IS PARIS BURNING? —seen as a sort of logical follow-up to The Longest Day, like that epic 1962 smash this ambitious production was also serviced by a slew of international stars, is done in docu-drama style, shot in black & white, had a script adapted from a best-seller, hosts a score from Maurice Jarre and runs seven minutes shy of three hours. C’est la guerre, it struggled ashore a major flop in 1966, dissed by critics and coming in 93rd at the US box-office (though it hit #4 in France—kind of expected). *
August, 1944. As the advancing Allies get close to Paris, a vengeful Hitler orders its military governor, Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz, to blow it up and burn it down. Diffuse resistance groups begin to launch a slapdash uprising, and try to convince the approaching American army and its aligned Free French units to step on it and get there before the city is turned into rubble like Warsaw. Drama writ large, played out in scores of desperate/heroic miniature actions and sudden ultimate sacrifices. Since we know going in that Paris did not burn, the trick for the sprawling narrative is to manage a sense of urgency and suspense among a host of characters in many actual locations. Seven screenwriters worked adapting the material that the celebrated René Clément directed. Alas, too many chefs stirred the pot, most of the star cameos seem arbitrary (it worked in The Longest Day), too many scenes drag, it feels choppy, and the mediocre dubbing is distracting. **
Some good bits emerge in all the bickering and bustle, but the pacing—alternately jumpy or lethargic– wears it out. Footage from the actual liberation is worked in with the recreations. By far the best feature is a fine score from Maurice Jarre, especially effective at the start and for the finale. His “Paris Waltz” is joyous, and had the film been a success, the music would have been more noted by the average film fan, as were his same-era scores for Lawrence Of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. Both the Cinematography and Art Direction were Oscar-nominated.
The French naturally predominate, in the persons of Charles Boyer (always worth seeing), contemporary heartthrobs Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon, a convincingly distraught Leslie Caron, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Simone Signoret and Yves Montand (both barely seen), Claude Dauphin, Michel Piccoli, Claude Rich, Jean-Louis Trintignant (a weasel traitor), Michel Lonsdale and cult figurine Marie Versini (yay!–a charming beauty who should have been a big star. Notre perte, les gars).
Poorly represented in abbreviated and obvious walk-on’s, the Yanks are whisked through by Kirk Douglas (as Patton), Glenn Ford, Robert Stack, Anthony Perkins, George Chakiris, Skip Ward. Unlike most of the well-placed cameos in The Longest Day (Jeffrey Hunter and Sal Mineo, for example), these all seem tacked on as an afterthought. Orson Welles hams it ponderously as a Swedish diplomat.
The Germans are ably represented by Gert Frobe (excellent as von Choltitz), Hannes Messemer, Wolfgang Preiss (his great voice a casualty of the poor dubbing), Gunter Meisner and Karl Otto Alberty.
* World War Two got a fresh replay in the 60s: a quick, incomplete count (excluding, for example, whatever was produced in the USSR) shows that between Sink The Bismarck at the start of the decade and The Secret Of Santa Vittoria at the end at least 79 movies about the conflict were arrayed (56 set across the Atlantic, 23 in the Pacific). There were a dozen US TV series set in the war. Telling by its absence, among the all-star spectacles, adventurous secret missions, bloody firefights and usually awful satires there was exactly ONE mention of the..umm..rather large?…Russian con-trib-ution. Coming at the tail end of 1963s The Victors, Albert Finney’s cameo as a Soviet soldier lasts about two minutes of screen time. One movie, one comrade, two minutes: thanks for the help. Sorry about the 25,000,000 dead.
** Adapting the 400-page book written by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre were Americans Gore Vidal and 26-year-old newcomer hotshot Francis Ford Coppola, collaborating with the renowned French team of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, with further work done by Claude Brulé. Even more was added by Marcel Moussy and Beate von Molo. Since it’s a celebration of the liberation of Paris—and most essentially, saving it from Hitlerian insanity, it avoids the untidy factoid that, cheering crowds aside, the much-vaunted French Resistance amounted to 2% of the population: way too many citizens had been eager to cooperate and collaborate with the Nazis. The towering ego of Charles de Gaulle was still President of the Republic at the time the film was made and the film was pressed to play down the American angle (fine, maybe don’t ask us next time). Originally all sequences with the French and German actors were done in their native languages which were then dubbed into English. Mad Magazine dubbed it “Is Paris Boring?”