Joan of Arc: A Universal Figure from the Very Distant Past

by Nicole Douglas

The ropes are tight around your wrists, painfully rubbing them raw, but even worse is the unyielding hardness of the wood beam behind your back and the coarse boards beneath your feet. You struggle even though it is futile and your mind has yet to comprehend what is to come. Just when it all seems as if it is a dream, you smell it: the acrid smell of the smoke that has started to feed on the kindling and wood below the pyre--what will soon be your deathbed. Somehow, beyond the pain of the flames that are licking at your body,   you see a cross and a man who was your friend and you hear the voices of your saints; you are at peace and know your destiny has been fulfilled and all that you have fought for will come to pass.

An experience such as this is not something any of us are bound to comprehend, and far from anything we will ever experience in our lives. One girl did though. A seventeen year old girl from the town of Domremy, France, restored a rightful King to the throne of France and secured the independence of her people from the English during what we call The Hundred Years War. She accomplished it all for the good of others and yet was called a heretic and was burned at the stake. Her name was Joan of Arc and she was called The Maid of Lorraine. However, no matter her accomplishments, she was just a teenage girl trying to survive in a very harsh world and fight for her beliefs and God's will. She was extraordinary and left behind a story with the ability to inspire, move and intrigue millions. The movie Joan of Arc captures that story and makes it possible for Joan to influence even more people.

The basic story of Joan of Arc, as portrayed in the movie Joan of Arc , is probably familiar to most people, but often the particulars are hazy. Joan, at the age of nine, was called upon by St. Catherine and St. Margaret. Through her life until she was sixteen or seventeen they spoke to her regularly of basic rules of piety. However, when she was about seventeen they told her of the first stage of her destiny. She was to restore the Dauphin Charles to the throne of France as the rightful King. So she left her home and her family and traveled to the city of Vaucouleurs where she met Jean de Metz, who would be her friend and battle companion until her death. This is also where she was first given the name The Maid of Lorraine. There was a legend throughout France that Merlin had foretold the savior of France as being a maid. So, to accomplish what she needed (to get in touch with the Dauphin), she let them call her The Maid and eventually arrived at Chinon, Charles' court. There she convinced the Dauphin of her authenticity, not as The Maid, but as a messenger of God, and talked him into helping her save France. Although he would later betray her, Charles did make it possible for Joan to begin her journey. After being tested at Poitiers by the Church to determine her chastity and authenticity as a Church member, Joan led an Army that captured Orleans (a crucial location in France that had been held by the English). Her Dauphin was crowned King Charles VII of France and she continued her quest to free France from English rule, in accordance with the guidance of her saints. In a fight for Paris, she was not successful and failure pushed King Charles to betray her to Burgundy and thus England. She was subsequently captured and held at De Beaurevoir Castle and later handed over to the English due to Charles' lack of interference on her behalf. It was in the English territory of Rouen that she was tried as a heretic and burned at the stake.

Despite Joan of Arc's accomplishments, many people might still argue that her story, and thus the movie, is not what it seems and should really only be viewed as a legendary story from history, much like that of William Wallace in Braveheart . When so many years have passed and such a strong religion has lost much of its hold, it is hard for many to believe a story such as hers. Yes, some of it is bound to be embellishment and romanticism, but we cannot deny the facts, and the facts were recorded and experienced by those in France at the time. She did help Charles to become King, she did wear men's clothes and fight in battle, she did retain her purity and sense of purpose for God and her people, and she was burned at the stake in 1431 at the age of 19, and these facts are the basis for the movie. In Joan of Arc, we see that her actions gave hope to a France that was essentially hopeless.


When watching a movie, we notice first the characters, or the actors playing the characters. The first major character we come in contact with in the movie is Joan's Dauphin--Charles (played by Neil Patrick Harris, a.k.a. Dougie Houser). He was a historical figure. As far as we can tell, he is portrayed accurately enough for a movie made to be entertaining. He was portrayed in Joan of Arc as being somewhat childish and boyish in his constant wish for fun and liveliness. He almost seems not take things seriously; however, when he becomes King, he uses that childish image for an advantage. He does take advantage of people--mostly of Joan. The image of him presented in the movie is of a somewhat melancholy man who almost seems capable of temper tantrums. One historian comments, "Surviving portraits show him with a sad and anxious air... [and] was enough for him to spend his time living" (Pernoud, 168). His thirst for living and his anxiety may have been due to the fact that so many of his siblings died quite early on and he didn't know how much time he had. The movie does not explain this though.

