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The Patience of a Saint

Putting up with discomfort is de rigueur as cast and crew brave the elements to make 'Joan of Arc' for CBS.

April 04, 1999|DAVID HOLLEY | Foreign correspondent David Holley is currently posted to Eastern Europe as The Times' Warsaw bureau chief

KOZAROVICE, Czech Republic — Radiant in her beauty, a teenage girl in medieval armor paces her horse before a mounted army and shouts a call to battle for the unity of France.

"Be of good heart, my friends," cries Joan of Arc. "Today our noble king will have a great victory, because we're guided by the king of heaven."

An aide hands her a long pole with a military banner, and after Joan poses with it briefly, the scene ends--for the fourth time. But the director and most of the film crew are preoccupied with a camera problem, and no one thinks to yell out the standard "cut" allowing the cast to relax.

After a few moments of silence, Joan--played by 16-year-old Leelee Sobieski--gives an unplanned demonstration of her leadership. "Uh, cut!" yells out the teenager, provoking a wave of laughter through cast and crew for the CBS miniseries "Joan of Arc," due to air starting May 16 as the centerpiece of the network's May sweeps programming.

Later, away from the mud and carefully controlled chaos of the battle scenes, Sobieski describes the character she wants to project. It's clear that Joan of Arc--who in 1431 was burned at the stake as a heretic--still resonates today with idealistic significance for this teenage actress.

"She wants to unite France so there's no more fighting, no more killing of women and children," says the American teenager, who first drew critical attention for her starring role in last year's film "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries." "She has to be strong. You can't be a weak person that's leading an army. But she's not doing it for the fact of 'Ooooh, this is great. Power! Money! Respect!' "

Ultimately, Joan, whose actions have been motivated by what she believes to be divine voices, dies at the stake "calling Jesus and God," Sobieski adds. "No sorceress could ever do such a thing."

Snapping back from the historical narrative to the present, Sobieski deadpans: "Maybe I'll become a nicer person [from making] this film, because she's so good."

One of the climactic events of Joan's saga--the battle of Les Tourelles, a fort blocking entry to the city of Orleans--is filmed here along a riverbank about 25 miles north of Prague, in the village of Kozarovice. It is one of more than a dozen locations in the Czech Republic used for the miniseries.

Wounded by an arrow during the fighting, Joan's determination to carry on drives her men to victory in this fight against the English occupiers.

For the stars and extras alike, the two days of filming in near-zero temperatures are cold, muddy and uncomfortable--yet almost everyone seems to be having fun. Sobieski looks serious while reciting her battle lines, but much of the rest of the time she has a joyful smile that says this is the coolest thing she can imagine doing.

Even the more experienced adult actors get caught up in the mood.

"It's a playground," said Cliff Saunders, who plays the role of a French soldier named Bertrand De Poligny. "We're on horses. We're sword-fighting, we're playing with arrows and bows."

The discomfort, however, is often very real.

"It was a lot of fun, but sometimes it's not good," says Zdenek Lebl, a 21-year-old student from Prague working for three days as an English archer, while huddled with other extras around a bonfire of scrap wood in an old barrel. "I'm very cold and sometimes very hungry."

At one point, Peter Strauss--who plays the French commander La Hire and has already spent a long foggy morning in chain mail--rushes to an assistant declaring: "We've got to get this fixed." The two men fuss with the cloth meant to protect Strauss' neck from direct contact with the freezing cold metal.

A bit later, Strauss spots some warm food. He's already snacked on cold salami but is still hungry and chilled. He's also just a touch slap-happy.

"What'd you get?" Strauss bellows with melodramatic envy, as he views the steaming plate of fried potatoes and deep-fried breaded cheese patty. "Oh, my God! And it's hot! Excuse me, could I just wear that? I don't want to eat it, I just want to put it in my tights."

It turns out there is a plate for Strauss too, and as he eats, standing in mud at a filthy table used as a camera platform, he confirms that, yes, he truly is cold and uncomfortable.

"Really beautiful [medieval] armor took eight months to a year to fit," Strauss says. "We just kind of fit into it and deal with it. . . . The Middle Ages were not a comfortable period to live in, and it will show."

The only cast member with custom-made armor is Sobieski--and hers, handmade in Italy, cost $60,000 for both metal and gray rubber suits, says executive producer Ed Gernon. The metal armor looks better, but the rubber suit is used for some scenes.

"Women don't wear armor--it's not like we can go to a costume house," Gernon says. "The male actors are being fitted from costume houses around the world."

Even at $60,000, Sobieski's armor isn't a perfect fit.

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