Cast & Crew
In 1456, Charles VII, King of France experiences a troubled sleep and dreams that he is visited by Joan, the former commander of his army, who was burned at the stake as a heretic twenty-five years earlier. After Charles tells Joan that her case was retried and her sentence annulled because the original judges acted out of corruption and malice, he remembers how she entered his life when he was the Dauphin of France: Joan, a simple, seventeen-year-old peasant girl, has heard the voices of Saints Catherine and Margaret telling her that she will lead the French army against the English at the siege of Orleans and be responsible for having the Dauphin crowned king at Rheims cathedral. After Joan manages to convince her local squire, Captain Robert de Beaudricourt, that she has received these orders from God, de Beaudricourt provides her with a letter of introduction to the Dauphin. When Joan arrives at the Dauphin's palace at Chinon she discovers that he is a childish weakling with no interest in fighting. After being tested by the members of the court, who conclude that she is mad, Joan imbues the Dauphin with her belief and fervor and he gives her command of the army. With the help of Captain Dunois, Joan leads the army to retake Orleans. Shortly thereafter, Joan witnesses the coronation of Charles by the Archbishop of Rheims in a lavish ceremony at the cathedral. Although her triumphs have made Joan popular with the masses, her voices, beliefs, self-confidence and apparent supernatural powers have made her enemies in high places. Charles, who has no further use for her services, expects her to return to her father's farm. When Joan challenges Charles to retake Paris from the English, the king informs her that he would rather make a peace treaty than fight. After Dunois refuses Joan's plea to march on Paris, the archbishop warns her that if she sets her private judgment above the instructions of her spiritual directors, the church will disown her. Nevertheless, Joan, who believes that God will not fail her, appeals to the common people and marches on Paris, but is captured by dukes from the state of Burgundy who are waging their own civil war. To assure that Joan will never again become a threat to England, the English commander, the Earl of Warwick, buys her from the Burgundians and hands her over to the Catholic Church to be tried for heresy. Joan spends four months in a cell and is visited frequently by the Inquisitor and his colleagues, Master de Courcelles and Brother Martin Ladvenu, in preparation for her trial. Warwick and his chaplain, John de Stogumber, become impatient with the delay and Warwick summons Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais, to ask him to begin the trial. De Stogumber, a religious fanatic, hates the French and fears that Joan will not be executed. When the trial begins, Joan refuses to deny that the church is wiser than she is. Later, in a moment of panic and despair, Joan is persuaded that her voices have deceived her. Brother Martin reads to her from a document of recantation she is to sign in which she confesses that she pretended to hear revelations from God and saints and is guilty of the sins of sedition, idolatry, disobedience, pride and heresy. Joan signs the document, believing that she will go free, but when she learns that the sentence of the Bishops' Court and Holy Inquisition is perpetual, solitary imprisonment, Joan destroys the document, as she cannot face a life bereft of the elements of nature and life she holds dear, and now believes that God wants her to come to him through the ordeal of being burned at the stake. After Joan is excommunicated, Warwick, weary of the Church's endless ritual and aware that Joan can be executed long before the Vatican learns about it, orders his soldiers to drag Joan to the square to be burned. The Inquisitor cynically tells Beauvais that if the English choose to put themselves in the wrong, it is not the judges' business to rectify their wrongs and that this flaw in procedure may be useful later on. As the flames begin to lick around Joan, a compassionate English soldier hands her a cross, fashioned from two sticks. De Stogumber witnesses Joan's death and, traumatized, is stricken with remorse. The King's dream continues as he and Joan are visited by other significant figures from her life including the dishonored Cauchon, who was excommunicated after his death for having participated in what was intended to have been an ecclesiastical process, but became a political trial. Growing weary of all the spirit visitors, Charles tells Joan he has dreamed of her long enough and returns to his bed and his troubled sleep.
Francis De Wolff
Charles R. Beard
On paper, the 1957 film officially called Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan looked like a fine prestige picture with solid chances for success. Preminger's recent releases included such high-profile items as the African-American musical Carmen Jones (1954) and the drug-addiction drama The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). He hired the great novelist and screenwriter Graham Greene to pen the movie adaptation of the 1923 stage play by Shaw, a British playwright with a loyal American following. And he surrounded Seberg with an impressive cast, including affable Richard Widmark as Charles VII, smooth-as-silk John Gielgud as the Earl of Warwick, and worldly Anton Walbrook as the bishop who ensures that Joan's trial for witchcraft will end with her burning at the stake.
