‘The Trial of Joan of Arc’ 1962
As you do, I got up and watched The Trial of Joan of Arc again today. I felt I’d been tired while watching it a couple of days ago, never a good way to be when evaluating something, so I played the film again. This time, not on a big screen, but on a pretty much regular-sized television. The film opens with a series of title cards. The statement made is that the film is based on the transcripts of the trial and that the final scenes, her burning, were based on eyewitness accounts.
Filmmakers make all sorts of claims, and use all sorts of devices, often in the attempt to make the film seem like a real document of the truth, so I have no idea of the veracity of such a statement. I don’t even know if there is such a thing. [I will go and research it.]
If there isn’t, and Bresson made up the interrogation, then it’s even more extraordinary, because it has the power of something real. Again, I’m simply accepting the film on its own terms without researching it or reading about it.
There are three aspects of the film which relate to whether or not the film can be believed:
- There are transcripts of trials so maybe it happened.
- There are other things that happen to Joan outside of the trial, in her cell, for instance, which aren’t part of a transcript, and whispered conversations between England’s representative and the prosecuting Bishop, and some others.
- There are the final scenes when she is burned alive.
Now, I’m starting to think I’m pretty gullible if I believe that the questions and answers were based on, and condensed, from the real trial. But I’m used to films which state upfront that the story is based on, or inspired by, true events. Then they create a new character to represent three or four different people, and they create additional scenes for tension or intrigue. So, I took this statement as truth other than the other option, a bald-faced lie.
Actually, I know a lot more about the actual historical documents which support whether Jesus of Nazareth lived and breathed and was nailed to a cross and died, than I do about what Joan of Arc did or didn’t do. I’m assuming that she existed, and the tale of Joan of Arc isn’t just a piece of literature.
Okay, that makes me pretty dumb. But I didn’t study history. I studied geology, music, English, mathematics and the Japanese language at school; and English literature and poetry, psychology, and theatre and film at university.
I didn’t study geography and science and history and when I play Trivial Pursuit, I can only answer three categories, sport, literature and entertainment. Unless a science question asks me, does Saturn or Jupiter have rings? or how many inches are in a foot? – I’m pretty much stuffed.
I better do some research. [I think she was real – wasn’t she?]
2 hours later
So, a very strange thing has occurred. I have researched the existence of Joan of Arc, her trial and what has been attributed to her. Like English kings, as dramatized by Shakespeare, I knew she was the subject of films and plays, and that whatever the bare bones of Shakespeare’s Richard III or Henry IV Part I and II or Henry V, those people existed.
I grew up in a world of Christian literature, and mid-20th century Christian beliefs, in an English-speaking world. I didn’t grow up in the Roman Catholic faith of Saints, but I know about the English monarchy’s dispute about Catholicism, Protestant vs Catholic.
I know that there is significantly more proof of the existence of Jesus than there is of Moses. That other – accepted – historical sources writing about events not about Jesus, but around the time of Jesus, make the existence of Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, crucified under Pontius Pilate’s rule, as reliable as the existence of Richard III and Henry V or Elizabeth II.
I haven’t even mentioned the Hebrew and Christian Bible because that’s not part of this discussion. I’m talking pure history at this point.
I doubted the existence (after watching The Trial of Joan of Arc ) of Joan of Arc based on the unbelievable claims she made for which she was burned – more as a heretic than a witch.
Maybe it was just a play written by George Bernard Shaw.
My upbringing as – essentially – an Englishman in Australia gave me more access to an understanding of the Japanese language and their part in World War II than what Joan of Arc said she believed in. When I watched Bresson’s film of her trial, I had many questions about the extraordinary nature of her claims. To me, they were like the claims of Jesus’s disciples, John and Peter, and later, Saul (aka Paul), requiring a belief in God and Jesus and the idea of acceptance or rejection, that people who hear voices can only be crazy, or that they actually hear the voices of supernatural beings (under a conventional acceptable version of Christian or non-Christian belief).
I grew up in an environment which accepted the essential Christian beliefs, so the transcript of Joan’s trial, and her claims, was disturbing.
My few hours of research on the internet did not- ever – lead me to read any page on Wikipedia about Joan of Arc. My experience with Wikipedia is that it is as credible as many encyclopedias up to a point. When I read about a subject – something I know a lot about – I see many tiny errors. It’s a fatally flawed encyclopedia and I would never quote it as a source. It’s full of quotes from magazines and books which are themselves full of opinions, some well-researched, and others completely tabloid.
The (quietly) awful nature of Wikipedia is that so much of it is true, accurate and reliable that the bits which aren’t, are accepted as well. And there’s no committee vetting it, discussing it and disagreeing about the validity of the content.
So, ad nauseum, I did not read about Joan of Arc in Wikipedia. Instead I looked to Encyclopedia Britannica. It has hundreds of people who specialize in research contributing. I don’t even believe in everything they say, as human opinion comes into any historical capture of an accepted belief or understanding of historical events.
What I do know now, is that she was real and there are transcribed and translated versions of her answers to the questions asked at her (terribly one-sided) trial.
What we know about her claims of guidance by angels, and her firm, unshakeable, belief in Jesus, is that until she was broken by the process accusing her of heresy, she was clear, that she would only answer to God and Jesus. When she finally renounced the voices, she was very ill. When she renounced her renunciation, it was after she heard the saints reinforce once again that she was still hearing the words of God through angels.
She didn’t want to even acknowledge a reality where she would be burned alive – but that’s what was threatened if she didn’t repudiate her previous weeks of testimony.
She desperately didn’t want to be burned alive. She was happy – literally – to be killed, executed, and live in the afterlife, but not through burning in flames while breathing and feeling and smelling her own flesh burning.
As I watched the film of her trial and heard her answers to the interrogators I believed the words spoken by an actress, directed by a director, saying words written by a screenwriter. It had the ring of truth. It was very powerfully recreated.
My other question though is, what does the director believe?
It’s basically the same as asking someone who composes the most incredible religious musical work, what inspired them, given their belief, or lack of, in God and all of the beliefs of Christianity.
Bresson’s films are peppered with Christian symbolism and ideology and they also reveal, what I think is an expression of, a person’s disappointment in the human understanding of God, sin and judgment.
Having watched Ingmar Bergman’s films, which struggle with Jesus, God and the teaching of the bible by ministers and priests, I discovered that Bergman’s father was a priest or parson. He rejected the faith of his father, but still was sincere in his expression of it in the lives of his characters as depicted in his films, notwithstanding all of his film’s ultimate rejection of all of the Christian yardarms – mankind comprises sinners and requires the acknowledgment of that fact, with contrition and repentance, then allowing any person to be redeemed.
I’m sure someone has written a book about Bresson or made an authoritative documentary. I’ll have to investigate.