Joan of Arc (January 6, 1412 – 30 May 1431)
An illiterate French peasant girl devoted to Catholicism, Joan of Arc was 16 years old when she got out of an arranged marriage to a dude she didn’t like, split for a nearby town (where she convinced the locals she was “the virgin who would save France” of folk myth), and got an audience with King Charles where she persuaded him that she spoke to archangels and they answered her back. She went to war against England in men’s clothes and bobbed hair, led French troops to victories in the endless crock of shit known as the Hundred Years War, fell into enemy hands and was tried on trumped-up charges including everything from heresy to cross-dressing to stealing a horse. Joan was 19 when the Brits burned her at the stake.
Joan of Arc – nicknamed the Maid of Orleans – is France’s national creation story. She is promoted by many as a feminist symbol … or at least a better role model than Paris Hilton. In 1920, she was awarded saint status by the Catholic Church. Joan has also – with the exception of Jesus – inspired more works of art than anyone in Western history, providing the basis for a raft of novels, poems, plays, films, TV shows, operas, oratorios, pop songs, tapestries, paintings and sculptures. Not to mention screensavers, t-shirts and coffee mugs.
A brief list of Joan’s Greatest Hits would include Henry VI, Part I (1590, where good Englishman, William Shakespeare, makes her the villain); the painting Joan of Arc at Prayer by Peter Paul Rubens (1620); Voltaire’s savage epic poem The Maid of Oranges (1756) and its sympathetic answer from Friedrich Schiller in The Maid of Orleans (1801); the two operas based on the Schiller play by Verdi in 1845 and Tchaikovsky in 1878; Mark Twain’s neglected, uncharacteristically earnest novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896); Joan as Chicago labor leader in Brecht’s Saint Joan of the Stockyards (1930); the Leonard Cohen single “Joan of Arc” from Songs of Love and Hate (1970); and the two-part Joan the Maiden (1994) by French New Wave filmmaker Jacques Rivette.
I am one of the five people who like Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan (1957), primarily because of the lovely natural portrayal of Joan by Jean Seberg (in her 1st movie) who was panned at the time but whose performance in retrospect seems almost the film’s only good one. The 1923 George Bernard Shaw play – upon which the Preminger movie was based – is the best stage presentation of Joan’s trial (drawing on actual transcripts) and one of Shaw’s finest works. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc is an artistic experience with few equals. Renee Jeanne Falconetti’s performance is so compelling that not only do you believe Joan heard voices, you start hearing them yourself … and it’s a silent film.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention former Go Go Jane Weidlin as Joan in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and the boys’ friendly greeting, “Welcome aboard, Miss Arc.” And the theme song from the Seventies TV series Maude, which has a line that sums it all up: “Joan of Arc with the Lord to guide her/she was a sister who really cooked.”