Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Is Paris Burning? (1966)

Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre concerning the liberation of Paris, René Clément's 1966 production of Is Paris Burning? boasts a script from Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola and is a stirring, war epic in the vein of The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far (films that were based on the factual books by Cornelius Ryan) with an internationally star studded cast including Alain Delon as Jacques Chaban-Delmas the future Gaullist politician and Prime Minister, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Leslie Caron, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret and Charles Boyer representing France, Glenn Ford, Kirk Douglas as Patton, Robert Stack, Anthony Perkins and George Chakiris representing America, Gert Fröbe as von Choltitz, the sympathetic commander of Nazi-occupied France who disobeyed Hitler's orders to raise Paris to the ground, Gunther Meisner and Wolfgang Preiss representing Germany, and Orson Welles standing alone as the Swedish diplomat Nordling who desperately tried to minimise bloodshed through negotiation. Weirdly, despite this raft of star names Claude Rich plays two parts! He's General Leclerc, with a moustache, and Lt Pierre de la Fouchardière, without a moustache! Surely there was another French actor knocking about?

Unfortunately, whilst Clément's film is certainly ambitious and conscientious, it isn't in the same league as the likes of A Bridge Too Far and The Longest Day and great swathes of the film are stiflingly dull and rather sprawling. It's a real shame as when the film does ignite (excuse the pun) its really satisfying; the battle scenes on the streets of Paris as the Americans and French allied forces take back the city are impressive enough to stand alongside any other war epic of the period and allow Jean-Pierre Cassel in particular a moment to shine, whilst the role of Anthony Perkins is predictable right from the off. The tense, sweaty performances of the film's big men (in every meaning of the word) Welles and Fröbe also suggest a more interesting film struggling to get out from under the weight of cameos, plodding scenes and historical accuracy. Make no mistake, this isn't Welles at the top of his game, but his inherent gravitas is suitably fitting to the role of the beleaguered Swedish Consul. 

Likewise Fröbe remains the film's best performed and best written character; a complex character study of a professional soldier who has realised the orders he receives from on high are from the mind of a madman. His weary expression, when finding himself suddenly alone in a restaurant as the bells of Paris break their four year silence to proclaim the Allies' arrival, speaks louder than the peal itself. Ultimately, when he surrenders to Cassel's Lt. Karcher and he faces the angry jeers of newly liberated Parisian crowds, it's hard not to feel some sympathy towards him knowing that what he did to save the city, disobeying his command, will not be immediately recognised. 

All too often however the film gets bogged down in vignettes whose prime intention seems to be to showcase whatever A-lister is in the vicinity at the time. Whilst it's really great to see the likes of Delon, Montand, Belmondo and Boyer et al, the real interest and meat of the story rests with less showy French actors such as Bruno Cremer (who went on to play the definitive - to my mind - Maigret) as Communist resistance leader Colonel Rol-Tanguy and Pierre Vaneck (looking not unlike a Iain Glen here) as Maj. Roger Gallois. That said, much of Rol-Tanguy's efforts are ignored by the film including his personal acceptance of von Cholitz's surrender, at least Gallois' cross-country mission to appeal to the US forces and Gen. Patton himself for help is given some prominence. 

Despite its many flaws, Is Paris Burning? proved to be a box office hit in France but proved significantly less successful elsewhere as witnessed by the fact that it doesn't get shown on TV or mentioned much at all in comparison to other WWII epics. Some cite the decision to film in black and white as a major mistake (reputedly, it was a decision forced on the film maker's by the French government, who refused to allow them to fly red and black Nazi flags over the city for fear it would bring back painful memories - grey and black however, were deemed OK enough to be permitted) but I actually think it works to the film's advantage especially when you consider how seamless the archive footage is subsequently incorporated alongside Marcel Grignon's cinematography. 

Personally I think the real stumbling block is in relying on dubbing; all the sequences featuring French and German actors were filmed in their native languages, which was then dubbed - in a rather hit and miss fashion - into English, while all the sequences with the American actors were filmed in English. Given that the cast is predominantly made up of non-native English speakers, it would have made far more sense to use subtitles. Granted, a majority foreign-language film may have still proved unsuccessful at the box office in English-language territories, but it would have ensured the film stood the test of time far better. As it is, this is a film that hints at being a classic but ultimately falls short too many times.


  1. Its certainly an odd one in the all-star 60s war epics - but it keeps the interest through the dull bits spotting the big names for a minute or two - Delon, Belmomdo, Signoret etc. OPERATION CROSSBOW is more fun, Carl Foreman's THE VICTORS is another one, THE LONGEST DAY is the Daddy of them all, dito BATTLE OF BRITAIN and OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR. At least Clement got Orson ...

    1. There's a scene where Orson is surrounded by cake...I think that's how they got him ;)