Is Paris Burning? (1966)

Is Paris Burning? is an all-star World War II epic, patterned after the success of the 1962 blockbuster The Longest Day

The film tells the story of the liberation of Paris by Allied forces in August 1944. The commander of the German forces in the city, General von Choltitz (Gert Fröbe), has been charged by Hitler with defending Paris against the advancing Allied armies in the weeks after the invasion of Normandy. Von Choltitz is ordered to ruthlessly suppress the city and its population. And if the Germans are no longer able to hold off the Allied advance, then they must destroy Paris as they retreat.

Meanwhile, the various resistance groups in Paris are growing restless. The Allies have landed in France, but it seems that they have every intention of bypassing the city. Despite its symbolic importance as the French capital, the Allies regard it as of limited strategic significance. 

Some of the resistance groups want to start taking over the city themselves, street by street. Others understand that they can't face the German Army for very long without the support of tanks and regular soldiers. When rumours build that the Germans are intending to destroy the city, the resistance tries to get word to General Patton's forces nearby, and to the Free French General Leclerc, believing that the Allied armies must enter Paris if it is to be saved from destruction. 

French film poster for "Is Paris Burning?"
French poster for "Is Paris Burning?" under the French title "Paris brûle-t-il?" 

The Longest Day, an all-star epic telling the story of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6th 1944, had been a huge hit in 1962. That film set the pattern for the big war epics of the 1960s and 1970s. These films would tell the story of a major battle - usually one from World War II. The story would be told from both sides and using a cast of international stars, mixing the real historical personalities with fictional representative characters. The films were usually made in a realist style and were intended to seem authentic and without too many fictional embellishments. 

Is Paris Burning?, known in French as Paris brûle-t-il?, was based on the non-fiction book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. The film was directed by René Clément in a semi-documentary style similar to The Longest Day, and often incorporating genuine WWII footage. 

René Clément was a well-regarded French film maker of the 1940s and 1950s, whose previous successes included the French resistance docudrama La Bataille du rail ("The Battle of the Rails") in 1946 and Jeux interdits ("Forbidden Games") in 1952.

But the script for Is Paris Burning? was credited in the main to two Americans, the novelist and screenwriter Gore Vidal, who had worked on the script for Ben Hur (1959), and Francis Ford Coppola. At that time, Coppola was an up-and-coming young screenwriter, who had recently made his directorial debut with a Roger Corman cheapie, the very low budget thriller Dementia 13 in 1963.  

Marcel Moussy and Beate von Molo are credited with providing additional material, but more writers worked on the film uncredited and Is Paris Burning? does have the whiff of a broth worked on by too many cooks. 

The multiple writers manage to fashion the historical events into a workmanlike script with a loose structure, but Is Paris Burning? is rather a lumpy, disjointed war epic. As with other films in this genre, there are some telling vignettes included in the film along the way, but the script suffers in particular from the transference of audience interest and identification between too many characters. 

Gert Frobe as a German General riding in a staff car
General von Choltitz (Gert Fröbe) arrives at the Wolf's Lair

The most consistently featured personality is actually a German, Gert Fröbe as General von Choltitz, who is put in charge of the defence or destruction of Paris. Having recently starred as one of the most celebrated Bond villains in Goldfinger in 1964, the chubby Fröbe was at that time one of Germany's biggest actors, in more ways than one. He had also had a supporting role in The Longest Day as an ordinary German soldier, so his leading role here represents a considerable promotion on the back of his greater fame.

Most of the other main characters are French resistance members, including Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Bruno Cremer. The script picks up and then drops some of these characters as the narrative progresses and Cremer's resistance leader Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, who is dominant earlier in the film, is more or less forgotten about as the story progresses. Leslie Caron, as the wife of an imprisoned resistance leader, is also significant early on in the film, while Belmondo appears briefly as a resistance man who takes over command of the seat of government. 

It seems that a good chunk of the French equivalent of Equity wanted to get involved in this famous story of national liberation. There are French New Wave stars Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo and an up-and-coming leading man in Bruno Cremer. 

