Actress Leelee Sobieski is in her mid-teens, and already she has led grown men into battle. In her case, she is playing the legendary historical figure Joan of Arc in the miniseries of the same name (CBS, 9-11 p.m., May 16 and 18). The demands of re-creating a 15th-century war between England and France, when warriors fought from beneath 60 pounds of armor, gave the young performer, who is half-French herself, a taste of the real thing.
"It was incredibly hard to hold onto my banner, wear my sword, and urge my horse to gallop across muddy battlefields all at the same time," recalls Ms. Sobieski of the production, which was shot in the Czech Republic during winter. Having to endure just a fraction of the physical trials of the real Joan, she says, "I really felt like Joan of Arc sometimes."
While the notion of a child going into battle may not sit well with modern audiences, recently shaken by images of armed teenagers shooting other teens, producer Ed Gernon says the important lesson of the real Joan was her dedication to peace.
"She never saw war as a means by itself," says Mr. Gernon, pointing to the historical realities surrounding the military engagements involving Joan. "Defense was always her main concern," he says. The farm girl who heard saintly voices felt she had no choice but to help France defend itself against British invaders.
"She felt everyone deserved their own home," he says. According to the historical record of those who knew the real Joan, "She believed that England had no right to invade another country."
The project itself has acquired a history. It began five years ago when producer Gernon came across a script that he felt cast a new light on Joan, who despite her battlefield triumphs was burned as a heretic at the age of 19.
"She wasn't a victim," he's quick to add. "It was her choice. I was fascinated by that." While the script underwent significant changes from that first version, the most important element of the film was, of course, the actress who would play Joan. "Leelee has such an intuitive grasp of the choices Joan made that I don't know how we could have done the film without that contribution," Gernon says.
Most of the surrounding characters, from the stalwart Jean de Metz (Chad Willett) who supported Joan throughout her short career, to Bishop Cauchon (played by the venerable Peter O'Toole), who ultimately betrayed her to the British, are historically accurate, though a few are composites of several important figures in her life.
"We felt it was important to show the process she went through from a simple country girl to a worldly young adult on trial for her life," Gernon says.
In order to do that, the figures who might have influenced her view of the world had to be fleshed out. "Otherwise, there's no explaining how she was able to be as clever as she was in some parts of her final trials," Gernon says.
Throughout Joan's brief three years as a French heroine, she was guided by her saintly voices. While Sobieski does not subscribe to a particular religion herself and is undecided on whether the historic Joan truly heard divine voices, she says "her faith that she was being guided toward something good gave her the power to achieve that good."
The actress maintains that the message of the historic Joan is as fresh today as it was in 1428 when the 16-year-old farm girl led French armies against the British. Her army succeeded in lifting a British siege of Orleans and in crowning the young Dauphin, Charles VII, as king of France. "She saw her duty as pure, not full of politics and corruption as all the adults around her were," Sobieski says.
"I think teenagers from any time in history can relate to that - the desire to cut through all the hypocrisy of the world and achieve something good," she adds.