Is Paris Burning? (1966)

  • PG-13
  • Genre: Drama
  • Release year: 1966 (1966-10-26)
  • Running time: 175 min
  • Original Title: Paris brûle-t-il?
  • Voted: 3612
The departure of the German Army from Paris in 1944.
1Jean-Paul BelmondoPierrelot - Yvon Morandat
2Charles BoyerDocteur Monod
3Leslie CaronFran?oise Labé
4Jean-Pierre CasselLieutenant Henri Karcher
  • 4/5/2005 12:00:00 AM by SgtSlaughter 7/10

    Director Rene Clement brings together the finest French, American andGerman actors of the 1960s for a rather muddled historical epic.Released in 1966, "Is Paris Burning?" is a rather mixed bag ofhistorical drama and confusion.

    In August, 1944, the Allies are closing in on Paris. Hitler (BillyFrick) orders General von Cholitz (Gert Frobe, "The Longest Day") totake command and burn the city to the ground to prevent its capture.French resistance forces within the city won't permit this to happen,and Swedish consul Nordling (Orson Welles, "The Battle of Austerlitz")convinces Choltitz to make multiple concessions, allowing theresistance to make significant gains and hold on until the armed forcesarrive.

    The all-star cast is uniformly good, although many of the Americanstars have little to do. Gert Frobe is the real star of the piece. AsCholitz, he makes a strong and sympathetic character. Cholitz has tomake important, difficult decisions – on one hand, he's concerned abouthis men's safety; on the other, he is trying to follow orders. Wellesis somewhat engaging, but he disappears partway through the filmwithout leaving a lasting impression. The script, by Francis FordCoppola and Gore Vidal, combines several stories, allowing the host ofcharacters little time to do much of anything. Gallois (Pierre Vaneck)and Dr. Monod (Charles Boyer) try to break out of Paris and reach theAllies; Colonel Rol (Bruno Cremer) and Chaban (Alain Delon) organizethe resistance forces; Nordling and tries to free Francoise Labe's(Leslie Caron, "Father Goose") husband from a POW camp. It's hard forany of these subplots to make much on an impact, but like "The LongestDay" and "Battle of Britain", the characters are kept distinct enoughthat they are easy to follow, despite major time lapses betweenappearances.

    The German characters are portrayed by a host of familiarcharacter-actors. Helmuth Schneider ("The Dirty Heroes") plays aSergeant who throws a pessimistic Corporal (Otto Stern, "Commandos")into a detention cell; Gunter Meisner ("The Bridge at Remagen") is hisusual, evil self as an SS Officer in charge of a prison train; JoachimHansen ("The Eagle has Landed") is a moral officer who tries to helpNordling gain concessions; Wolfgang Preiss ("Von Ryan's Express") haslittle to do as the commander of a demolition squad; and Karl-OttoAlberty ("Battle of the Bulge") is an SS officer. The American actorstend to have clunky cameos: Kirk Douglas ("In Harm's Way"); Glenn Ford("Casablanca Express"); Robert Stack and E.G. Marshall are all limitedto one or two scenes. Anthony Perkins ("Catch-22") and Skip Ward makemore of an impression as infantrymen waiting to liberate Paris.

    Clement handles every shot brilliantly. There are several standoutscenes. One sequence has partisans ambush a German armored car. Onesoldier escapes, still smoldering from burns from an exploded Molotovcocktail. He proceeds to hijack a passing French car and make thedriver take him to HQ, where his gruesome burns alert theneat-and-clean officers that something is not right in the city. Thescene in which Francoise Labe searches for her husband amongst a throngof prisoners in especially moving, and the conclusion is brilliant andunexpected. In another scene, a French squad occupied an old woman'sapartment to fire on a German barricade, as the old woman watches whilepreparing herself a cup of tea. In another scene SS officers arrive tosecure a painting for Hitler's birthday from the Louvre, before Frobeburns down the city. Frobe informs them that the Louvre is in Frenchhands, and they reply "But it's right across the street!" Withoutmissing a beat, Frobe tells them to take a white flag over and see ifthe French will let them in. This grim humor and wit add to the humanstory within the big picture.

    A lot of attention to historical accuracy and detail went into thefilm's production. Costumes, from French civilian dress to militaryuniforms are all accurate. The exteriors are beautifully shot in andaround Paris, often with excellently staged wide shots showing off thenarrow streets and just how vast and battleground was. The scenes ofthe French resistance gathering in the streets to march on the PoliceStation, set to Maurice Jarre's thundering, jovial score, are mostmemorable. The spirit of revolution and joy of liberation is sowell-portrayed that you can feel it with the characters on screen.

