Saturday, February 15, 2020

Permanently Linked to War

Years ago, I read Is Paris Burning, the story about the liberation of Paris from the Nazis by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.  The book is fantastic and well-documented, since the authors interviewed as many of the survivors of the siege as possible, including General Dwight Eisenhower and General Dietrich von Choltitz, the German officer who deliberately disobeyed Hitler’s order to destroy Paris so the Allies could not capture it.

I have often wondered just why so many bad movies are made from the butchered carcasses of good books.  It would seem relatively simple for a script to adhere to the guidelines of a successful book—which I acknowledge is easy for me to say since I have never attempted to write a screenplay. 

Still, I don’t think I could list in an hour the number of disastrous movies that resulted from scripts so dramatically different from the original publication that not even the author could find the vestigial traces of his former work.  On the other hand, I can name several good movies that closely followed the original novel—Lonesome Dove, Dr. Zhivago, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Bladerunner come to mind. 

Then, in contrast, there are the movies in which you wonder if anyone bothered to read more than the back cover of the book.  I was going to list a few examples of this, but just think of any bad movie you have ever seen.  Since not even Hollywood would actually pay for the movie rights to a bad book, chances are they butchered an otherwise decent novel.

In the case of the 1966 production of Is Paris Burning, we can’t blame the writers of the screenplay, Francis Ford Coppola and Gore Vidal.  I haven’t seen the original screenplay, but these two authors are certainly talented enough to have delivered the director, René Clément, a decent script. 

Courtesy of Netflix, I recently re-watched the film.  The movie is horrible, and not because of the occasional historical inaccuracies.  Yes, the crowd scenes show lots of people with clothes and hair styles from two decades after the war, and many of the German tanks are rather obviously thinly disguised American tanks.  You can also spot a few television antennas on buildings, and other anomalies.  None of these details really matters:  the movie is bad because President Charles de Gaulle stomped all over it.

It seems de Gaulle controlled the rights to where and when the movie could be filmed, and his approval had quite a few “qualifications”.  First, the participation and bravery of the resistance fighters could contain very little of the activities of the student communists.  The students are still in the film, but they are all murdered for not following orders.

Second, because of de Gaulle, the film had to be filmed in black and white.  President de Gaulle would allow Nazi flags and uniforms to be filmed on the streets of Paris, but only if the colors were changed.  Red Nazi flags were changed to green, and black SS uniforms were actually dark purple.  In both cases, when filmed in black and white, the colors appear correct.  (I would love to see a copy of the film using the computer ‘colorized’ technique.  The idea of storm troopers in purple—or is that “aubergine”?—uniforms sounds wonderful.)

Grudgingly, I will admit that de Gaulle may have had a point.  During filming, one startled postal worker came across some actors in German uniforms and ran away screaming, “They’re back!  They’re back!” (Well, to his credit, he didn’t surrender.)

There is one quick scene towards the end of the movie that I can’t stop thinking about.  Two SS officers show up with orders to remove an old tapestry from the Louvre and take it back to Berlin as a gift from Goering to Hitler.  Unfortunately, explains General von Choltitz, the Louvre is in the part of Paris under the control of the Resistance. 

The scene is historically accurate, though it was actually Heinrich Himmler who ordered the tapestry’s removal, not Goering.  The old tapestry in question was, of course, the famous Bayeux Tapestry.

The Bayeux Tapestry is a visual retelling of the invasion and conquest of England by William the Conqueror, in 1066.  Roughly 230 feet long, the tapestry tells the story from the Norman point of view using approximately 1400 embroidered images along with Latin text.  The fact that the tapestry is not only a priceless work of art but an important historical document has seldom spared it from being seen as a prize of war.

Napoleon (Were you wondering how I was going to work him into this?) considered the tapestry to be an important propaganda tool, which is only natural—that is precisely why Bishop Odo, the brother of William the Conqueror had the tapestry created.  While he was planning his own invasion of England, Napoleon had the cloth removed from the Bayeux Cathedral and sent to the Musée Napoléon, formerly the Louvre.  When Napoleon’s invasion was called off, the tapestry no longer had any significance, so he had the tapestry returned to the town of Bayeux.

At the time, no special significance was seen in the tapestry.  During the French Revolution, the military had requisitioned the cloth to be used as a tarp to protect military wagons.  The only reason the artifact survived is because a local lawyer spirited the cloth bundle away and hid it in his home until the madness of the revolution had ended.

Once again, the value of the tapestry as propaganda supporting an invasion of England was recognized by the Germans in World War II, and once again, the tapestry was taken to the Louvre while a planned invasion was being prepared.

What seems odd to me is that in the thousand-year history of the Bayeux Tapestry, the priceless art object has been on display only twice at the world’s premier art museum, and both times have been because the work was taken there by force—once, by Napoleon, and the second time, by the Nazis.

Although we think of the tapestry as a work of art today, perhaps, because it was made to commemorate a successful invasion, twice—over 750 years after its creation—it has also been considered a propaganda tool for war and more recent invasions.  Or could it be that would-be conquerors believe it to be a magic talisman for successful conquest?

1 comment:

  1. "I am here to view the tapestries! You have tapestries do you not?" - I. Jones, Ph.D.