Wednesday Bad Movie

Number 11 of a series

Family members got together over lunch a few weeks ago, and somebody brought up the news. The Notre Dam cathedral had burned. My first thought was this was bad news for those people in South Bend, but no, it was the other cathedral, the one in Paris. So that got me to thinking about the last time I was in Paris. It seemed to me a random accident had accomplished what German Chancellor Adolf Hitler failed to do 75 years ago this summer.

I have a Kindle edition of the book by Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre, and I aimed to do a review. I would visit sites from the book and illustrate the review with some photos. Then this month the movie came available on Amazon Prime Video, and I watched through it, capturing these screen shots. It’s Is Paris Burning? from 1966 and featuring a host of star quality actors. The story is historical, about the liberation of Paris in August 1944 and about Adolf Hitler’s plan to destroy the city. The run time is a few minutes short of three hours, and word is the producer’s intent was to make a follow-on to The Longest Day. In that respect, this film falls short on drama and five minutes short in run time. From Wikipedia here is a partial cast list:

Much like The Longest Day, this film doesn’t have a story. There is instead a recap of the events with some artistic license and some fictional drama thrown in. I will post screen shots from the movie and fold in some of my photos from the book review. Quoted text from the book brings some perspective.

We start with where the book starts, sort of. German General Dietrich von Choltitz (pronounced coltits) is summoned to a meeting with Adolph Hitler at his bunker at Rastenburg, near the Eastern Front in Poland. It is here, meeting Hitler for the second time in his life, Choltitz gets his instructions to take command of defending Paris. He is also ordered to destroy the city. It is here Choltitz sees what Hitler has become with his declining fortunes. He realizes he is receiving orders from a sick and befuddled idiot. Historically that observation set the course of events that carries forward to modern times. It also sets the theme of the movie. Choltitz will not destroy Paris on the orders of a mad man.

We see life in Paris in the waning days of the German occupation.The Germans entered the city in June 1940 without firing a shot, and they have been there as unwelcome guests since, generally not making any improvement in personal relations. Two forces in France and especially in Paris are preparing for an uprising against the occupiers, to be coordinated with the approaching Allied forces. The Communists seek the opportunity to gain political power that eluded them in the past. The Gaullists adhered to the leadership of French General Charles de Gaulle. During the closing days of German victory in France, de Gaulle had stepped aboard a British plane returning to England, and he had ever since positioned himself as the leader of French interests.

As depicted in the movie, the Communists and the Gaullists had a common purpose in expelling the German occupiers, but there was a crucial difference in timing. The Communists wanted to act quickly and to be in power when French forces arrived. The Gaullists wanted to deny the Communists this opportunity. Also they rightly believed that striking before there was support from Allied armed forces would result in annihilation of the French Resistance and the destruction of the city.

It would overly simplify to say the Resistance comprised only the Communists and the Gaullists. Resistance was a cottage industry in France throughout the occupation and especially in Paris during this time. Here we see a group of young, would-be resistance fighters negotiating the purchase of guns. They are mostly teenagers, and they will not live out this day. Nothing like this episode appears in the book.

The supposed seller of arms is a German collaborator, and it’s a trap. When the youngsters arrive at the pickup point in their van they are greeted by a squad of Wehrmacht troops, who take them to a distant location in a truck, where they are thrown out one after another and machine gunned.

My first job out of college was at the University of Texas Astronomy Department, and I worked sometimes for French astronomer Gérard de Vaucouleurs. One time a graduate student told me de Vaucouleurs had been in the Resistance, and his conclusion was that its major accomplishment had been to get French people killed.

All along, at least until the bullets start flying in earnest, we see Parisians going about their business. By the time the movie was filmed, de Gaulle was president of France, and he insisted all filming take place in Paris. This was 22 years after the events depicted, but little was needed to present the city as it had been.

The movie cuts back to Hitler. “The enemy must not occupy Paris.”

And the title.

We see General Choltitz arriving at his comfortable accommodations in the sumptuous Hotel Meurice.

It is still there after all these years, and on my visit I took pains to look it up and get a photo.