The subject seemed sure-fire as well, with a long pedigree in film history. The earliest version of Joan's story, produced by Thomas Edison's studio in 1895, was followed by a Lumière version in 1898, a George Méliès version in 1900, a Pathé Frères version in 1909, an Italian version in 1913, a Cecil B. DeMille version in 1916, and various others through the years, including two with Ingrid Bergman, the first directed by Victor Fleming in 1948 and the second by Roberto Rossellini in 1954. The versions most celebrated today are Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, from 1928, and Robert Bresson's rigorous The Trial of Joan of Arc, released in 1962. Preminger's film isn't in the same league of those lofty achievements, but it's a major cut above, say, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, the 1999 action picture directed by Luc Besson with Milla Jovovich in the lead. The virtues of Preminger's movie include Greene's screenplay, which reshuffles Shaw's text but respects his literate dialogue; Georges Périnal's cinematography, elegant if unexciting; Saul Bass's eye-catching credits; and performances by worthy character players like Finlay Currie, who's suitably imposing as the Archbishop of Rheims, and Victor Maddern, who's lightly likable as the English soldier who comforts Joan at the stake. While it's not a great movie, it's definitely a good one.
With so much going for it, what scorched Saint Joan at the box office? Revisiting the movie years later, Preminger decided the fatal error had been his own. "I made the mistake of taking a young, inexperienced girl and [wanting] her to be St. Joan, which, of course, she wasn't," he candidly remarked. "I didn't help her to understand and act the part." According to David Richards's biography of Seberg, an even harsher verdict came from an associate who saw the auditions of all three finalists for the coveted role: "Jean had the sincerity Otto was after. Unfortunately, he would stamp it entirely into the ground." And he didn't do this gently. "That was cold as a cucumber," Preminger shouted at Seberg during a typical day on the set. Made to repeat takes as many as twenty times, Richards reports, "she felt the spontaneity draining from her....In the edited film, the strongest impression she would make was that of a helplessly bewildered girl struggling to get things right."
At least Seberg earned the respect of the cast and crew. But her most trying moment came when she stood on the pyre for the burning-at-the-stake scene. Two hidden gas canisters ignited at the wrong moment, surrounding her with a rush of flame and smoke. "I'm burning!" she cried, yanking her arms free and covering her face as her costume started to burn. The fire was quickly extinguished, and Seberg suffered no significant harm. But it must have seemed like the last exasperating straw to an actress already on the ropes. Preminger was momentarily traumatized as well, but he recovered in time to make sure the mishap had been caught on film. "The camera took four hundred extra feet," he told a Newsweek journalist, adding that he would "probably use some of it" in the movie. Not surprisingly, he did.
Seberg is certainly out of her depth in Saint Joan, but responsibility for the film's lack of sparkle also lies with Preminger's directing. His visual style grew out of his early work as a stage director (he had directed Shaw's play in Vienna years earlier) and often relied on daringly long takes of continuous dialogue and action, following his theory that every cut is an interruption of the cinematic flow. This serves wonderfully in pictures of other kinds - think of the great noir Laura (1944), the courtroom classic Anatomy of a Murder (1959), the political drama Advise & Consent (1962) - but joined with Greene's talky adaptation of Shaw's talky play, it makes for viewing that's frequently static and dialogue heavy. Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch gives a good example of the problem, citing the moment when Joan realizes she will lead the French against their English invaders. "Who is for God and his maid?" she cries, brandishing her sword. "Who is for Orléans with me?" It's a scene of high intensity, but Preminger keeps the camera at a distance, offering a neutral, unexciting view. At such times, Hirsch writes, "Preminger is self-effacing to a fault." Sadly, he effaced Seberg's effectiveness as well.
Seberg went on to give a strong performance as a poor little rich girl in Preminger's next picture, the 1958 melodrama Bonjour tristesse - according to Preminger biographer Chris Fujiwara, he may have offered her that role soon after the fire on the Saint Joan set - and her performance in Jean-Luc Godard's legendary Breathless gave her a running start in European cinema in 1960. Reviews of Saint Joan after its world premiere in Paris were negative, though, and London critics were equally ungenerous. American reviews were the worst of all, perhaps fueled by what Fujiwara calls a "delayed outburst of resentment" against the publicity machine that had surrounded Seberg from the moment she won the talent search. The review in Time was among the most pungent, saying that Shaw's heroine is "a chunk of hard bread, dipped in the red wine of battle and devoured by the ravenous angels," whereas Seberg makes her "the sort of honey bun that drugstore desperadoes like to nibble with their milkshakes." Today more reasoned views have taken hold, and Fujiwara deems Saint Joan to be "one of Preminger's must underrated films, and one of his most personal," with a "methodical, inquisitive camera," lighting that creates "density and complexity of texture," and a "rhythmic" visual form that enhances the characters' emotions. The truth about Saint Joan is probably between these extremes of opinion, and the same goes for the still-debated talent of its star.