There are French actors familiar from English language films, like Leslie Caron and the veteran Hollywood star Charles Boyer, the latter as a doctor who aids the resistance. And when the Free French forces appear, they are led by contemporary French stars Yves Montand and Jean-Pierre Cassell. 

Simone Signoret also puts in an appearance as a café owner, who puts phone calls through from the soldiers to their families and sweethearts in Paris, as the Free French armoured column advances on the city.

French resistance in Is Paris Burning (1966)
Some of the resistance, including Jean-Paul Belmondo (left)

The film adds to its roster of French names with American stars, no doubt at the insistence of its American distributor and financier Paramount Pictures. Several of the imported stars are portraying real Allied generals, including Kirk Douglas, who is curiously cast in a one scene cameo as General Patton, commander of the U.S. Third Army. Robert Stack also appears as Brigadier Sibert and the Canadian actor Glenn Ford plays the "G.I.'s General" Omar Bradley, commander of the U.S. Twelfth Army Group.

Anthony Perkins gets a supporting role as a wide-eyed U.S. Sergeant who is eager for the chance to see Paris. Or "See Paris and die", as his more cynical comrade puts it. Perkins, perhaps unsurprisingly, is more excited by the sight of the Eiffel Tower than by the young French woman throwing herself at him as they drive into the city. 

George Chakiris also appears in an almost pointlessly brief cameo at the end as part of an American tank crew. E. G. Marshall was cast as an American intelligence officer, but his appearance has been cut from most available versions of the film. 

Orson Welles has a heftier part than most as Raoul Nordling, the Swedish consul in Paris, who attempts to broker a ceasefire between the Germans and the resistance. Like some of the other actors, Welles is intermittently dubbed, although he is mostly allowed to use his own voice, probably because it was so famous and distinctive. No doubt Welles was trying to drum up financing for one of his film projects in Europe at the time this was made. 

Kirk Douglas as General Patton
Kirk Douglas as US General Patton

The German actors include several familiar from other WWII-themed subjects in the 1960s and 1970s, including Hans Messemer (the German commandant in The Great Escape), Wolfgang Preiss (also in The TrainVon Ryan's Express and A Bridge Too Far), Gunter Meisner (The Bridge at Remagen, The Odessa File, The Boys from Brazil) and Karl Otto Alberty (The Great EscapeBattle of BritainKelly's Heroes). 

Other than von Choltitz, none of the Germans are much characterised - although one officer does reveal that he drinks water and not wine, a sure sign of villainy in a French film. 

While clearly an expensive production, Is Paris Burning? is not always satisfactory on a technical level. As with The Longest Day, the film intercuts its own staged scenes with genuine wartime footage. Some of this works well, but at other times the wartime footage is too worn and grainy for the difference not to show. 

By the film's final scenes, showing the liberation of Paris, the wartime footage is in remarkably poor condition, considering that it was only twenty years old. This is not helped by the need to transfer it into the widescreen process used in the film. 

In these scenes though, the fact that these are obviously genuine wartime scenes of the liberation itself is a bonus. As the film turns from fiction to reality, the excessive graininess of the film becomes not so much a detraction but a signifier of authenticity. 

More troublesome is the use of dubbing for many of the cast, from stars to supporting players. In The Longest Day French and German characters were allowed to speak their own language with subtitled dialogue. René Clément, or his producer Paul Graetz, has decided not to take that route for Is Paris Burning? This was probably because, with such a preponderance of French characters, much of the film's dialogue would have been in French. The film's casting shows that it was aiming at an international and especially an American audience, with its otherwise unnecessary use of American stars. So too many subtitles were obviously deemed unacceptable. 

WWII German Generals
Von Choltitz (Gert Fröbe, left) considers his options

Much of the dialogue of the French resistance characters is dubbed, something made obvious by Clément's use of plenty of close ups of his actors in these scenes. The German actors are also dubbed, including Fröbe, Wolfgang Preiss and Gunter Meisner, the latter appearing as a strutting SS man in charge of a train load of prisoners. 

