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Saint Joan

Ring a Ding Ding

Saint Joan (1957)

     Given Otto Preminger‘s history with fantastically thrilling mysteries and dramas, I was a bit surprised to find he made a picture based on Bernard Shaw’s play about the plight of Joan of Arc. Possibly of even greater surprise is that Preminger paid for the rights to the play –$100,000 plus 5% of the gross receipts to the Shaw estate. Ultimately, however, Preminger was unhappy with his screen interpretation. In his autobiography, he says during the film’s premiere in France,

(I) started to realize that my film Saint Joan was a failure. Many people blamed Jean Seberg and her inexperience. That is unfair. I alone am to blame because…I misunderstood something fundamental about Shaw’s play. It is not a dramatization of the legend of Joan of Arc which is filled with emotion and religious passion. It is a deep but cool intellectual examination of the role religion plays in the history of man.

      Despite his feelings on the movie, I found it fantastic. It was the screen debut for Jean Seberg, who would find herself permanently fixed in film history through her appearance in the French New Wave stand-by Breathless. She was selected through an open casting call process that included 18,000 rivals for the part. Audrey Hepburn was also supposedly considered for the role but turned it down. Jean does such a unbelievably good job, that one should find it hard to believe she was inexperienced. Her stand-by short haircut fit perfectly with the woman-warrior part as she was one of the few women who can get away with a man’s hairdo and dress and maintain a feminine beauty.

     The story follows Joan of Arc as she approaches the Dauphin of France (Richard Widmark), a man-child whom Joan would convince to pursue being formally named King Charles VII. She also persuades the man to give her an army to run the English out of the country. Once Charles has taken power, however, he casts Joan off having no further need of her. The 17-year-old girl’s action also have made her important enemies who slander her as a witch. Once released from the protection of the king, she is arrested for heresy with the Catholic church standing against her and the voices she hears. She is imprisoned, tortured and given every opportunity to recant her words, but each time she speaks, she further incriminates herself as a heretic. She at one point agrees to recant when burning at the stake is put before her, but when she learns that she will not be set free but instead imprisoned for the remainder of her life, Joan calls for the fire.

     The actual burning scene is intriguing. Special effects depict the flames shooting up in front of Seberg’s face as the girl wilts and passes out before the fire become too mighty to see what lies within. Filming of this instance resulted in the actual burning of the actress when the effects went wrong. Seberg only suffered minor burning on her stomach and hand.

Source: TCM.com

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