Director: Otto Preminger
Producer: Otto Preminger
Screenplay: Graham Greene; based on the play by George Bernard Shaw
Cinematographer: Georges Perinal
Film Editing: Helga Cranston
Production Design: Roger K. Furse
Art Direction: Ray Simm Music: Mischa Spoliansky
With: Jean Seberg (Joan), Richard Widmark (Dauphin, Charles VII), Richard Todd (Bastard), Anton Walbrook (Cauchon), John Gielgud (Earl of Warwick), Felix Aylmer (Inquisitor), Archie Duncan (Robert de Baudricourt), Harry Andrews (John de Stogumber), Margot Grahame (Duchesse de la Tremouille), Barry Jones (de Courcelles), Francis De Wolff (la Tremouille), Finlay Currie (Archbishop of Rheims), Victor Maddern (English soldier), Bernard Miles (Master Executioner), David Oxley (Bluebeard), Patrick Barr (Captain la Hire), Sydney Bromley (Baudricourt's steward), Kenneth Haigh (Brother Martin), David Langton (Captain of Warwick's Guard).
by David Sterritt
A special effects accident caused actress Jean Seberg actually to catch fire in the scene where Joan of Arc is burned. (She [Seberg] sustained only very minor injuries.)
Audrey Hepburn was originally offered the role of Joan. Rumor had it she turned it down because her husband, 'Mel Ferrer' , wasn't offered the role of the Dauphin, but Ferrer denied this.
The film's opening title cards read: "Otto Preminger presents Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan". A July 23, 1956 Daily Variety news item reported that producer-director Otto Preminger had paid the estate of George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) $100,000, plus 5% of the world gross, for the screen rights to Shaw's play Saint Joan. Preminger then contracted Graham Greene, the distinguished novelist, to reduce and adapt the play, which ran three-and-a-half hours, into a film that would run less than two hours. The film's pressbook claimed that 95% of the resultant film's dialogue was Shaw's. Both Preminger and Greene later claimed to have been unaware that Shaw had written a screen adaptation of the play between 1934 and 1936. That adaptation was published in 1968.
Preminger also initiated a worldwide search, rivaling that of David O. Selznick's for an actress to play "Scarlett O'Hara" in Gone With the Wind, for an unknown girl to play Joan. In a February 17, 1957 New York Times interview, Preminger claimed that his company received "18,000 applications, which were carefully processed, and then I saw 3,000 applicants in twenty-three cities." Eventually Preminger selected 18-year-old Jean Seberg of Marshalltown, IA for the arduous role, noting that "She has the looks, intelligence, feeling and just the right innocence. She has shaped very well under instruction...though...she has never been near a film studio before." In the same interview, Preminger mentioned that he had earlier hoped to cast Richard Burton as "Warwick" and Paul Scofield as "Brother Martin," and a October 9, 1956 Hollywood Reporter news item confirms that Burton was originally cast as Warwick.
French cameraman Georges Perinal replaced Desmond Dickinson before shooting began, as Dickinson and Preminger disagreed about the film's visual style. Before filming started, Preminger made the decision to announce that the film would have its premiere in Paris on May 12, 1957, on the day the French nation annually honors its warrior saint. The interval between the first day of shooting in early January 1957 (full-scale rehearsals had begun at Shepperton Studios in mid-December 1956) and the premiere was sixteen weeks. As noted in various contemporary news reports, during the filming of the scene in which "Joan" is burned at the stake, an accident occurred and Seberg was burned slightly on her right hand and stomach. A section of that shot is used in the completed film. Although a January 1957 Hollywood Reporter news item includes Thomas Gallagher in the cast, his appearance in the completed film has not been confirmed. Some contemporary sources list sound technician Peter Hanford as Peter Hammond.
The world premiere took place as scheduled at the Paris Opéra as part of a gala benefit for French polio victims. The audience was also entertained by Bob Hope and French comedian Fernandel, who were filming Paris Holiday at that time.
Several reviews, including two in the London Times, noted that Greene's condensation of the play resulted in "some odd omissions, interpolations and additions" and that "the result is a certain scrappiness and confusion in the first half of the film in place of Shaw's slow and careful build-up." Other reviewers complained that an epilogue Shaw wrote was used as a prologue and recurring scene throughout the film. The released film lacks any foreword or historical introduction. Greene, a convert to Catholicism, was also criticized for changing Shaw's view that the entire church was responsible for "Joan's" execution. The film places the blame on individual judges. The film does not mention that "Joan" was beatified by the Catholic Church in 1909 and canonized in 1920.
In his autobiography, published in 1977, Preminger, who had directed Shaw's play early in his career in Vienna, wrote that during the premiere he "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."
Seberg, whose personal life and political stances were often controversial, appeared in more than thirty films before her death, under mysterious circumstances, in Paris in 1979. In 1927, Sybil Thorndike, who had portrayed Joan in the play's first London production, also appeared in a short sound film, made by the DeForest Phonofilm Company, of the Cathedral scene. For more information on films about the life of Saint Joan, please see the entry for Joan of Arc in AFI Catalog of Feature Films; 1941-50.
Released in United States March 1996
Released in United States on Video July 13, 1994
Released in United States Summer June 1957
Screen debut for David Hemmings.
Screen debut for Jean Seberg, who was picked out of a country-wide open casting call that procured more than 18,000 applicants.
Released in United States March 1996 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "The Films of Jean Seberg" March 15-28, 1996.)
Released in United States Summer June 1957
Released in United States on Video July 13, 1994