Factions of the Resistance confer.

General Choltitz confers with his staff about plans to defend the city.

On a map he points out where explosive charges will be laid to destroy critical infrastructure—including all bridges—and all the famous city landmarks.

Swedish Consul Raoul Nordling works feverishly, petitioning Choltitz for restraint, aiming to avoid as much as possible loss of life and destruction of the historical city.

At times his efforts are too late. A French Resistance leader is being boarded on a train taking prisoners to their ultimate deaths. A scuffle breaks out, and the Germans shoot him down on the railway platform.

The uprising begins. At night members of the Resistance go about the city putting up notices.

A young French woman carries a vital message inside the tire pump of her bicycle. A German officer comes to assist her when her tire suffers a blow-out. He can’t understand why the pump won’t work.

And right here is a minor failing of the movie. The tire blew. You can’t pump up a blown tire. This scene was concocted fully for dramatic effect.

The Paris police, left in place by the occupation, are urged to join at the appropriate time.

Fighters prepare Molotov cocktails. To do this they must first have a supply of empty wine bottles. To obtain these, they must first pour out the wine. Lack of foresight.

The day of uprising opens. Resistance fighters take up positions. In August 1944 there were several motion picture cameras rolling, and much of the fighting has been preserved on film. A sizable portion of that footage was incorporated directly into the movie. In many cases it is also obvious that the director watched the archival footage while directing the actors to re-enact the scene.

This is not from the archival footage, but is a scene from the archive. The Resistance fighters have taken over the Prefecture of Police, which sits across a square facing the Notre Dame Cathedral. A lot of fighting took place here and close by. We see Resistance fighters watch the French Tricolor being raised atop the church.

Obviously the producers re-staged the event from a different camera angle.

This is another scene that recaps 1944 film. The Germans arrive to eject fighters from the police building. The French open fire. Germans dive from the truck and are gunned down.

A re-staged scene from the 1944 film.

From 1944

From 1944

A clip from 1944. People died as the camera rolled.

In the tangle of twisting alleys between the Seine and Saint-Germain-des-Pres, on streets with names as quaint as the rue du Chat-qui-Peche and rue Git-le-Coeur, * (Literally, the streets of “the fishing cat” and “where the heart lies.”) hidden FFI squads trapped four truckloads of German soldiers. Some of them, their uniforms blazing from the splatterings of Molotov cocktails, ran screaming through those scenic little side streets, human torches in a thousand-year-old haven of human amusement.

Collins, Larry. Is Paris Burning? . Renaissance Literary & Talent in collaboration with the Author. Kindle Edition.

Here is Rue du Chat-qui-Peche two years ago.

Movie scenes are straight out of the book.

Terrified, Blache sprang up and raced across the pavement toward the Pont-au-Change a hundred yards away. The sprinting German could see around him impacting bullets tearing little puffs of black out of the asphalt of the boulevard du Palais. Then he felt the pavement tremble under his feet. Fired by the Molotov cocktail dropped from the Prefecture, Blache’s truck had just burst into flames. At the edge of the bridge, Blache hurtled the parapet and lay gasping on the other side. Looking up, he saw, marching over the bridge, a spectacle which he found hard to believe: a little old man with a black hat and cane walking peacefully through the bullets flying around him as though he were on an afternoon stroll. For a second, in an unreasoning rage, Blache wanted to shoot down this incongruously peaceful figure.

Peering over the parapet, Blache saw a knot of civilians at the far end of the bridge in the place du Chatelet. Grabbing a “potato masher” hand grenade in each hand and howling madly, Blache raced across the bridge. At the sight of Blache waving his hand grenades, his face streaming with blood and sweat, the civilians scattered like a covey of terrified pigeons. In the now deserted square, a civilian car approached the sergeant. He waved it to a stop and, brandishing his grenades, forced its French doctor driver to take him to the Hotel Meurice.

Collins, Larry. Is Paris Burning? . Renaissance Literary & Talent in collaboration with the Author. Kindle Edition.

Apparently the director thought a Luger was more photogenic than a fist full of grenades.

