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  • Joan of Arc’s Gunpowder Artilleryin Cecil B. DeMille’s Joan the Woman (1916)
  • Scott Manning

Joan of Arc is a ubiquitous figure in popular culture, and it is easy to find statements that “there are more original sources” regarding Joan “than exist for any other medieval figure.”1 As a result, “No person in the Middle Ages, male or female, has been the subject of more historical studies than Joan of Arc.”2 Cinema has responded in kind, as “the number of Joan of Arc films is only exceeded by those depicting the life of Christ.”3 Yet, with all these available sources, studies, and films, the focus on Joan of Arc’s military career has not been well-rounded. As Kelly DeVries points out, “few words have been devoted to her capabilities as a military leader, despite this being the central reason for her fame or infamy.”4 This lack of martial focus traverses to film as well, and in the more than 40 feature-length films about the Maid, only ten of these depict any sort of battle scene and even fewer depict gunpowder weaponry of any kind (Table 1).5 This is a remarkable marginalization of Joan of Arc’s military experience, as every one of the sieges she participated in featured gunpowder weapons. In fact, DeVries has identified two of these sieges as featuring the most gunpowder artillery up to those points in history.6 Furthermore, only one film—Cecil B. DeMille’s silent film Joan the Woman (1916)— depicts Joan providing any sort of direction to gunners.7 This marginalization of Joan’s leadership [End Page 18] should be just as surprising, as multiple eyewitnesses attest to Joan’s ability to place and direct cannons, and a surviving letter signed by Joan demonstrates that she understood and valued the necessary ingredients for gunpowder.8

Given this anomaly in the cinematic tradition of Joan of Arc, this paper focuses on what influenced DeMille to depict gunpowder artillery as he did in the film. The inclusion of gunpowder artillery was a mid-production decision, and DeMille’s aesthetic mimicked what was readily available to him through Joan of Arc exhibitions and ephemera from the Ringling Bros. Circus, both of which distributed and even copied the works of Louis-Maurice Boutet de Monvel.

Cannons in Joan the Woman

The preparation and ultimate siege of Orléans takes up a large portion of Joan the Woman, featuring a charge, a battle in the trenches, and at least eight cannons. Once at the siege, French troops position the cannons and themselves behind mantelets, or wooden shields. The cannons are not merely atmospheric, but they are necessary for the plot, as Joan pantomimes instructions the gunners to target a spot on the wall of an English tower. A hole forms, growing larger and larger, as cannonballs continue to strike at it, eventually creating a breach (Figure 1). Joan climbs a ladder and charges through the breach, suffers an arrow wound to the chest, and is almost captured.9

The shooting script, written by Jeanie McPherson, is explicit in its use of gunpowder artillery if not the mantelets. It mentions “gun men” or “gunners” five times, “cannon” or “mortars” nine times, and “cannon balls” three times. There is one vague reference to “artillery” in scene 317, but the very next scene clears up any possible confusion with “mortars.”10 In addition, the script explicitly describes Joan “directing mortars which swing up and into place,” and then “she is directing the fire of the mortars – to make a breach in the wall of one of the Towers.”11 Joan’s leadership is clear, as “she gives order to courier to take the gunner – pointing back toward mortars – indicating what she wants.”12 The script also describes these cannons as “Joan’s mortars” twice and as “Joan’s fire” once.13 Anyone who worked on or watched Joan the Woman would have seen the cannons featured prominently with Joan directing the gunners. [End Page 19]

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Fig. 1.

Joan of Arc leads a cavalry charge to relieve retreating French who had failed to capture the...