(Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 "The Passion of Joan of Arc" is available on the Criterion Collection's DVD at Netflix.)
The idea of what makes a woman hero dates back at least to female medieval mystics, among them Joan of Arc, the illiterate French peasant girl whose "divine voices" told her to unite France, assist in the crowning of the young Charles VII and expel the English invaders. For her trouble she was betrayed by French collaborators in 1431, turned over to a Church court, tried for heresy -- there were 29 "examinations" combined with torture, during which she disavowed her voices but then recanted -- and burned at the stake, all by the time she was 19 years old.
Every Catholic schoolgirl knows Joan's story -- as much frightening cautionary tale as feminist inspiration -- though actually a number of cultures have legends or historical instances of young women who transgressed conventions of their time, dressed in men's clothing and took up arms and leadership at moments of crisis, often to repel invaders. The Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 film about Joan's trial and execution is by no means the first cinematic treatment of "the maid of Orleans" -- at least seven movies preceded his, the earliest in 1895 -- though the Catholic Church did not declare Joan a saint until 1920. Ingrid Bergman played Joan twice -- in Victor Fleming's 1948 adaptation of Maxwell Anderson's play and again in 1954 for Rossellini. Otto Preminger launched Jean Seberg's career by casting her in his 1957 film based on George Bernard Shaw's play (the screenplay by that great novelist of Catholic doubt, Graham Greene). Director Robert Bresson's Joan film came out in 1962, and in 1997 Luc Besson cast Milla Jovovich in "The Messenger," still-popular on DVD and featuring Joan in battle. The most recent effort seems to be the riveting 2003 Hungarian film "Joan of Arc on the Night Bus," best described as a post-modern opera, which incidentally screened here in Syracuse several years ago courtesy of the Syracuse International Film Festival. This list is not exhaustive, but illustrates an enduring fascination with Joan.