Review of BYU Joan of Arc Docudrama

Jeanne d'Arc, An artist's c. 1485 interpretation.

Jeanne d’Arc, An artist’s c. 1485 interpretation.

She is one of the greatest women in history, with the most documentation of any Medieval personality, but perhaps the least understood. Secularists can’t deny her importance to history, but have a hard time evaluating the spiritual claims. The miracles attributed to her gave her the status of Saint after a lengthy trial ending in burning as an heretic. France has given her a hero’s honor for saving the nation, but even past enemies celebrate the strength and convictions of an unlikely leader. It is no wonder that BYU picked Joan of Arc for the recent annual holiday spiritual docudrama series.

Unlike the offerings in the past, the story of Joan of Arc is much more epic. It covers what is known as 100 years war between two powerful nations. There is a lot of history and territory to cover for a small production. For the most part the docudrama succeeds as a primer, explaining how events in the past contributed to England taking over most of France. Anyone who wants to learn a more detailed historical context will be disappointed. Hints of a more complex narrative are dropped throughout the story. As an example, it never explains how a young girl from the bottom of society could be the fulfilment of prophecy. What the prophecy is or how she fits in was quietly passed over without comment. Despite a lack of the deeper contextualization, the narration has a logical flow that allows those less familiar with the history to follow along.

Very few times did the production give the feeling it was a low budget docudrama made by a private religious university. The costumes were amazingly accurate looking, and gave the impression they could be used in life. Having the ability to film at actual locations added another layer of realism usually reserved for big budget movies. A few limitations were noticeable. By filming at the locations it at times became obvious that the structures were past their pristine conditions. Camera angles sought to hide the poor condition of buildings without complete success. Another problem was the terrible fight scene choreography that never gave the impression anyone was in danger. It isn’t just trying to remain family friendly within a story about war. The actors were halting, marks not always met, and generally the performances of the extras stiff. Despite the nitpick flaws, nothing was bad enough to take a viewer outside the presentation.

Probably the main criticism for the docudrama was language choices. Because these events happened in France, logic dictates that the people would speak the French language. Indeed, there were times the actors did use French to communicate with each other when voice over narration superseded the dialogue. The majority of the time dialogue was given in good English with some actors having slight natural accents. This took away from the authenticity more than any of the smaller problems. It would have been better to do the drama portion in French with English subtitles, and still have the main narration in English to make things easier. The choice to not use French in much of the dramatization is understandable. It reduces the acting pool to pick from and the audience culture is averse to reading what they can otherwise hear. Still, it would have been a nice addition to give another layer of believability.

The actress Milly Thomas who plays Joan of Arc did a powerful and honorable portrayal. Unlike so many others who have done the part, she makes the character neither too holy or on the verge of insanity. The audience can see her as a true leader with strength of conviction. Like other actresses who have taken up the part, however, her looking the right age is problematic. That is probably unavoidable considering the complexity of the real person. Thomas has screen presence that is intimidating when the dialogue calls for confrontation and giving commands. She is equally good at showing fear and vulnerability while not losing her charismatic disposition.

Ultimately, the BYU docudrama is about the spiritual life of a peasant girl that changes the course of history. For the Mormon perspective that is weaved throughout the presentation, this is not a new story. She comes off seeming one part prophet warrior Mormon and another Joseph Smith the visionary. The way miracles are treated, particularly as explained by Elder Holland, is refreshingly without cynicism. Her angelic visitations end up in this docudrama almost proto-First Vision experiences. The visual portrayal of the Angel Michael is similar to other Mormon representations with white clothing and a bright hue around the figure. On the other hand the meaning of her visions, such as why she needed a particular sword hidden in a church or the personally designed flag, is never explored.

Because of the less cynical presentation, serious historical disagreements are ignored. Almost everything is presented as matter of fact, despite a few comments that point toward controversies. This is particularly the case when discussing the final months of her life. Did she really recant her testimony at least once to save her life out of fear or was it a trick? Was her women’s clothing stolen or did she return to her rebellion against the captives? Did she die a comprehending martyr, or a scared and confused girl who didn’t fully understand her fate? Was her more detailed descriptions near the end of her trial a desperate gamble to prove the reality of the visions (while ironically used against her) or a breaking of her will enough to discuss what she held sacred? These are never brought up when the majority of treatments ask and sometimes try to answer them.

Finally, while the spiritual side of Joan of Arc is taken more seriously than almost any other documentary, the biggest consiquences remained unexplored. The writer, director and producer Russell Holt had this to say in a Daily Herald interview:

“When Joan came along in the early 1400s, France was on the verge of being dissolved as a nation at the end of the Hundred Years’ War,” Holt said. “Because of Joan of Arc, France was saved from that fate. Because the independent nation of France was allowed to continue to grow and prosper, a decisive battle of George Washington (in the American Revolutionary War) was turned by the French. It’s widely recognized by historians that Washington may not have won that war (without French assistance). So, yes, the fact that we live in America today and enjoy the freedoms we do can be traced back to Joan of Arc.”

