What if Joan was one of us?

CBS's "Joan of Arc" miniseries is a history lesson in end-of-the-millennium American pop culture.

By Christopher Hawthorne

Published May 14, 1999 7:00PM (EDT)

Like many celebrities who died young, Joan of Arc has remained a vital presence in pop culture, forever fixed in our minds at age 19. Since she was burned at the stake in 1431, Joan has been endlessly rehabilitated and recycled: by historians, by the Catholic Church (which finally got around to canonizing her in 1920) and by writers from Shakespeare to Twain to Shaw.

Over the centuries, fictionalized versions of Joan's story have tended to reflect the eras in which they were written. Shakespeare's Joan, in "Henry VI: Part I," was overshadowed by the play's England-first jingoism. In Shaw's "Saint Joan" she was a modern woman, a reaction against the melodramatic heroines who dominated 19th century theater. And thanks to CBS, we now have a Joan of Arc for the end of the millennium. She arrives in miniseries form on Sunday and Tuesday nights, with 16-year-old Leelee Sobieski, a dead ringer for a young Helen Hunt, in the title role. (The cast also includes Peter O'Toole, Olympia Dukakis, Shirley MacLaine and Neil Patrick Harris, better known to TV viewers as Doogie Howser.) As with earlier versions, this one is more interesting for what it says about our culture than what it says about Joan's.

A few telltale signs of our time:

We can't get enough of angels. Sweet and always upbeat, solidly Christian but not overbearingly so, angels are the perfect ambassadors of American religion. It's no coincidence that CBS, the network that has scored huge ratings with the sugarcoated series "Touched by an Angel," is behind this current version of Joan. In "Saint Joan," Shaw's heroine rather bluntly announces that she's been holding regular conversations with Catholic saints; it's up to the audience to decide if they actually descend upon her from the heavens. Here, we get the full supernatural treatment, complete with winged, ethereal angels, parting clouds and choirboy vocals. Joan's most important and dangerous religious legacy -- as a Protestant avant la lettre, she wanted to bypass the all-powerful Church and talk directly to God -- is pushed to the periphery.

We lap up violence, especially if it's softened by historical distance and lots of horses. In the wake of Littleton, America may be reexamining its love affair with guns, but who's going to complain about lances, crossbows and battering rams?

Teen angst is where it's at. In the eyes of most biographers, Joan's most striking feature was her unnatural wisdom -- she was a brilliant military strategist stuck in a girl's body. But this Joan is a teenager through and through: She argues tearfully with her parents and develops crushes on cute boys. After hearing Joan describe her vision of St. Michael -- "He was tall, with long, dark hair and big, warm blue eyes" -- I thought maybe I'd accidentally switched over to "Dawson's Creek."

It's hardly surprising that this period piece is overlong and generally lifeless. What is surprising is that hidden under all that armor is such a clear picture of contemporary America. Like it or not, this Joan is one of us.

Christopher Hawthorne

Christopher Hawthorne is arts editor of the East Bay Express in Berkeley, Calif.

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