At the same time we meet Bishop Cauchon (played by Peter O'Toole). Although he was a real Bishop, he was not a counselor of Charles as he was portrayed to be in the film; he was a loyal follower of Philip of Burgundy. This is a highly inaccurate and somewhat disturbing portrayal. There is nothing that suggests that he was there on the day Joan met the Dauphin, as was portrayed in the movie. Because we don't really know of his character from books, besides the way in which he questioned Joan during her trial, we cannot guess as to whether or not he was portrayed accurately in correct character in the movie either. However, even if certain aspects of his character were inaccurate, Peter O'Toole did a superb job of being very believably jealous of the power the Church provided him but also very human and feeling too.

Most importantly, the character of Jean de Metz (played by Chad Willet) was a central figure in Joan's life. He was the first to call her The Maid and they had an underlying but never expressed love throughout Joan's last years. He is shown as being at her trial and burning, and he even holds up a cross for her to fix her eyes on as she is executed. He was presented very romantically and heroically--he was willing to give his life for Joan and her cause. Unfortunately, the historical Jean de Metz was not the early twenty-something year old character Willet was presented to be. In fact Jean de Metz was described "as a nobleman about sixty-seven years old..." (Pernoud, 193) Something that seems as relatively insignificant as age really can change the meaning of a movie. It is doubtful that Joan was ever in love with him as she is portrayed to be in the movie. However, making her seem so, and with a man who would have really been quite old, removes an important aspect of the movie from our consideration--the experience of love despite circumstance or path in life, an experience denied to Joan.

The role and character of Joan also needs attention. First and foremost, Leelee Sobieski (the actress who played Joan) did a superb job of keeping the characteristics of a teenager (as the actress was only seventeen herself) and carrying the strength and assuredness in her faith and purpose which Joan was sure to have possessed. Also, being half-French, Sobieski was able to speak Joan's language more convincingly. Furthermore, due to the importance of the battles in Joan's story, the accuracy of her armor is crucial. Sobieski herself stated in an interview that "it was incredibly hard to hold onto...[her]... banner, wear...[her]... sword, and urge...[her]... horse to gallop across muddy battlefields all at the same time"(Goodale , 1) because of the fact that the " warriors...[of the 15 th century]... fought from beneath 60 pounds of armor"(Goodale , 1). Another fact of history is the tale of her wearing red of some sort, though this is not represented completely correctly in the film due to conflicting stories. In the movie she wore a red cloak and a red vest-like garment under her armor. Whether or not that is true we don't know, but it was said that she wore a "red surcoat" (Pernoud, 17) into the town of Vaucouleurs when she first arrived until she changed into men's clothing. It is also said that she was "'armed entirely in white, except for the head, a little ax in her hand, seated on a great black courser'". This was not portrayed in the movie probably because whether or not she really wore these specific garments is not known for sure. In the movie she does wear the armor of the time and similar to that of her soldiers.

Even more importantly, through the characters in the movie we experience what can be thought of as universal themes. These themes would shine through regardless of whether or not you were watching a movie on Joan or reading a book about her. The first theme concerns faith and hope. The people of France were in great need of hope and a way to fight for what was theirs in the 15 th century. The Maid of Lorraine provided the way. In a time when neither the Dauphin, nor the nobility believed that France could be free of England's control, Joan did. Because she was so assured in her belief that France would be free and that God had ordained it to come to pass, the people believed her. Something as simple as her own confidence in her faith inspired so many to gain greater confidence in their own faith and to fight with Joan for their country. In any war-torn country hope is the smallest and yet most important key to keeping faith alive and moving people to fight, and fight they did because of the hope Joan provided.

Secondly, and perhaps most important and relevant theme that shines through the movie is nationalism. Through Joan's supplying her people and the people she encountered with hope and a renewed faith, they began to think of themselves as Frenchmen, and not men from a certain town. Nationalism or national pride is something that is still so powerful and is especially important in any time of war. Because of what we are experiencing in the early Twenty-First Century everyone can understand how strongly simply having pride in one's country can dramatically affect the outcome of events. Joan's calling herself The Maid of Lorraine attracted so many due to the name's legendary quality. The movie most poignantly shows how because there was a legend in France of The Maid, and the Dauphin himself believed Joan to be The Maid, the people of France clung to that legend and were inspired by Joan's conviction on the outcome for France. So men began to believe that France could be free and took up arms with her and God to fight as Frenchmen.

