I finally found a place where I fit in, and it’s France, because like me, the French are impatient and unfriendly-going-on-surly. I can’t overstate this enough: I’m not a fuzzy, cuddly person, so it was this introvert’s dream come true to go to Paris and be surrounded by millions of people who didn’t ask, “How was your day?” or care how my day was or come anywhere near making eye contact. Vive la France!!
My affinity for all things French began with my love of the works of Dumas and grew over the decades as I also became interested in World War II. Somehow, however, the movie Is Paris Burning? had eluded me because all along I had the impression it had to do with radicals in the 1960s, which interested me not in the least. But no! It’s about the end of Nazi rule in Paris in 1944 and was made in the mid-’60s as the French answer to Darryl Zanuck’s formula of taking a popular military book and turning it into a blockbuster picture with an all-star cast; Zanuck had just done it with Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day and director René Clément would repeat the process with Is Paris Burning? by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre (a book I haven’t read but need to).
The French have this understanding that they’re the coolest people on earth, and this theme permeates Is Paris Burning? In the last days of the occupation of the city, the Germans were besieged by various factions of Resistance fighters who squabbled amongst themselves. Into this scenario backpedaled German Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz, given Paris to administer by Hitler. Their meeting comprises the first sequence in the picture and von Choltitz instantly becomes human and not your typical robotic Nazi when one of the Fuhrer’s aides asks the general if he’s nervous to meet Hitler. “Ja,” says von Choltitz, and that simple line of dialogue as delivered by Gert Frobe (fresh off Goldfinger) sets him up as a sympathetic character for the remainder of the picture. Hitler states that he is placing von Choltitz in charge because he has always been a loyal officer and the order is clear: If it looks like Paris is about to fall, burn it.
Throughout, Paris is treated like a beautiful princess, bound and gagged, held at knifepoint by thugs, and menaced periodically. The audience is held captive alongside her, and we don’t want a pore in her face or a hair on her head to be so much as touched.
A parade of famous French movie stars marches through the picture: Charles Boyer, Leslie Caron, Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Simone Signoret, Yves Montand, Jean-Pierre Cassel, and so on. As with any all-star epic, some vignettes work and others fall flat. Frobe lugs the entire German P.O.V. on his burly shoulders for hours of run time and is more than capable of handling the assignment. We also see a fair number of American stars sprinkled in like salt and pepper to suit the tastes of U.S. audiences. First of these and a shock to see was my old friend Robert Stack. I wish I had had the foresight to ask him back in the day about Is Paris Burning? but I was woefully ignorant when I knew him. Most of the American actors in the cast play generals. Stack is General Sibert; Glenn Ford is a generic Omar Bradley; Kirk Douglas takes on Patton in name only and for a reported one-day’s work on camera. The French have this way of subtly or not-so-subtly portraying Americans as clods—even the good guys edging closer to break the German Occupation. In Paris today we Americans can be spotted at once, and we’re merely tolerated because we have money and don’t tend to carry bombs, but we’re notoriously gauche and anything we touch needs to be disinfected. That same view seeps down into the cans of film onto which Is Paris Burning? has been imprinted. I say this with great affection because the French are discerning and know gauche when they experience it, and when I interact with them I realize it’s up to me to deal with my lower status because all they want is my money and not my friendship.
The version of Is Paris Burning? I watched the other night On Demand ran about 3:20 but it went by fast and I’m reading that the original clocked in at more than four hours and a number of bits have been cut over the years, including E.G. Marshall as an American G-2 officer. I wonder if he was portrayed as just another American simpleton, rattling sabers and over-rounding the R’s in the dialogue.
Orson Welles shows up playing Orson Welles playing a Swedish diplomat and looking, as usual, terrible. How do you become that just a quarter century after serving as Hollywood’s latest “boy genius?” Anyway, he spends a fair amount of the picture serving as the German commandant’s conscience; in real life Nordling the diplomat may or may not have influenced von Choltitz, who ruled Paris for all of two weeks, to spare the city and not carry out Hitler’s orders.
Director Clément supposedly was intimidated by making this picture and I can see why, starting with knowing he had a country full of critics awaiting–not just any critics but French critics–and with having at his disposal the entire city of Paris as a stage. When you see a line of German tanks in front of Notre Dame, you are looking at a line of German tanks in front of Notre Dame. The entire city center is on display with most of the action taking place on or around the Ile de France. For scenery alone this picture is magnificent, and Maurice Jarre used these stunning visuals as inspiration for a musical score that infuses scenes with romance and majesty as various French units—republican, communist, etc.—find ways to work together, contact the Allies, and systematically take back their city. Check out various clips on Youtube to get a sense of what I’m talking about, like this one where two Resistance leaders (Belmondo and French actress Marie Versini) brave snipers to get to the Hotel Matignon held by Vichy-French soldiers, walk in, and calmly take over. It’s French enough to make me cry, and do yourself a favor and watch the entire six-minute clip because after these two civilians review a line of French troops suddenly under their command (accompanied by Jarre’s scoring), just, WOW! Belmondo surveys the opulent 18th century Matignon—shot on location—and sums it up with a blasé, “Adequate.”
The downsides are there in plain sight. The title Is Paris Burning? is pretty awful as titles go and the 1966 publicity campaign reeked. It’s a black-and-white film, which of course disqualifies it for a portion of modern cinema goers. There’s no CG and nobody jumps out of a plane at 15,000 feet without a parachute and lives to tell the tale. Nor are there any zombies. Dubbing is an issue; dubbing has marred many an international picture. Here the actors spoke their native languages—French, German, English—and then were looped over depending on country of release. The result, nicht sehr gut, and I would have preferred subtitles. I’m blaming the dubbing for shortcomings in narrative flow because Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola wrote the screenplay, and with that comes pedigree. All in all, even though I’m German, feel free to give me an armband and sign me up for the French Resistance.