I have been on a Rene Clement jag recently, catching up with KNAVE OF HEARTS (MONSIEUR RIPOIS), THE SEA WALL, PLEIN SOLEIL and LES FELINS (THE LOVE CAGE) [all reviewed here] so I finally got around to that 1966 war movie IS PARIS BURNING? which he directed efficiently, with that huge cast of extras and mixing in newsreel footage cleverly with the action. Scripted by Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola and shot in widescreen monochrome it should have made for an interesting, involving story, but sadly not. It was not a hit at the time and one can see why now.
The dvd blurb states: "As the Nazi jackboot maches through Europe, the freedom fighters of Paris mount a brave resistance. An insane and desperate Hitler sends a top general to determine if the Nazis can hold the city, if not Paris will be burned. This epic film boasts an international cast of screen legends .... and is a staggering portrait of heroism and brotherhood and one of the most rivetting stories to come out of World War II."
In fact the narrative is wildly confusing, there seems to be interminable sequences of shoot-ups and tanks catching fire, tension is minimal. This was the era of the big budget all-star war movie: Darryl Zanuck's THE LONGEST DAY, Carl Foreman's THE VICTORS, Carlo Ponti's OPERATION CROSSBOW, and this co-production for Paramount, followed by OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR, THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN and A BRIDGE TOO FAR., among others. This one though wasn't one we rushed to see back in 1966 despite the cast.
American stars pop up for a moment: Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, Robert Stack as military brass; Anthony Perkins and George Chakiris (just glimpsed at the end) as foot soldiers and as for the natives: there is a moment with Simone Signoret as a cafe owner, Montand in a tank, Delon and Belmondo in a couple of talky scenes (they get a moment together to showcase their first teaming); Leslie Caron is effective in a harrowing sequence as the woman trying to save her husband from being deported in a crowded train to a concentration camp. Best are Orson Welles as the Swedish ambassador and Gert Froebe as the German commandant tasked by Hitler to burn Paris if the Allies get too near .... its all efficiently done but would at 160 minutes have been a pain to sit through in a cinema. I dare say Clement did what he could with the material.
Much more involving and exciting is THE SCARLET AND THE BLACK, a superior telemovie from the '80s about the similar Nazi occupation of Rome and their resistance, led by Irish priest Father O'Flaherty, who was (this is a true story) based at the Vatican in 1943-45 and had been hiding downed pilots, escaped prisoners of war, and Italian resistance families. His diplomatic status in a Catholic country prevents his arrest, but O'Flaherty's activities become so large that the Nazi's decide to assassinate him the next time he leaves the Vatican. O'Flaherty continues his work in a variety of disguises. The older Peck is ideal here as we side with him playing his cat and mouse games with the Germans. His adversary is an icy Christopher Plummer as the hissable bad guy, ruthlessly determind to control Rome - a city of "priests and whores" as he tells Peck, however the proud Nazi will need a very special favour at the end. He and Peck have some splendid set-pieces, and also riveting is John Gielgud - usually content to glide through cameo roles on autopilot - as the troubled wartime pope Pius XII. Its a splendid piece of casting which Gielgud makes the most of. Good support too from the likes of Raf Vallone and Gabriele Ferzetti. Highly recommended. Directed by Jerry London, 1983.