Gert Fröbe's performance suffers particularly badly, because he seems to be dubbed by different actors from one scene to the next, none of whom sound much like Gert Fröbe. The dialogue is dubbed quite badly in some places, with obviously phoney voice-overs accompanied by the inimitable echoing sound that comes from actors recording their lines in a dubbing booth. 

There are some odd non sequiturs in the dialogue, suggesting that some lines were altered in post-production. There are also a few inelegant cuts, possibly where lines have been removed, leading to minor continuity errors as the actors' relative positions are not always maintained within a scene.

The film also starts with an odd transition from a dubbed scene to a subtitled one. When the German officers are outside waiting to see Hitler at the Wolf's Lair they are speaking English. But when they go inside to see the Führer, the characters suddenly start speaking German, in one of the film's only subtitled scenes. Adolf Hitler is played by Billy Frick, an actor who made a few film appearances in the 1960s and '70s, almost all of them as Hitler. 

Rene Clément's other directorial choices are not always the best and sometimes the melodramatics seem a little forced and obvious. As when Caron's character's husband is shot dead by the Germans, something that triggers an immediate downpour from the studio rain machines, all the better to make a sad scene. It's as if Clement is saying, "Not only is her husband dead, but now it's bloody raining as well!"

There are other oddly melodramatic death scenes and some details that don't convince. When a German Kübelwagen field car crashes into a tree, it does so to the sound of loudly shattering glass, obviously the sound of a window pane being broken and not a vehicle hitting a tree. 

Anthony Perkins and Skip Ward as American GIs
Anthony Perkins and Skip Ward advance on Paris

There are also some bits that will mean more to French audiences than to others, as when the Free French General Leclerc (played by Claude Rich) appears. He is introduced with enough reverence to make non-French audiences wonder why this man they've never heard of is being given such a big build-up. 

Although the execution could sometimes be better, the film does have some interesting individual sequences. In one scene, Fröbe's General von Choltitz learns that two SS men have arrived to question him. He gets concerned that they have come to arrest him, suspecting that he is defying Hitler's orders. 

But he soon realises that he needn't have worried. Instead, they have been sent to arrange the shipment of the Bayeux Tapestry from the Louvre as a gift for Adolf Hitler. Von Choltitz is as bemused by this as the audience, the desire for this historical artefact suggesting that the leading Nazis are increasingly detached from the reality of the situation on the ground. Noting that it depicts the Norman invasion of England in 1066, von Choltitz comments wryly that Hitler is going to receive the gift of the tapestry "Instead of the real invasion of England".

The film sees von Choltitz as a reluctant not-quite-a-hero, presented here as a good if unimaginative soldier, who habitually follows orders. At the beginning of the film, Von Choltitz seems all set to crack down on resistance in the city, as per his instructions. But he gradually softens over the course of the story. When it comes to destroying Paris for no military gain, even he is reluctant, and he tries to delay giving the order for as long as possible. The negotiations in Paris between General von Choltitz and the Swedish consul Raoul Nordling were also later used as the basis of the 2014 film Diplomatie ("Diplomacy"). 

After von Choltitz surrenders to Jean Pierre Cassell's French Lieutenant, there is some irony in the fact that he is jeered and jostled by crowds of civilians as he is escorted to the waiting staff car outside. The citizens of Paris are, of course, unaware that von Choltitz has been trying in his own way to save the city. 

Coincidentally, Fröbe and Cassell were antagonists in the previous year's comedy film Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, which featured Fröbe as a pompous German officer and Cassell as an irreverent skirt-chasing Frenchman. Fortunately, in Is Paris Burning? Cassell manages to resist the temptation to challenge Fröbe to a duel using "balloons and blunderbusses".

Orson Welles and Günter Meisner
The Swedish Consul (Orson Welles, left) runs into an officious SS officer (Günter Meisner)

The film reinforces the message that the French soldiers outside the city are returning home, as when the Free French troops put calls through to their families in Paris as their tank column advances. This notion is made literal when some French soldiers set up a gun post in the household of a little old lady, who seems quite pleased to have them there, as an exciting addition to her afternoon tea. When the French soldiers leave, the officer even makes sure that they pick up the spent cartridge cases on their way out.