Surrounding the characters in Joan of Arc are the situations and circumstances of everyday life during the 15 th century. The characteristics of the time were, in fact, portrayed pretty accurately. The movie does a good job of making the importance of religion and its control over everyday life seem natural, but it also rightly portrays humanity and the evil of humanity behind the religious convictions. The clothes and hairstyles stay true to the time and Joan wears the red as mentioned before. Joan and her soldiers fight with standard weapons of the time--swords, arrows, crossbows, and fire. The movie also made the fighting look realistic, not choreographed. It looked as though it was difficult to fight in the heavy armor and the men didn't just bounce right back after being punched or knocked off their horses. Also, not everyone had a horse or armor and the armor looked heavy and somewhat bulky. Even more, the homes portrayed had straw roofs and looked as though they were made out of mud brick. The castles weren't as grand as we like to portray them today either. Castles of the time were made for protection and fortification more than beauty, so it was refreshing to have them portrayed as they were characteristically.

Nevertheless, despite the mostly accurate portrayal of Joan's time and her spirituality and experiences, one can't help but notice the historical inaccuracies of the story. The inaccuracies in the characters are to be expected due to the need to create a more entertaining story. However, the inaccuracies of setting and living situations, etc... don't seem to be necessary for the entertaining effect. Everyone, beggars as well as nobles are shown as being very clean and well fed even though they were supposed to have been starving. They all have clean and relatively nice and warm clothes for being so poverty stricken. Joan herself is always clean, with clean teeth, and clean and somewhat expensive looking clothes. Even more, the men Joan encounters never seem to be "sleazy" or to try to hit on her as some of them probably would have. All of the people seem to have a good hearts underneath, or at least a conscience. Unfortunately this is not true and she would have encountered some truly bad men who were not willing to help her or listen to her.

Regardless of the inaccuracies or the characters' portrayals, the experience of the viewer is the most important aspect to watching the movie. The first time I watched it, years ago and without any preconceived thoughts or expectations, I thought that it was a profound movie, and that Leelee Sobieski's portrayal of Joan of Arc was truly human and poignant. Also, I was very moved during the battles scenes and a scene at the end of the movie when the men who were on Joan's side were willing to fight for her in the face of certain death and for either little or no pay because of their belief in The Maid of Lorraine and in God. It really amazed me how the defense of one's beliefs and what we call heroism is so universal and timeless. I also believe this movie portrayed superbly the hopelessness and desperation of the times and the people's unquestioning need for religion. But I loved that the characters portrayed the good and bad sides of humanity equally and without judgment too. So, the movie was historically accurate in that it portrayed humanity in its most glorious and most cruel light at the same time through Joan, the King and the Bishop.

For a further or more well-rounded view of Joan, as all tales of her are different, I would recommend also viewing the movies called The Messenger and The Passion of Joan of Arc . However, The Passion of Joan of Arc was made in 1928, is in black and white, and is subtitled because it is in French, but it is really neat to hear the language that Joan spoke. Also, there is a fascinating book that is the record of her trial that I would recommend too. It is called The Trial of Joan of Arc by W. S. Scott. Also recommended to me for help in my research, was the book Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century by Barbara Tuchman (thorough reviews and descriptions can be found on and the 1950s movie Joan of Arc featuring Ingrid Bergman. Last but not least is the book that I used to gauge the accuracies of the movie itself, Joan of Arc: Her Story by Regine Pernoud and Marie-Veronique Clin. The last book is the most interesting read I have had in a long time, and if you love to be able to read Joan's own words, it provides that for you.

In a story so full of emotion and politics, the movie Joan of Arc serves to provide us with the story of Joan of Arc in such a way that we notice the humanity and universality of her life and experiences, as well as her actual accomplishments and horrifying death. The characters are very human and Joan herself seems to come alive through the young actress Leelee Sobieski. It is a movie that one can't help but be moved and even inspired by, and in a time when we are drawing on our own national pride, Joan's story is relevant and will continue to be so until the end of time.

Works Cited

Goodale, Gloria. "'Joan of Arc: Tough Teen Actress Takes on Joan'." Online Posting. 14 May 1999. Rotten Tomatoes. 10 Mar. 2004

Joan of Arc . Dir. Christian Duguay. Perf. Leelee Sobieski, Peter O'Toole, Neil Patrick Harris, and Chad Willet. Artisan Entertainment, 1999.

Pernoud, Regine and Clin, Marie-Veronique. Joan of Arc: Her Story . Trans. Jeremy duQuesnay Adams. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.