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Instruments of History: Cecil B. DeMille's "Joan the Woman"

The seventh in our continuing series of articles written and films programmed by the feminist film journal cléo.
Part of our continuing partnership with the online film journal cléo, which guest programs a film to watch on MUBI in the United States. In conjunction, we'll be hosting an exclusive article by one of their contributors. This month Mallory Andrews writes on Cecil B. DeMille's Joan the Woman (1916), now showing through December 15, 2015.

It’s a bit of a shame that Cecil B. DeMille’s two-hour 1916 silent film will likely always be overshadowed by Carl Theodor Dreyer’s indelible The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). The universal praise for Dreyer’s intimate take on La Pucelle is well-earned and full of images that remain some of the most moving uses of close-ups in cinema. By contrast, Joan the Woman (being a typical DeMille joint) is concerned more with epic, operatic imagery. The climactic Battle of Orleans is teeming with detail, an elaborate scope that pushes at the boundaries of the square Academy ratio frame, consigning Joan (Geraldine Ferrar) to a lone figure in white shining amidst a sea of extras in costume.
But DeMille’s version, though lacking in the stark emotiveness of the Dreyer film, is well worth a look for its narrative inventiveness. Namely, the framing device bookending the story of Joan: that of World War I (still ongoing at the time of the film’s production) English soldier Eric Trent (William Reid) facing a long, dark night of the soul as he ponders whether or not to volunteer for a kamikaze mission into the enemy’s trenches. After recovering the fabled sword of Joan of Arc, the saint appears to him as a vision and Eric is transported (or perchance, dreams of being transported) into Joan’s war-torn French village in 1431, though now he is John Trent, some erstwhile English ancestor. Like a proto-Forrest Gump, Trent is conveniently present for most of the key events of Joan’s rise and fall, replete with the benefit of hindsight. “God forgive us, we have burned a saint!” he cries upon Joan’s execution, despite the fact that her sainthood would not come to pass until centuries later.
Curiously, Trent’s intrusion into the story has little effect on the events of the past. Joan the woman is Joan of Arc, an instrument of history predestined to lead the French Army to victory against the English, only to be burned at the stake for the crime of heresy. This historical narrative does not waver from the course of fate. Joan must die.
Trent is incapable of saving Joan, but his presence does graft a parallel narrative onto the proceedings: Hollywood love story. Trent enters the story while Joan is still merely a humble milkmaid in her tiny village of Domremy. Trent (still an English soldier) is utterly beguiled by Joan when she protects him from members of the French military who are patrolling the village. At first blush, Joan herself appears to share the attraction. As a story element, the romance is rather inconsequential, a clear attempt by DeMille to appeal to a mainstream audience. Joan of Arc made relatable as Joan the woman. Or rather, as Joan the swooning leading lady.
But the discordant collision of history and Hollywood makes for the most interesting aspect of Joan the Woman. That is, the question of Joan’s agency. Throughout the film, Joan casts off the boundaries of traditional femininity. She trades her simple peasant dresses for masculine armour and weaponry. Her detractors disparage her with gendered language: “milkmaid,” “maiden,” “wench,” and eventually (and most damningly) “witch”—games of childish name-calling she neither engages with nor acknowledges. And in her unwavering faith, she also casts off the gendered Hollywood romance. She is not a helpless maiden waiting to be saved by a valiant hero. Joan the Woman makes this abundantly clear when Trent pulls Joan aside in a cathedral and finally proclaims his undying devotion to her. Rather than melt into his embrace, she denies him: “There is room in each heart but for one love—mine is for France.” With this, she lifts her arms aloft and steps reverently towards the church altar, a reimagined version of triumphantly running into a true love’s arms at the end of a more conventional romantic movie. DeMille’s Joan owns her narrative, no longer merely an instrument of history but the architect of her own destiny.

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