From the earliest days of the motion pictures, screenwriters and directors have chosen historical events as the subjects or settings of their films. This debate presents both advantages and disadvantages. Victor Fleming’s Joan of Arc have revived the perennial debate among film-makers, historians and educators concerning the degree of accuracy of historical films and what this accuracy or lack may mean in artistic and social contexts.
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Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies – the book
Past Imperfect; in this extensively commended volume, a recent collection of writings, 62 of our greatest historians, journalists, biographers and some other authorities concentrate on the facts and fiction as seen in the Hollywood epics based on historical events. Past Imperfect offers hundreds of movie stills, archival photographs, maps and other illustrations, along with side bars on related historical record. It has certainly shown a new ray of light towards the usage of history in present culture.
When we consider historical films, it is easy to be critical of what we see. Past Imperfect raises various important questions of film interpretation that invite further discussion. One question is how best to evaluate a historical film: in terms of accuracy of historical detail? Success in conveying a particular interpretation of the past? Transcendence of generic formulas and caricatures? Here, one wants to ask: can a film be true to the spirit of the past even if it distorts or fabricates details? Past Imperfect also works as a brief chronicle of time and places famous events and movements of the past in a cinematic context. Each chapter highlights a specific title. These chapters are organized by chronological order and not by the release date of the film. (Carnes, 1995).
Along with others, the distinguished historian Gerda Lerner explores through and examines the relationship between the film and the historical documentation. Gerda Lerner contrasts three cinematic portrayals of Joan of Arc – from the celebratory to the debunking. She writes that Victor Fleming’s Joan of Arc adhere quite closely to the main historical facts of the story. Gerda Lerner’s essay on three films devoted to the life of Joan of Arc – Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Victor Fleming’s Joan of Arc (1948) is not untypical.
She does her best to be fair to the film, but the essay keeps veering back and forth between different sorts judgment and criteria. The Flemingo and Preminger works she says, “have succeeded in creating a sense of historical veracity by getting superficial details such as the weapons and costumes of the time.” She says Ingrid Bergman gave a luminous performance and during the burning at the stake, her pain and terror were very believable. But unfortunately a kind of miraculous ending which shows a cross set against the sky and with typical Hollywood music breaks the illusion. These quotations from Lerner’s essay are meant to highlight the jumble of evidence she uses to make judgments. (Rosenstone, 2002).
Joan of Arc – the film
Joan of Arc is a 1948 Technicolor film. It was based on Maxwell Anderson’s Broadway play ‘Joan of Lorraine’ which was later adapted for the screen by Anderson himself. The film was director Victor Fleming’s last project; he died two months after its release. The film is a straight forward recounting of the life of the French heroine. In the fifteenth century, France is a defeated and ruined nation after the one hundred years war against England.
The fourteen year old girl Joan of Arc claims to hear voices from Heaven asking her to lead God’s army against Orleans and crowning the weak Dauphin Charles VII as king of France. Joan gathers the people with her faith, forms an army and conquers Orleans. The corrupt Charles betrays his people and sells his country to England. Joan is arrested and submitted to a shameful political trial in Rouen castle.
It begins with a painted shot of the inside of the basilica with a shaft of light descending from heaven, shining down from the ceiling and a solemn off screen voice pronouncing the canonization of the Maid of Orleans. Then comes a church manuscript recounting Joan’s life in Latin, while hearing the voice of a narrator setting up the tale. The actual story of Joan then begins; from the time she becomes convinced that she been divinely called to save France to her being burnt at the stake at the hands of the English and Burgundians.
Ingrid Bergman acting is a real piece de resistance. She gives a sincere and spell bounding performance as Joan of Arc, a 16th Century peasant who convinces the cynical French Royalty that God had commanded her to free France from the British. It is the story of the rising of a peasant girl above the King. The final film is a masterful adventure and tragedy. Victor Fleming proved his skill with massive crowd scenes. The impeccable battle sequences in Joan of Arc come as no surprise
Film for better or worse, gives history life. Facts alone do not necessarily make good history. Other elements are also at work. One being the performance; but how do we compare it with a prefigured notion of a historical figure. No one knows how the actual Joan looked, worked or gestured. The works come closest to historical truths when the cling as close as possible to the facts. Historical films often indulge in fabrication and invention. Hence, we can say that films that are based on historic events are often ‘imperfect’ they can still speak truth to history.
Carnes, Mark C. Past Imperfect: History According to the Movie. H-Net Reviews. 1995. Web.
Rosenstone, Robert A. Historical Film / Historical Thought. South Africa Conference on Film and History. 2002. Web.