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Is Paris Burning?

Is Paris Burning?
Paramount Home Entertainment
1966 / B&W/ 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 172 min. / Paris brule-t-il? Street Date June 10, 2003 / 19.99
Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Charles Boyer, Leslie Caron, Jean-Pierre Cassel, George Chakiris, Bruno Cremer, Claude Dauphin, Alain Delon, Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, Gert Fröbe, Daniel Gélin, Georges Géret, E.G. Marshall, Hannes Messemer, Yves Montand, Anthony Perkins, Michel Piccoli, Wolfgang Preiss, Claude Rich, Simone Signoret, Robert Stack, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Skip Ward, Orson Welles, Albert Rémy, Bernard Fresson, Suzy Delair, Patrick Dewaere, Michael Lonsdale

Cinematography Marcel Grignon, Production Designer Willy Holt, Art Direction Marc Frédérix, Pierre Guffroy, Film Editor Robert Lawrence, Original Music Maurice Jarre, Written by Gore Vidal, Francis Ford Coppola, Marcel Moussy, Beate von Molo, Jean Aurenche, Pierre Bost, Claude Brulé from the book by Larry Collins, Dominique LaPierre, Produced by Paul Graetz, Directed by René Clément

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Is Paris Burning? received bad press notices and found few American audiences when new, probably owing to its huge cast of unfamiliar foreign stars. The picture was considered hard to follow, as it didn't dumb-down the complicated story of the liberation of Paris. Many reviewers took to making fun of the casting - saying rightly that Kirk Douglas was a ridiculous choice for General Patton, that Glenn Ford barely had one closeup and was gone from the picture. Time magazine said it couldn't understand Orson Welles as a Swedish diplomat, and interpreted the portly actor's concerned expression in one scene as hunger for a German officer's sandwich.

Director René Clément had made a resistance film right after the war called Battle of the Rails. This huge 60s undertaking, shot in the semi-documentary style of The Battle of Algiers on authentic Paris locations, has over a hundred speaking parts, an episodic structure, and no real main characters. That's where the reviewers missed the mark, for the hero of the film is the city itself. Accompanied by the waltzes of Maurice Jarre, Is Paris Burning? is a celebration of the Paris that emerged mostly intact from 4 years of occupation, seemingly by a miracle.


Late summer 1944. The Allies are moving across France, and considering bypassing Paris on their way to Germany. Hitler dispatches General von Choltitz (Gert Fröbe) to prepare to dynamite and burn every utility, bridge and landmark in the city prior to retreat. The leaders of many resistance groups argue over the proper time to begin fighting the Germans in the open. It is the police who go on strike and fire the first shots. Paris becomes chaos as the remaining German troops try to eject resistance fighters from important public buildings. A resistance emissary sneaks across enemy lines to persuade the Allies into letting the French forces under LeClerc (Claude Rich) move toward the capital. German demolitionists have mined hundreds of buildings, and Hitler phones von Choltitz, demanding that the destruction begin.

The usual numbskull complaint about Is Paris Burning? is that since we know that the city never burned, there's no suspense. For anyone with any curiosity the liberation of the world's most beautiful capital is fascinating. We're treated to recreations of true events, filmed right where they happened in the middle of top tourist attractions. Jean-Louis Trintignant is a double agent who leads idealistic Parisian youths ("Hi, I'm from the Young Christian association!" "Young Communist League! Nice to meet you!") to their doom. Charles Boyer helps smuggle a resistance representative across German lines. Jean-Paul Belmondo, a resistance officer ordered to take a palace by force, goes there on bicycle with his girlfriend, knocks on the door, and says he's arrived to take possession. A priest from Notre Dame rushes across the square to the prefecture of police to volunteer as chaplain for the rebellion. Resistance leaders that a few days before were officially listed as terrorists, are now driving around in marked cars to negotiate with the Germans, hoping they won't be shot on sight. And the hardcore German general in charge, an equally heroic figure, bucks Hitler's raving and refuses to give the order to destroy the city.