    "Is Paris Burning?" suffers from annoyingly bad dubbing, overlength anda lack of focus, but these are nicks in any epic film, and cannot beavoided in order to tell such a vast story. As its heart, "Is ParisBurning?" is a fine movie about human freedom, told with brilliance andgusto.

  • 8/21/1999 12:00:00 AM by Jim Corkrum 7/10

    This is a good movie, but only if you have read the book. Otherwise, itwould appear to be muddled and difficult to follow. There were so manydifferent resistance factions operating in Paris at the time of theliberation it is difficult to keep them straight. The movie doesn't helpyou in that regard. Reading the book gives you a much better perspectiveonthe part each faction played in the liberation.

    The little vignettes you see with characters appearing in the film foronlya few minutes are all true. Unfortunately, they don't always make sensetoan uninformed viewer and they give the viewer the sense of a badly editedfilm.

    The true story of the last few days before the liberation is extremelyremarkable. Hitler sent a hard core general he trusted to destroy Paris.It is incredible that he disobeyed orders and saved the city.

    What I really loved about the movie was the city itself. It is one of themost beautiful cities in the world. The film was shot mostly in theactuallocations where the events portrayed took place. As a lover of history, Ihave been fortunate to have visited Paris more than once and walked theselocations fully aware of what happened there. That makes this moviespecialfor me. But, the film does have problems.

    Besides being a bit disjointed, the French and German dialog were dubbedinEnglish. It would have been better with subtitles, although many of thesame actors did their own English dubbing. The film is in black andwhite,which doesn't bother me, but it might have been better in color. One ofthemain reasons for B&W was the Nazi flags. The French authorities refusedtoallow red and black Nazi flags to fly in Paris, even for a movie. Theyagreed only to have black and gray flags. But the black and white filmingalso allowed the blending of authentic war footage with the movie. Alsoremember that another similar film, The Longest Day, was shot a couple ofyears earlier in B&W.

    The film is filled with a small army of great international actors. Thatwas fun, although I didn't buy Kirk Douglas as General Patton. Gert Frobe(Goldfinger) was excellent as the German general in charge of Paris andCharles Boyer was also excellent in his small role. The music wascomposedby Maurice Jarre and is just wonderful. Whenever I am in Paris, the musiccontinually runs through my head. As a side note, Jarre obviouslyborrowedmuch of this soundtrack for use in "Grand Prix".

    In short, this is a historical movie rather than a great film. Irecommendyou read the book to get the full impact of the movie. But understandthisremarkable story of the liberation is stranger than fiction, which makesita good read. And, if you ever visit Paris the movie will take on a wholenew perspective.

  • 3/27/2003 12:00:00 AM by Cuitlahuac ([email protected]) 10/10

    "¿Is Paris burning?" Hitler asked this when the war wasfinished...

    A french and american co-production, it's a long movie about the frenchresistence. The excellent direction by Rene Clement shows one of the moreimportants battles in the History of war. I would like to see thedirector'scut version of this film. Many international stars appear in this movielikeGlenn Ford, Kirk Douglas, George Chakiris, Gert Froebe, Anthony Perkins,Robert Stack, Orson Welles... but the french actors are the greats playershere: Charles Boyer, Leslie Caron, Pierre Vaneck, Jean-Paul Belmondo,SimoneSignoret, Claude Rich... The best of this film is Alain Delon, a wonderfulactor as resistance member Chaban-Delmas, fighting for the liberty of hiscountry. I love "Paris brûle-t-il?" because is a strong story that damnsthewar and tells between us a battle for the Liberty.

  • 4/23/2005 12:00:00 AM by jbetke-1 8/10

    I made my first trip to Paris this past year. There are remembrances ofWorld War Two on nearly every street corner, plaques with the names ofresistance fighters who died during the war and during the Liberation.And France's military history is also on display, from monuments toLouis XIII, to Napoleon, and to their Tomb of the Unknown Soldier atthe Arc de Triomphe. As Americans we forget sometimes that the Frencharmy lost millions during World War One, and struggled with how tofight the Second World War. Losing Paris was a humiliating defeat thatthe Free French army needed desperately to avenge. This film does apretty engaging job of telling the story from a French point of view.Like many war films from the time it's a little too long, somecelebrity cameos are miscast, and some facts and events are abridged.But unlike some other films from the period, it has some humor, andsome great pathos. There's also great footage of the real liberationintercut with the narrative. If you've ever been to Paris, it's abeautiful travelogue of all the famous public spaces, seen through eyesfrom 1945 and 1966. I can only imagine seeing it in widescreen, and Ihope to get a non-dubbed version soon.

