Film History Essentials: Exécution de Jeanne d’Arc (1898)

(English: The Execution of Joan of Arc)

What it’s about:

Several people in period dress and a troop of guards enter and take up position near a large pyre piled around a stake. Joan of Arc follows behind, leaning on a monk for support. She makes a final plea to the Bishop, who points imperiously to the pyre. She climbs to the top and stands, clutching a crucifix given to her by the monk. The monk descends and kneels, either in prayer or to beg mercy from the Bishop. A man lights the pyre and stands back to watch along with the other spectators.

Why it’s essential:

Georges Hatot began directing films for Lumière in 1896, collaborating frequently with actor Gaston Breteau. In addition, some have credited them with several Gaumont films that are also credited to Alice Guy. Though the Lumière brothers are best known for their actualities, obviously their production company made all sorts of motion pictures during its year of operation. Of the couple dozen films credited to Hatot prior to 1900, what stands out are a series of films about executions and assassinations of figures from French history: the Duke of Guise, French revolutionaries Jean-Paul Marat, Jean-Baptiste Kléber, and Maximilien Robespierre, and (naturally) Joan of Arc.

These films mostly seem to have been tableau vivant inspired by famous works of art depicting the events in question. The primary source of inspiration for Exécution de Jeanne d’Arc was apparently Jules-Eugène Lenepveu’s Joan of Arc at the Stake in Rouen. It is a massive, 15-foot canvas that adorns a wall in the Panthéon, one of a series of paintings showing various scenes from Joan’s life. Lenepveu painted this series between 1886 and 1890, so its completion was relatively recent.

This particular film is also, of course, another example of the less common and painstaking hand-tinting process that added color to a few special films. Strangely, an image from the black-and-white version of the film seems to show that the hand-tinted version (at least as it exists online) has had the sides trimmed in slightly. There should be another guard visible standing to the far right of the frame, and the two spectators on the left side should not be partially cut off. Notice, too, the sign above Joan’s head at the stake. The quality of this version renders it illegible, but it is clear from the surviving black-and-white image that it says “Hérétique Relaps,” or “Relapsed Heretic” (the “crime” for which Joan was executed at the age of 19).

Why you should see it:

This seems to be the only film in Hatot’s “deaths of historical figures” series that does not show the actual event of the title. (Actually, Mort de Robespierre shows Robespierre being shot in the face. The film’s description claims that this shot ended his life, though he was in fact guillotined later that day.) However, all of Hatot’s similar films depict deaths that are much more sudden (mostly stabbings), and easier to simulate quickly with basic stagecraft. Still, it would have been possible to at least produce a lot of smoke, and the tinting could even have included some flames to great effect. On the other hand, the original painting doesn’t include any flames, either.

This one missed opportunity aside, the film makes particularly effective use of its colors. The guards and other onlookers are dressed in an array of brilliant hues, with the executioner who lights the fire in an especially vivid red. Bishop Cauchon’s gold-and-silver raiment stands out as well. All of these various bright colors are a stark contrast to the plain white worn by Joan herself, emphasizing her purity and her innocence among her accusers and executioners. The hand-tinting here is not only visually striking, but conveys meaning and symbolism as well. This is perhaps the earliest example of color being used in this way in a film.

~ by Jared on April 3, 2023.

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