Still waving those grenades, the half-mad Blache ran into the lobby of the Meurice and up the flight of stairs ahead of him. He threw open the first door he found, and burst into the room behind it. “My God, my God!” he cried. “What are you waiting for, to send the tanks? They’re cooking my men like sausages!”

Collins, Larry. Is Paris Burning? . Renaissance Literary & Talent in collaboration with the Author. Kindle Edition.

The Germans counter-attack.

There are frantic calls to keep the fighting coordinated. The man at the window in the background is about to get killed.

Roger Gallois, a member of the Communist faction, goes on a perilous mission, one that had seen six previous failures. He is to penetrate the gap separating the Germans from the Allies, and he is to convince the Allies to not drop ammunition, something the Communist need desperately to continue their fight against the occupation. The plan is, instead, to urge Allied troops to attack Paris. The scene is right out of the book.

Alone now, he took a calculated risk. The German, he told himself, would not fire at a single civilian and expose his position to the Americans. Gallois set out past the German, his heart tripping under his crumpled suit, and the champagne to which he had treated himself at lunch bitter in his dry and nervous mouth. As he had hoped, the soldier watched him go with no gesture more menacing than a sullen stare.

Collins, Larry. Is Paris Burning? . Renaissance Literary & Talent in collaboration with the Author. Kindle Edition.


It had worked! He had crossed the German lines! Exultant, almost delirious with his sense of triumph, the dirty, unshaven Frenchman rushed up to these, the first American soldiers he had ever seen.

The first GI he reached was squatting in a roadside ditch, eating something from a green can. To him, Gallois jubilantly announced, “I come from Paris with a message for General Eisenhower!”

Collins, Larry. Is Paris Burning? . Renaissance Literary & Talent in collaboration with the Author. Kindle Edition.

He meets with General Patton, who bears a striking resemblance to Kirk Douglas.

General Omar Bradley must sign onto the plan. With minutes to spare he arrives by plane, looking for all the world like Glenn Ford. He agrees.

A French tank division will drive directly toward Paris.

They pass jubilant French citizens, heartened at seeing victorious French troops after four years of crushing humiliation.

One contacts his wife. He left home four years before to join the de Gaulle forces, saying he was going out for cigarettes. He contacts his wife, telling her he is coming home with American cigarettes.

The price had been high. Charred and blackened, five tanks lined the streets around Fresnes. In one of them-in the middle of the avenue de la République, inside the burned-out carcass of the Marne-a pair of sightless eyes stared up through its open turret to the clouds drifting down to Paris. Paul Landrieux was dead, his chest ripped open by a shard of Willi Wagenknecht’s first, well-aimed shell. In the pocket of his blackened fatigues was the unopened package of Camels he had brought home to Fresnes from his long voyage to eternity.

Collins, Larry. Is Paris Burning? . Renaissance Literary & Talent in collaboration with the Author. Kindle Edition.

Tony Perkins is a young American sergeant, eager to see all the famous sights. He cites, “See Paris and die.” He and a French fighter knock out a German tank, and a German sniper shoots him dead. I can find no Sergeant Warren in the book.

Years ago I was in Paris on business, and I had some time off. I walked around seeing the sights, and I stopped at a place about here on the Rue de Rivoli for lunch. It was a nice lunch, and it was the first time I had visited the area. There seems to be nothing else like it in the world—it’s immediately recognizable.

As shown in the movie, some of the most fierce and the final fighting took place right here among these columns.

The real action ends when a French Lieutenant accepts the surrender of General Choltitz, but the movie goes on for several minutes more, hoping to overtake The Longest Day in length.

Amazon Video has a feature they call X-Ray, providing interesting details. They note de Gaulle refused to appear in the movie, although it does show some newsreel footage of his victorious entry.

About John Blanton

I'm a retired engineer living in San Antonio, Texas. I have served in the Navy, raced motorcycles, taken scads of photos and am usually a nice guy. I have political and religious opinions, and these opinions tend to be driven by an excess of observed stupidity. Gross stupidity is the supposed target of many of my posts.
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