  • 7/16/2007 12:00:00 AM by TrevorAclea 7/10

    If the tagline for It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was 'Everyone whoseever been funny is in it,' then Rene Clement's epic could almost layclaim that 'Anyone who's ever been French is in it,' assembling AlainDelon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Charles Boyer, Leslie Caron, Jean-PierreCassel, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, Michel Piccoli, Jean-LouisTrintignant and others in a spectacular retelling of the Liberation ofParis. Even that was not enough for Paramount, who wanted anotherLongest Day and padded out the American roles with largelyblink-and-you'll-miss-'em cameos by Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford and RobertStack. Of the non-French top-liners, only Orson Welles as the Swedishconsul frantically trying to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, and GertFrobe as the general tasked with defending or destroying the city, playa major role in the film. Their scenes easily the best in the somewhatdisjointed picture, never lapsing into simple stereotyping and giving acredible face to history.

    Most of the heavyweight French cast are not much more than cameoseither, with the bulk of the film falling on lesser-billed Bruno Cremerand Peter Vaneck's shoulders, although both characters highlight thefact that somewhere along the way the film got somewhat depoliticisedfrom Collins and Lapierre's superb book – both Colonel Rol-Tanguy andMajor Gallois/Cocteau were key figures in the communist resistance,though you'd never know it from the film. Although the De Gaullistfigures often identified as such, the left don't fare so well: ironicconsidering one of the strengths of the book was in showing thepolitical infighting and jockeying for position between the DeGaullists and the communist resistance. Collaboration barely gets amention either: this is predominantly triumphalist in tone, and as suchits often very effective, with several sections carrying a real surgeof jubilation as the people take their city back.

    Despite the political dilution that one suspects was a consequence ofgetting both the essential co-operation from de Gaulle's government andthe equally essential dollars from Paramount, it does a good job ofmaking the constantly shifting strategies and increasingly chaoticevents accessible while keeping the momentum up, but as with mostspot-the-star WW2 epics, it's the vignettes that stick most firmly inthe mind: a German soldier, his uniform still smouldering, staggeringaway from a blown-up truck only to be ignored by a businessman blithelygoing to work as if nothing were happening; a female resistance workerdelivering instructions for the uprising being offered a lift by anunsuspecting German officer after her bike gets a puncture; Frenchsoldiers picking off Germans from an apartment while the little oldlady who lives there excitedly watches as she drinks her tea; Jean-PaulBelmondo and Marie Versini crawling across a road with their bikes toavoid snipers while a gay man walking his dog watches, before going onto liberate the seat of government without a shot being fired becausethe civil servants there habitually do what they're told by anyone inauthority; an armoured unit getting a dozen different directions totheir destination by Parisians; SS men casually looking through VonCholtitz's papers out of force of habit; and the general suddenlyfinding himself alone in a restaurant as the bells of Paris ring outfor the first time in four years to proclaim the Allies' arrival.

    The Americans don't fare as well, all-too obviously being there simplyfor marquee value (prominently billed George Chakhiris is in it forless than 30 seconds!), although Anthony Perkins' soldier acting morelike a tourist is at least memorable. In many ways the two real starsof the film are the city of Paris and Maurice Jarre's excellent score,the film's only real constant factors as the stars come and go andevents move forward. For the most part the film avoids the touristshots with a great use of locations, giving a sense of a place wherepeople actually live and die, while Jarre's score manages tocounterpoint a militant piano-led theme for the Nazi Occupation with anincreasingly stirring resistance theme that constantly runs underneathit, gradually working its way out of hiding and constantly gainingascendancy before finally flowering into a vivid and triumphant waltzfor the Liberation.

    A somewhat ill-fated production - producer Paul Graetz died of a heartattack during filming – it was a huge but much-criticised success inFrance but a conspicuous box-office failure everywhere else, withParamount swearing off the epic genre for decades to come and ReneClement's career never really recovering: his last major film, hewouldn't work again for another three years and only made four morefilms. Best remembered today for Plein Soleil/Purple Noon, La Batailledu Rail and the Oscar-winning Jeux Interdit/Forbidden Games, and hisdirection is for the most part superb, be it the control of achillingly formal tracking shot along a railway platform casuallyrevealing and passing a dead body or the edgy hand-held work duringsome of the makeshift street fights. Although the decision to film inblack and white which would hurt the film so much at the box-office andon television was reputedly forced on the film by the Frenchgovernment's refusal to allow the film to fly red and black Nazi flagsover the city (grey and black, however, were permitted), it works tothe film's advantage, not only allowing it to incorporate genuinearchive footage a little more skilfully than is the norm but also givesit a more verite feel thanks to Marcel Grignon's naturalisticphotography.

    If at times this feels less like the classic it could have been andmore like the best film that could be made under the political andfinancial circumstances, it's still an impressive and occasionallycompelling recreation of a unique moment in history that deserves to beat least a little better known and better regarded than it is.