This last week has given us two unusual titles broadcast by the ever-intriguing Talking Pictures TV – a rare Ida Lupino film from the Filmakers (more on that later) and this co-production monster. Is Paris Burning? is exactly the kind of production that interests us on this blog. It’s a mammoth production which attempts to represent the successful attempt by the Allies and the French résistance forces to take back control of Paris in 1944 before the city could be literally rased to the ground as Hitler demanded. The title refers to the desperate demand by Hitler at the moment of German capitulation. Many reviews and commentaries compare the film to the similarly large-scale production of The Longest Day in 1960. This is understandable but there also some important differences between the two. I would also bracket Is Paris Burning? with The Victors (UK-US 1963), Carl Foreman’s excellent film about American GIs in the European campaign.
It might be helpful to begin with the details of the broadcast print. Since Talking Pictures TV has ad breaks I can’t be sure of the length of the film but I think it conforms to the usual stated length of 175 minutes. It appears to be the American print as distributed by Paramount. The film is dubbed into English and was broadcast in a ratio close to the intended 2.35:1. IMDb tells me there was also a 70mm print blown-up from the 35mm original and projected in 2.20:1 and that might be the TV ratio as well? The film was shot in Black and White but the final shot of the city and the closing credit sequence appears in colour and was framed in a slightly narrower ratio within the widescreen Black and White frame.
The film is directed by René Clément and written by a host of writers adapting and presumably adding to material adapted from a book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. The lead writers, credited with the screenplay, appear to be Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola. As far as I can make out, this is essentially a French production with American funding, which offers a host of American stars in return for control over the script. The 1960s was a major period of ‘international productions’, often by American independent producers persuading Hollywood studios to finance films made in Italy or France or Spain. These were the so-called ‘runaway productions’. Hollywood studios also poured funding into the British film in the 1960s. At the same time, various producers in Europe attempted to mount big budget genre pictures in various European locations. These would often have international casts and many would be made in English or dubbed into English and other languages. It’s worth remembering that the Italian, French and West German film markets were still maintaining admissions in the 1960s in contrast to the big declines in the UK and US. Many of these films were criticised, partly because the language and cultural differences between crews, actors and producers caused problems and sometimes muddled and incoherent film narratives. Is Paris Burning? seems to have suffered from this incoherence problem.
The situation in France in August 1944 was complicated following the D-Day landings in June. The British and Canadians were moving through Northern France with the intention of liberating Belgium and the Netherlands. The Americans were further south but were focused on reaching the Rhine rather than attacking German defences around Paris. A joint American and French campaign launched earlier in August from landings in the South of France made rapid progress northwards and this prompted the resistance groups in Paris to consider mobilisation. (The campaign in the south involved the French ‘Army of Africa’ as detailed in the film Indigènes (Algeria-France 2006)). The German occupation of Paris was always seen as important in ideological terms. Hitler seemingly enjoyed the humiliation heaped on France and the French in turn reacted to that. I don’t think Paris was bombed by the Allies (unlike many strategic French targets). I know that the RAF flew several low-level morale-boosting sorties over Paris for propaganda purposes without attacking targets. De Gaulle was insistent that Paris was to be ‘liberated’ by Free French forces.
IMDb carries an interesting range of ‘User comments’ on the film which range from the ecstatic to the woeful in terms of their appreciation, arguably with more towards the lower end of the scale. Most of the comments appear to be by Americans (as most comments are on the site) but the most perceptive are from Americans who have lived in France and know Paris and the history. The underlying issue here is the delicacy of the historical record of the Liberation of Paris and in particular the control over shooting on the streets of the city as demanded by Charles de Gaulle. Various sources suggest that this meant the film couldn’t be in colour because the Nazi flags on Parisian buildings were not allowed to be shown. The monochrome representation was deemed acceptable. The attraction of co-productions is often seen to be the guarantee that the film will be widely screened in both countries but in this case that also became a major problem. American audiences perhaps felt that the American contribution was being diminished in what finally appeared in the film. In France the film was much more successful.
René Clément had a big success in 1946 with La battaile du rail. That film had used a neo-realist approach to present the sabotage organised by large numbers of railway workers and the big plus for me in Is Paris Burning? is the coverage of the large number of resistance fighters in the initial struggle to take over the Prefecture of Police. As far as I could follow the plot (and the accepted history) of the struggle to liberate Paris, there were many different resistance groups. I think there is a communist group as well as the FFI (‘French Forces of the Interior’), the main organised force primed to ‘rise up’ in Paris occupying key buildings (and conveniently wearing FFI armbands in the film). Eventually these groups would be merged with the Free French units equipped by the British and Americans and part of the Allied invasion forces. The Free French units were de Gaulle’s forces and in the film the Gaullist politicians represented by Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Paris are trying to follow orders from London and control events on the ground. My problem in identifying who is who is partly because of Clément’s use of Long Shot compositions, which often means large groups of characters together, and partly the dubbing. The dubbing is heavily criticised by many viewers but I found it was generally pretty good – ironically the Long Shot compositions meant we don’t see so many close-ups and problems of lip-synching but all the same I did fail to recognise some of the well-known French actors I certainly should have recognised.
This is a film of too many cameo performances, especially the American stars who may only appear for a couple of lines. There is a feeling that some of these cameos have required a separate bit of ‘business’ for their moments on screen. Yves Montand has a couple of moments in a tank that work in script terms but don’t need his star presence – as is the case for Simone Signoret’s moment behind the bar in a café. Only Orson Welles and Gert Fröbe have the kind of roles which might be developed in a conventional drama. Pierre Vanek as Major Gallois also features across a lengthy sequence as the envoy sent out from the city to the front line of the American advance in order to contact the American and Free French High Command in the hope of diverting some forces towards Paris.
Overall, I would say the first half of the film works best, leading up to the occupation of the Prefecture of Police and its defence against German forces. I love the fact that the prefecture has a large wine cellar and that the FFI have planned to empty the wine and make Molotov cocktails. I didn’t enjoy the the arrival of Allied troops as much but there is still the emotional rush of a population liberated. There is greater use of archive footage at various points, including images of de Gaulle arriving. Unfortunately much of the archive footage is squashed and I’m surprised more care was not taken. All in all, though, this film is certainly worth watching even at over three hours with the ads. That’s an afternoon out of lockdown!
The film has its second showing on Talking Pictures TV tomorrow (Friday 6 November) at 14.40 in the UK.