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Image Entertainment presents
"Use me well, for I have told you I shall last but a year and a little longer."
DVD ReviewOne might think that there were some kind of curse on films about France's national heroine. Dreyer's masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc was believed lost for years until a print turned up in a mental institution. And this epic by Victor Fleming had the misfortune of being released in the wake of the scandal of star Ingrid Bergman's affair with director Roberto Rossellini, and the notion of a saint being portrayed by such a sinful woman sent numerous pontificating church leaders into apoplexy. It was consequently maligned and then subjected to numerous indignities including 45 minutes being hacked out of it and superfluous voiceovers slapped on top of it. But thanks to Robert Gitt and the restoration forces at UCLA, the film has been restored to its full glory from its original negatives.
The familiar story is replayed here from the time Joan first asserts herself in 1428, at the command of the voices in her head, to lead the army of the French dauphin to drive the English out of the country. Initially laughed at, she eventually convinces Charles, the dauphin (Jose Ferrer) that the people of France will rally to her cause. Driving the English out of the stronghold of Orleans, she leads Charles to the crown and the beginnings of modern France. But when faced with a crisis of leadership and the treachery of Charles, Joan's voices fail her and she falls into the hands of the English and the Church, both of whom are eager to condemn her as a witch.
The film is reasonably faithful to the historical record, such as it is, though the expected compression and selectivity is on display. Maxwell Anderson is billed as co-writer of the screenplay, which is based on his successful stage play, Joan of Lorraine. As presented here, Anderson and Fleming are wisely agnostic on the issue of the voices, which are never heard (though some later mutilations added voices in). Instead, they prefer to emphasize the humanity of Joan and the incipient nationalism that she invoked when things looked darkest for the French people in the depths of the Hundred Years' War. Though Charles is suitably condemned for his treachery (and acknowledges in dialogue he's not the sort of person in whom God is likely to take an interest), he even gets off a little light here, since there's ample evidence that for whatever reason he actually conspired with the English to betray Joan to them, but that's only very lightly hinted at.
Bergman was nominated for an Oscar for her performance, and she was certainly deserving of consideration, her accent notwithstanding. She credibly plays Joan as a teenager (even though she was 33), other than physically being a shade sturdy for the slight girl. More problematic is the excessive makeup that's used on her (and readily visible here) that I somehow doubt is consistent with the historical Joan. Ferrer's dauphin is suitably egomaniacal and loathsome, but he also has an awareness of his venality and unworthiness that lends a fascinating depth to the character. Other villains in the tale are cast with horror film veterans such as J. Carrol Naish (House of Frankenstein) and George Zucco (The Mummy's Tomb). Ward Bond even turns up as La Hire, leader of the French forces before Joan's arrival; his portrayal is not all that far removed from his long line of cavalry captains in John Ford movies, but he has an earthy sincerity that works very well nonetheless, especially as he tries to come to terms with the notion of Joan at the front of the army. There's not a ton of action, though the battle of Orleans is rather harrowing, and most of Joan's subsequent campaigns are mentioned in passing in the desire to get to the trial scenes (which, to be fair, are always the best bit of any Joan of Arc film). Unfortunately, Fleming must have had a fairly limited budget, since most of the film is clearly shot on thinly-disguised soundstages, which is very injurious to the mood.
The human drama is foremost, however, and it's wonderfully well realized despite the shortcomings of the staging. The cruel treatment of Joan by the man whom she only sought to serve is one of the fascinating tales of history, especially in light of the supernatural aspects of the tale. The only question that remains unanswered is why, exactly, it was God's plan to install Charles on the throne, leading to centuries of abuse of the notion of the divine right of kings and the concomitant bloodshed that followed. The benefit is obvious only if one is a member of the house of Valois (and perhaps Bourbon). Mysterious ways, indeed.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: The UCLA restoration of the Technicolor negatives looks very nice indeed. There's a certain amount of speckling visible, but the color is very nice. It's not the vivid, eye-popping color that one usually thinks of in old-style Technicolor, but is instead an extremely rich, almost buttery, color that has incredible levels of saturation. Much of the picture looks like a Vermeer come to life. The attractive restored main titles are thoughtfully windowboxed. No edge enhancement is apparent, though mild compression ringing is occasionally visible.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: The 2.0 mono audio track has a significant amount of noise and hiss. However, it's forgivable in this instance since the notes point out that the original soundtracks were lost, and a sole surviving print from Europe contained the complete original audio. So given those parameters, I'm quite satisfied with the limitations of how this sounds.
Audio Transfer Grade: C+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Layers Switch: 01h:11m:47s
Extras Review: The sole extra is an accompanying text essay on the history of the film, primarily devoted to its restoration. Chaptering is a little thin for a picture of this length.
Extras Grade: D
Final CommentsThe unforgettable epic is nicely restored, with a beautiful rendering of the picture, but the sound is (understandably) a bit dodgy. The only extra is a set of production notes, though.
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