That perspective never made it into the final production. All the audience learns is that 20 years later France pushes England out of the country to become its own nation once again. There is no discussion, other than as a role model, why a Latter-day Saint living in the 21st Century should care about a peasant girl with visions who saved a foreign country 600 years ago. Nevertheless, there is enough material that was included in the docudrama to perhaps wet the appetite for more information. Even the highly American and atheistic Mark Twain found her fascinating without resorting to his usual sarcastic wit. For those Mormons who already find her story highly praiseworthy, there is hope this docudrama will open up more discussion about her spiritual importance.

12 thoughts on “Review of BYU Joan of Arc Docudrama

  1. Thank you for the review. I’ve been curious about the production, and plan to watch it. Interesting to see these productions becoming more involved.
    Have you any recommendations of books for learning more about Joan d’Arc?

  2. Finding a well rounded Joan d’Arc biography that isn’t a children’s retelling, out of date idealized treatment, novelization, or some kind of specialized study of one side of her life is difficult. That is probably a reason someone like me who was moderately aware of her biography still learned from the docudrama. Maybe try Helen R. Castor’s book “Joan of Arc: A History,” as she was interviewed for this production.

  3. I thought the part about her sword was obvious: it was a miracle. Another experience to support her divine calling which couldn’t be explained away as coincidence.

  4. I really enjoyed getting to know much more about Joan of Arc through this production. After watching this though, I wondered, if Joan really was visited and instructed by heavenly angels as she claimed, why was it so important for God to instruct and direct her on a mission to lead an army to push back a vast English occupation of her homeland, relieve the city of Orleans [among others], and effectively pave the way for the coronation of King Charles VII ultimately turning around the 100 Year War between England and France of the 1400’s?

    Well…after reading this review, much of my question was answered. Here’s a rundown of the thoughts that came to my mind.

    It can be said that citizens of the USA who value the rights and freedoms inherent with that citizenship are largely indebted to the nation of France. This is because the American Revolution may have had a very different outcome had it not been for the aid and assistance of France against the English in the 1700’s, and that’s if the revolution would have occurred at all.

    Had it not been for Joan of Arc, the nation of France itself likely would not have existed as a sovereign nation centuries later to aid the American revolutionaries in their bid for independence. Instead, France would have likely been completely under English rule, making England all the more powerful an opponent for the American revolutionaries to overcome.

    Now, taking it a step further, many Latter Day Saints believe most of the founding fathers of the USA were spiritual and god-fearing men raised up and inspired by God to establish a free nation where freedom of religion among other freedoms would be able to thrive. They believe this historic event was necessary to create a climate whereby Christ could bring about a restoration of the fullness of His gospel. So in this context, for Latter Day Saints, it makes much more sense why Joan of Arc could have truly been commissioned by Christ to do what she did for France. Indeed, like George Washington and others, I think it can be said that Joan of Arc had a critical role as a significant forerunner to Joseph Smith in helping Christ pave the way for the restoration of His church.

    In short, before Christ would call upon Joseph Smith to be a prophet for the restoration of His church, it is now apparent to me that Christ called Joan of Arc to very much be a prophetess for the restoration of France.

    It is also interesting to note just how much there is in common with the histories of both Joan of Arc and Joseph Smith. Both were children of simple peasant farmers, both had little to no education [Joan was wholly illiterate], both claim to have received visitations of physical heavenly personages while they were teenagers, both claim to have received four years of instruction at the feet of divinely appointed angels before commencing their respective missions, and both are supported by statements from others who claim to have witnessed what they saw as miraculous events in their presence.

    Indeed, by small and simple things…and by young and simple people…does God bring great things to pass.

    Needless to say, I no longer wonder why Joan of Arc would have been guided and directed by God, as she claimed, to do what she was able to do. While I’m disappointed to say that I knew (or remembered) very, very little of her prior to watching this, it has certainly whetted my appetite to study a bit more about her.

  5. I grew up Catholic and Jeanne d’Arc was very important in my life and my spiritual growth. I saw her as a great tool in the hand of God. There are so many parallels between her story and Jesus own story. The faith, the doubt of others, the trail and betrayal. Also it also has parallels to Joseph Smith’s life and spiritual experiences.
    So many things are easily discounted by science these days, it is hard to just brush aside things like that. We are just dust in a huge universe, but and yet, each of our lives are precious. I was touched by this production and brought me to tears, reminding me of a hero that I love since my childhood.
    Thank you BYU.

  6. Beautifully done production. Russ Holt, who did such a marvelous job of directing the first of the three films of “The Work and the Glory” has found a worthy subject to turn his talents towards. There have been a number of films over the years dealing with Joan. Two that I would recommend are Carl Theodore Dryer’s 1929 film “The Passion of Joan of Arc” which has been released on the Criterion label with a magnificent score. Though the film is silent and condenses Joan’s trial from months to days this film uses the actual trial record for the majority of the her trial. It remains one of filmdom’s towering emotional experiences. The other version that I like is the 1999 TV version called “Joan of Arc” with Leelee Sobieski as Joan. This 3 hours production uses Mark Twain’s narrative of Joan’s story in what I found to be a fascinating interpretation. A reading of Mark Twain’s novel called “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc” would also be worthwhile. Another book that gives a vivid telling of her story is “Joan of Arc: Her Story” by Regine Pernoud and Marie-Veronique Clin. The 1948 Ingrid Bergman film of Maxwell Anderson’s play is interesting though not entirely successful.

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