The film does successfully capture the excitement of the ordinary Parisians rising up and taking over their city from the occupiers. This includes a sequence where Jean-Paul Belmondo and Marie Versini stride up to the Hôtel Matignon, the Prime Minister's official residence, and announce that they are now taking over. Fortunately, the police offer no resistance and welcome their new chief, giving him the red carpet treatment, which includes a brief inspection of a parade of police officers respectfully standing to attention. 

Is Paris Burning? is definitely a product of Gaullist France and there's undeniably an element of myth-making. The central theme is of the city of Paris rising against the Germans and freeing itself, with the aid of patriotic French men (and women) within the city and without. The in-fighting between the different resistance groups, Gaullist and communist, is glossed over, no doubt to avoid upsetting contemporary sensibilities. 

Bruno Cremer's Colonel Rol-Tanguy was actually a senior member of the communist resistance, but you probably wouldn't know that from the film, where the rival groups are elided. Unsurprisingly, divisive figures like resistance leader Georges Bidault - who later fell out with de Gaulle over Algeria - are completely absent.

Instead the film presents a portrait of France mostly united in overthrowing the Nazis. As a result, the squabbles between the different resistance groups are played down, while collaborators are mostly absent. 

The exception is Jean-Louis Trintignant as "Serge", a Nazi agent who lures young Parisians into a trap by offering them valuable weapons to arm themselves against the Germans. But even these scenes underline the fact that the city's citizens are mostly united and working as one. One of the young people being led into a trap is a young girl from a Catholic youth party, who smiles broadly when she learns that one of her new comrades resisting the Germans is a communist, someone she might normally expect to oppose, in a slightly gauche moment underscored unsubtly by the music. 

Aside from the odd awkward moment like that, the film's scoring is often effective. The French composer Maurice Jarre was riding high in the mid-1960s with two Oscar wins for his scores for David Lean's epics Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), the latter including the popular "Lara's Theme". As a result, Jarre must have seemed the obvious choice for an epic historical film about France in World War II, and his joyful waltz theme is a particular highlight - and indisputably French.

After its prologue with von Choltitz meeting Hitler at the Wolf's Lair, the film begins with ominous percussion and a strutting military march. These are set to scenes of German soldiers marching through Paris, German Army bands on parade in the city and German soldiers pictured against backdrops of the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel tower.

Man emerging from manhole cover into Paris street
Reclaiming the streets: This image was used on some versions of the film poster

As the sequence continues, these scenes gradually give way to more pleasant shots of ordinary Parisians out shopping, French girls on bikes, quaint miniature cars, and a horse drawn carriage imaginatively fashioned from the back half of a Citroën. At the same time, the slightly discordant and strident march softens and Jarre's jaunty accordion theme starts to sneak in, suggesting that the real Paris is still there, beneath the apparatus of military occupation, not quite crushed or buried by the occupiers. In the final sequence following the city's liberation, the film bursts into full colour for the last shots, an aerial view of modern Paris and Notre Dame. Jarre's waltz theme is then given free rein over the end credits. 

Is Paris Burning? managed to wangle two Oscar nominations, one for best black & white cinematography and the other for black & white art direction. Although mainstream black & white films were dying out by 1966, so those categories were not especially competitive by that time. 

The decision to make the film in black & white was presumably made to allow it to incorporate genuine wartime footage, as in The Longest Day. It's often claimed that this was also to allow the film makers to hang black and white (or possibly green instead of red) Swastikas from buildings in Paris, as full colour ones were banned. This may or may not be true, but it sounds plausible.

While black & white was acceptable (although not ideal) for a blockbuster epic in 1962, it was looking a little half-hearted by 1966, and this no doubt harmed the film's box office prospects. Is Paris Burning? made little impression in the U.S., despite its use of American stars in cameo roles, although it was inevitably much more popular in France.