The film is shot in B&W, allowing the use of real footage from 1944, much of which is stunning. It's all beautifully integrated into the new material. The scale of the recreation is amazing. Entire boulevards and avenues are taken over, with tanks firing shells at police-held buildings while civilians with Molotov cocktails try and sneak up on them across the open spaces of parks and bridges. The chaos of street-to-street fighting is shown in detail. The Germans put up tough resistance in some places, while the Allies just roll into others, accepting free drinks from the corner cafes. Von Choltitz can't get good information from his better-armed but outnumbered troops, while advancing French soldiers are able to phone from the suburbs to tell relatives they're on their way. The accuracy of the recreation allows direct comparison of footage old and new - allowing us to see that those funny fences used to reinforce the barricades were the metal grating sidewalks, pulled right up off the street.

Just about the only unauthentic aspect of Is Paris Burning? are the French females. Just as in American films of the time, they have 60s hairstyles and clothing, and all resemble Anna Karina clones from a Godard picture. Compare them to the women seen in the authentic old footage, and you'll see what I mean.

There are a few lumps in Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola's script. An extended sequence showing a trainload of subversives being shipped off to be murdered seems over-dramatized. Leslie Caron tearfully tries in vain to redeem her husband with a release document the SS troops don't want to recognize. When we get to the scenes in Allied Command, Claude Rich is a dead ringer for General LeClerc, but Kirk Douglas, Robert Stack and Glenn Ford just seem like miscast movie stars.

It's fun looking out for all the familiar faces. George Chakiris and Skip Ward are probably on screen for less time than their credits. I'm sure I recognized Nino Castelnovo from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg climbing out of a manhole. And every German actor who specialized in playing soldiers is here - among them Hans Messemer (The Great Escape) and Wolfgang Preiss (seemingly everything).

We get a number of along-for-the-ride French stars as well: Yves Montand and Simone Signoret are in for tiny bits. Interesting, however, that Maurice Chevalier wasn't invited. Some reviewers have noted that Is Paris Burning? doesn't address the issue of collaboration (of which Chevalier was accused) and it's certainly true. That angle is so sticky and complicated, that a much different venue is needed - The Sorrow and the Pity. Also, even though the Paris police are shown as the spearhead of the rebellion, their earlier role during the occupation is very questionable, especially when they aided the Germans in mass arrests and deportations.

The choice of dialogue tracks is also a problem. On old laser disc copies, the expert English dubbing never seemed 'French' enough. This new DVD has an additional French track, which is great for the dozens of Frenchmen. But all the Americans, including familiar voices like Orson Welles (playing a Swede) are also dubbed into French. Anthony Perkins just isn't the same performer without his own voice ... it's too bad there's not a full international version, where everyone speaks what they should be speaking and the subtitles straighten it all out where necessary.  1

Tying it all together is Maurice Jarre's score, a wonderful heartbeat of sweeping melodies and light suspense music that sounds like it came from Eyes Without a Face. At the conclusion, as we see more and more amazing old footage of real crowds celebrating with airplanes buzzing famous monuments in the long boulevards. Church bells ring and Is Paris Burning? becomes one big party, a celebration of the city. Then the view dissoves to color aerial footage from 1966, to show the grandeur of what was so miraculously spared destruction. It's a breathtakingly happy ending.

Paramount's DVD of Is Paris Burning?, thanks to the choice of language tracks and the added resolution of 16:9 enhancement, beats out the older laser disc. Since it's letterboxed, the sweeping scope images of Paris are a must-see for clarity's sake - the film is a muddle when pan-scanned.

The B&W photography registers well, and we can pick out the subtle increase in contrast used to make the SS sequence seem more sinister. The vintage footage also looks great, considering the enlargement necessary to get a scope framing. There are no extras, which is a shame. Some kind of fill-in-the-facts primer about the occupation and retaking of Paris would have been a big plus.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Is Paris Burning? rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 8, 2003


1. If Fox ever gets down to doing a DVD of The Sicilian Clan I hope they use the original French track. It leaves Italians, French and Canadians speaking their correct tongues or trying their best in non-native languages. Language differences, bad communication and talking about people right in front of them are important plot points in the film. When dubbed all into English, a lot of it just doesn't make sense.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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