HOLLYWOOD — Critics often dump on historical films for fudging the truth, but Luc Besson’s latest version of the Joan of Arc story takes the cake.
So says screenwriter-director Ronald Maxwell (“Gettysburg”), who has been readying his own Joan of Arc script for the past five years, and believes that Besson has made a mockery of history.
Maxwell’s critique is just one of a number of negative reviews of “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc,” which opened Nov. 12 and grossed $8.3 million domestically in its first week.Filmmakers, Maxwell argues in a letter to Variety, should tell their tales with less fiddling of the facts and more attention to the spirit of the age they are recreating. Besson, he says, errs on both counts.
The problem, he says, is that too often today’s filmmakers put their own egos ahead of historical accuracy: Their poetic license thus easily turns into a license to kill the truth.
In this case, Maxwell suggests, Besson’s ego may have gotten in the way of his ability to envision the ego-less Joan: “The pic is the ultimate ego trip, the polar opposite of the historical Joan, who surrendered her own ego to what she herself saw as a higher calling.”
One glaring goof in “The Messenger,” as Maxwell sees it, is that the pic ignores Joan’s belief that she was visited by saints, as detailed in her actual 1429 trial testimony.
Besson’s version, he says, portrays Joan simply as “a fictitious marionette” who is “transfixed by thrashing winds, rushing clouds and a wolf pack on the hunt” rather than as a pious young girl who believes she has been singled out by God.
Just as irresponsible, Maxwell says, is to center “The Messenger” around a graphic rape scene when there is no evidence in the historical record that this ever happened.
Not able to enter into the spirit of the Middle Ages, the filmmakers were desperate to find some sort of traumatic explanation for her actions, Maxwell believes.
To back up his claim, Maxwell points out that no other writer who has tackled the Joan of Arc story (he lists 32) has ever incorporated a rape scene into their interpretations.
Defending the film, a Sony exec says, “It’s not a documentary, but to our knowledge there was a significant amount of research done on the historical accuracy of this movie.”
In the Battle of Orleans sequence, Besson used the exact number of actors as soldiers listed in historical records, and “many lines in the movie were taken from the trial transcripts,” says the exec.
And of course there’s a reason why the fierce femme’s life is always labeled “the story” of Joan of Arc: No one arguably has ever nailed down the truth about her.
Still, “the cinematic hocus-pocus of ‘The Messenger’ adds to the clutter and confusion which has over the centuries accumulated to the Joan story like barnacles,” Maxwell writes.
And yet, Maxwell argues, “the known facts, or even the events conjectured by the best historians, are infinitely more interesting and dramatic than any of the lame inventions of this film.”
Maybe Maxwell will eventually succeed in conveying those facts more persuasively than he thinks Besson did.