The film was mauled by the American critics, who mostly thought it dull, confusing and disjointed, and it didn't do much for its previously well-regarded director, whose career petered out in the years afterwards. The producer Paul Graetz died while the film was being edited, meaning that this was something of an ill-fated production. Someone who obviously does like it is Spike Lee who, surprisingly, included it on his list of "essential films for aspiring film makers" to see. 

Is Paris Burning? doesn't belong in the front rank of World War II epics, but it would undoubtedly be improved by a version with subtitles instead of dubbing, if such a version actually exists. While prone to myth-making, dramatically a little rambling, sometimes technically unsatisfactory and afflicted by the compromised inclusion of American stars, it's an often interesting French answer to The Longest Day, and didn't quite deserve the brickbats hurled at it in 1966.

Is Paris Burning? (Paris brûle-t-il?)

Year: 1966
Genre: War Drama / Historical
Country: France / USA
Director: René Clément

Cast  Jean-Paul Belmondo (Pierrelot - Yvon Morandat), Charles Boyer (Dr. Monod), Leslie Caron (Françoise Labé), Jean-Pierre Cassel (Lieutenant Henri Karcher), Bruno Cremer (Colonel Rol-Tanguy), Claude Dauphin (Colonel Lebel), Alain Delon (Jacques Chaban-Delmas), Kirk Douglas (General Patton), Pierre Dux (Cerat - Alexandre Parodi), Glenn Ford (General Bradley), Gert Fröbe (General von Choltitz), Daniel Gélin (Yves Bayet), Georges Géret (The baker), Hannes Messemer (General Jodl), Harry Meyen (Lieutenant von Arnim), Yves Montand (Tank commander), Anthony Perkins (US Sergeant), Michel Piccoli (Edgard Pisani), Wolfgang Preiss (Captain Ebernach), Claude Rich (General Leclerc), Simone Signoret (Cafe owner), Robert Stack (General Sibert), Jean-Louis Trintignant (Serge), Pierre Vaneck (Gallois), Marie Versini (Claire Morandat), Skip Ward (US soldier), Orson Welles (Consul Nordling), Michel Etcheverry (Prefect Luizet), Billy Frick (Adolf Hitler), George Chakiris (US Tank Sergeant), Ernst Fritz Fürbringer (General von Boineburg), Konrad Georg (Field Marshal Model), Joachim Hansen (Commander Fresnes Prison), Félix Marten (Georges), Paloma Matta (Young bride), Günter Meisner (SS Commander at Pantin), Sacha Pitoëff (Joliot-Curie), Albert Rémy (Village policeman), Christian Rode (Burned German soldier), Helmuth Schneider (German Warrant Officer - subway), Otto Stern (German soldier - subway), Tony Taffin (Bernard Labé), Jean Valmont (FFI with bazooka), Karl Otto Alberty (SS officer - Bayeux Tapestry), Pierre Collet (Partisan policeman), Paul Crauchet (Priest), Germaine de France (Old lady), Bernard Fresson (FFI liaison agent), Michel Gonzalès (Partisan student), Peter Jacob (General Burgdorf), Hubert de Lapparent (Head Steward Matignon), Roger Lumont (Jade Amicol), Pierre Mirat (Cafe owner), Francis Nani (Partisan student), Peter Neusser (SS officer - Bayeux Tapestry), Sébastien Poitrenaud (Partisan student), Jean-Michel Rouzière (Man with a dog), Georges Staquet (Captain Dronne), Hénia Suchar (Prefecture switchboard operator), Claude Vernier (German prisoner)

Screenplay Gore Vidal, Francis Ford Coppola, additional material Marcel Moussy (French scenes), Beate von Molo (German scenes), in collaboration with Jean Aurenche, Pierre Bost, Claude Brûlé, based on the book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre  Producer Paul Graetz  Cinematography Marcel Grignon  Art director Willy Holt  Editor Robert Lawrence  Music Maurice Jarre  Costumes Jean Zay  2nd unit director André Smagghe  Special effects Robert McDonald

Running time 175 mins (black & white, with colour sequence)  Widescreen Panavision

Production company Transcontinental Films / Marianne Productions; presented by Paramount Pictures / Seven Arts / Ray Stark  Distributor Paramount Pictures 


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