, both as a spectacle and a target.

The English waited. At last, as the French lumbered within range, there came the growling shout, "For God, for Harry, and St. George!" and, as it died away, the thin whistle of the arrows. It was a very quiet business compared with a modern battlefield, quiet but deadly, and the knights of France began to tumble from their saddles. Those behind pressed on, riding over and crushing the fallen until they, in their turn, toppled down with an arrow through the throat or ribs. Straight and pitiless, the flight of the arrows never ceased, nor did the French advance. Those few riders who reached the English had their horses impaled on the sharpened stakes, and a dismounted man in armor was easy meat. When the English bowman had killed a fair number of the French and reduced the rest to a confused, leaderless mass, they dropped their bows, picked up billhooks, short-handled maces and knives, and sallied forth from behind their stakes. It was all over before the sun went down. Ten thousand Frenchmen were dead, many of them - against all the laws of war - having had their throats slit because they were not worth holding to ransom. Another thousand of the French were prisoners. The English lost just over a hundred men.

That day was St. Crispin's Day, October 25, in the year 1415, and the place was Agincourt.

It was a great victory, one of the many inflicted on the French since the battle of Crécy in 1346, when the English archers first showed their quality. It seemed that there was nothing to stop the whole realm of France from falling into English hands. But over on the other side of France a girl had been born less than three years before. Her name was Joan, and later she was to say to the English invaders: "Go away. For God's sake, get back to your own country." It was not long before they went, driven out by the victorious French. That the French were victorious was due to one person and one person only - this girl.

from St. Joan of Arc, by John Beevers, © 1959
Imprimatur: Francis Cardinal Spellman, Archbishop of New York


I had already read that that movie was pure crap. Coincidentally last week on TCM they played the silent movie The Passion of Joan of Arc. I had heard of it before from Catholic movie reviewers who said it was the best film done on Joan. I have to agree with them and it was wonderfully acted and stuck to the trial for heresy. Even being silent the moview as quite compelling and so I would definately recommend this one.
Most of the movies done on her in the last 30 years have all been of the Joan the feminist variety. I once read Mark Twains book on her and George Benard Shaws play about her. It is amazing that these atheists could portray Joan fairly accurately and yet modern writers can't get past there own world view.
Posted by Jeff Miller email at October 25, 2004 06:21 PM
I didn't know of the silent film, only of the one starring Ingrid Bergman. And Twain's book is one I've always wanted to read.
Posted by William Luse email at October 26, 2004 02:02 AM
The best 'bio' I have ever read on Jeanne d'Arc was the one by Mark Twain. You might enjoy it. Good writing, and not too far from the truth, either. Certainly not like that movie!
Posted by alicia email at October 27, 2004 12:04 AM
I printed this post off since I prefer reading long posts on paper and boy was I glad I did. Beautiful. It left me very hungry for more.
Posted by TSO email at October 29, 2004 04:27 PM
There will be more.
Posted by William Luse email at October 29, 2004 04:40 PM
Find the silent movie. It is EXCELLENT. I went into it skeptical, but was in tears by the end.
Of course, tears for me aren't exactly rare, but, still.....
Posted by MamaT email at October 31, 2004 01:26 AM

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Passion of Joan of Arc is available here free: Movies Online