In honor of ‘The Woman King’: A look back at women warriors in the movies

Women are a force to be reckoned with both in real-life and in reel-life. Over the decades, strong women have permeated cinema from its infancy — remember Pearl White in the 1914 serial “The Perils of Pauline”? Viola Davis plays the title role in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s hit film “The Woman King.” The Oscar Emmy and Tony winner’s character leads a group of women warriors called the Agojie who protected the West African Kingdom of Dahomey from the 17th-19th centuries. (The Agojie were the inspiration for Dora Misaje, the all-female military group protecting the kingdom of Wakanda in 2018’s “Black Panther” and the upcoming “Black Panther: Wakanda.”)

Reviews have been strong for the “The Woman King,” which earned $19 million on its opening weekend, especially for the Davis. Noted Variety: “She plays Nanisca, who in the film’s aggressive prologue, stands firm before a phalanx of well-armed soldiers, her hair fashioned into a kind of Mohawk. Scars visible on her face and shoulders We’ve never seen the actor like this, and not for a second do we doubt Davis’ capacity to take down her rivals.”

Strong women have taken all sorts of forms in the movies. There have been women pirates (“Anne of the Indies” with Jean Peters and “Cutthroat Island” starring Geena Davis) and kick-assesses such as Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in the “Alien” franchise. George Miller gave us both the ruthless Auntie Entity (Tina Turner) in 1985’s “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” and the take-no-prisoners war captain Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road.” And the Marvel and DC universes are populated with the likes of “Black Widow” (Scarlett Johansson), “Captain Marvel” (Brie Larson) and “Wonder Woman” (Gal Gadot). And here’s a bit of trivia: the legendary Dorothy Dandridge played played Melmendi, Queen of Ashuba, in 1951’s “Tarzan’s Peril.”

Those characters are all fictional.  But that’s not the case with Joan of Arc, who lived from 1412 to 1431 and was declared a saint by the Catholic Church in 1920. There have been many books, movies, plays and limited TV series about this patron saint of France. At the age of 13, the peasant girl from rural Domremy began hearing voices she believed were sent from God. The voices told her that she needed to save her country by leading an army to defeat the British and having the Dauphin, Charles VII, named King of France. Cutting her hair and dressing like a man, Joan led her troops to victory against the English in 1429 at Orleans. She was eventually captured by the Duke of Burgundy’s men and jailed for a year before she was put on trial for heresy, witchcraft and even for dressing like a man (they said she was violating divine law). Joan was found guilty and burned at the stake in 1431 at the age of 19.

The greatest of all of the Joan of Arc films is Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” which is one of the masterpieces of the silent era. Dreyer had been invited by France’s Society Generale de Film invited him to make a movie with them in 1926. They agreed on Joan of Arc who had just been made a saint six years earlier. Dreyer used the actual transcripts of the trial for the film. He insisted that none of the actors wear makeup despite the fact everyone is in close-up. The off-kilter camera angles augment the sense of dread and disorientation, as did his rapid editing.

His directing style proved difficult for the actors especially for Renee Falconetti, the French stage actress Dreyer selected to play Joan. Dreyer was relentless doing take after take, sometimes close to 40, before he was satisfied   Said Dreyer: “With Falconetti, it often happened that, after having worked all afternoon, we hadn’t succeeded in getting exactly what was required…And the next day, we would have the bad take from the day before projected, we would examine it, we would search and we always ended by finding, in that bad take, some little fragments, some little light that rendered the exact expression and the tonality we had been looking for. It was from there that we would set out again, taking the best and abandoning the remainder.”

Falconetti’s performance is considered one of the most indelible ever put on screen. The New York Times Mordunt Hall noted: “She, is true, has been guided with veritable genius by Mr. Dreyer, but as one witnesses her eyes filling with tears or perceives a faint graceful smile crossing her appealing countenance, one feels that it would be difficult indeed to elicit from any other actress such an eloquent interpretation as she gives in this production.” Years later, the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael stated: “One of the greatest of all movies…No other film has so subtly linked eroticism with religious persecution. Falconetti’s Joan may be the finest performance ever recorded on film”.

Despite strong reviews “Passion of Joan of Arc” failed at the box office. And so did the lavish 1948 “Joan of Arc,” starring Ingrid Bergman as Joan and Jose Ferrer in his film debut as the Dauphin. Clocking in at two hours and 25 minutes, “Joan” is quite the self-important slog. Bergman had long wanted to be play Joan of Arc. She won the first Tony for her performance in the 1947 production of Maxwell Anderson’s “Joan of Lorraine.” Victor Fleming, the Oscar-winning helmer of 1939’s “Gone with the Wind who’d directed Bergman in 1941’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” oversaw “Joan of Arc.” (Fleming and Bergman had an affair during production). “Joan” ended up being his last film; he would die the following year.

Despite its flaws, there is no denying that Bergman is luminous as Joan earning an Oscar nomination as did Ferrer who nearly steals the film. In all, it was nominated for seven Oscars (it was the first film to earn that many bids without getting a Best Picture nomination) winning for its gorgeous Technicolor cinematography and costumes. Producer Walter Wanger was given an honorary Oscar for “distinguished service to the industry in adding to its moral stature in the world community by his production of the picture of ‘Joan of Arc.’” But he refused the award because his film did not contend for the top prize.

Make your predictions at Gold Derby now. Download our free and easy app for Apple/iPhone devices or Android (Google Play) to compete against legions of other fans plus our experts and editors for best prediction accuracy scores. See our latest prediction champs. Can you top our esteemed leaderboards next? Always remember to keep your predictions updated because they impact our latest racetrack odds, which terrify Hollywood chiefs and stars. Don’t miss the fun. Speak up and share your huffy opinions in our famous forums where 5,000 showbiz leaders lurk every day to track latest awards buzz. Everybody wants to know: What do you think? Who do you predict and why?

More News from GoldDerby