Is Paris Burning? (1966) ****

Paris endured a four-year “lockdown” during the Second World War, under a brutal Nazi regime, and this is the story of the battle to lift it.

Politics didn’t usually play a part in war films in the 1960s but it’s an essential ingredient of Rene Clement’s underrated documentary-style picture. Paris had no strategic importance and after the Normandy landings the Allies intended to bypass the French capital and head  straight for Berlin. Meanwhile, Hitler, in particular vengeful mood after the attempt on his life, ordered the city destroyed.

Resistance groups were splintered, outnumbered and lacking the weaponry to achieve an uprising. Followers of General De Gaulle, the French leader in exile, wanted to wait until the Allies sent in the troops, the Communists planned to seize control before British and American soldiers could arrive.  When the Communists begin the fight, seizing public buildings, the Germans plant explosives on the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, other famous buildings and the bridges across the River Seine. 

The German commandant Von Choltitz (Gert Frobe), no stranger to slaughter having overseen the destruction of Rotterdam, holds off obeying his orders because he believes Hitler is insane and the war already lost. The Gaullists despatch a messenger to persuade General Omar Bradley to change his mind and send troops to relieve the city. Sorry for the plot-spoiler but as everyone knows the Germans did not destroy the city and the liberation of Paris provided famous newsreel and photographic footage.

Line-drawings from the extended poster – the all-star cast included Orson Welles, Glenn Ford, George Chakiris, Yves Montand, Leslie Caron, Kirk Douglas, Robert Stack, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon. At $6 million, it was the most expensive French film ever made. It had a six-month shooting schedule and was shot on the streets of the city including famous locations like Etoile, Madeleine and the Louvre. It was a big hit in France but flopped in the United States, its box office so poor that Paramount refused to disclose it.

Director Clement was also aware he could not extract much tension from the question of whether von Clowitz will press the destruct button, so he takes another route and documents in meticulous detail the political in-fighting and the actual street battles that ensued, German tanks and artillery against Molotov cocktails and mostly old-fashioned weaponry. The wide Parisian boulevards provide a fabulous backdrop for the fighting. Shooting much of the action from above allows Clement to capture the action in vivid cinematic strokes.

Like The Longest Day (1962), the film does not follow one individual but is in essence a vast tapestry. Scenes of the utmost brutality – resistance fighters thrown out of a lorry to be machine-gunned, the public strafed when they venture out to welcome the Americans – contrast with moments of such gentleness they could almost be parody: a shepherd taking a herd through the fighting, an old lady covered in falling plaster watching as soldiers drop home-made bombs on tanks.

This is not a film about heroism but the sheer raw energy required to carry out dangerous duty and many times a character we just saw winning one sally against the enemy is shot the next. The French have to fight street-by-street, enemy-emplacement-by-enemy-emplacement, tank-by-tank. And Clement allows as much time for humanity. Francophile Anthony Perkins, as an American grunt, spends all his time in the middle of the battle trying to determine the location of the sights he longs to see – before he is abruptly killed.  Bar owner Simone Signoret helps soldiers phone their loved ones. Gore Vidal and Francis Coppola fashioned the screenplay with a little help from French writers whom the Writers Guild excluded from the credits.

Like The Longest Day and In Harm’s Way (1965), the film was shot in black-and-white, but not, as with those movies for the simple reason of incorporating newsreel footage, but because De Gaulle, now the French president, objected to the sight of a red swastika. Even so, it permitted the inclusion of newsreel footage, which on the small screen (where most people these days will watch it) appears seamless. By Hollywood standards this was not an all-star cast, Glenn Ford (as Bradley), Kirk Douglas (General Patton) and Robert Stack (General Sibert) making fleeting glimpses. But by French standards it was the all-star cast to beat all-star casts – Jean-Paul Belmondo (Breathless, 1960), Alain Delon (Lost Command, 1966), Yves Montand (Grand Prix, 1966), Charles Boyer (Gaslight, 1944), Leslie Caron (Gigi, 1958), Michel Piccoli (Masquerade, 1965) , Simone Signoret (Room at the Top, 1959) and Jean-Louis Trintignant (A Man and a Woman, 1966).  Orson Welles, in subdued form, appears as the Swedish ambassador. Director Rene Clement was best known for Purple Noon (1960), an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley starring Alain Delon.

The score by Maurice Jarre is one of his best. The overture at the start is dominated by a martial beat, but snuck in there is the glorious traditional theme that is given greater and greater emphasis the closer the Parisians come to victory.