Shortly after the failed 1944 20 July plot to assassinate him, Adolf Hitler (Billy Frick), appoints General Dietrich von Choltitz (Gert Fröbe) as military governor of occupied Paris. Hitler believes Choltitz will obey his order that the Allies should not be allowed to capture Paris without the Germans destroying it completely, similar to the planned destruction of Warsaw.
The French Resistance learn that the Allies are not planning to take Paris, but are heading straight to Germany instead. The two factions within the Resistance react to this news differently. The Gaullists want to wait and see, while the Communists want to take action. The Communists force the issue by calling for a general uprising by the citizens of Paris and by occupying important government buildings. The Gaullists go along with this plan of action once it is set in motion.
Initially, Choltitz is intent on following Hitler's order to level the city. After his troops fail to dislodge the Resistance from the Prefecture of Police, he orders the Luftwaffe to bomb the building but withdraws the order at the urging of the Swedish Consul, Raoul Nordling (Orson Welles), who points out that bombs that miss the Prefecture risk destroying nearby culturally invaluable buildings such as the Notre Dame Cathedral. Choltitz accepts a truce offer from the Resistance (conceived by the Gaullist faction), but the Communists want to keep on fighting, in spite of a lack of ammunition. The truce is, therefore, shortened to one day and the fighting resumes.
After learning that the Germans plan to destroy Paris (the Eiffel Tower and other landmarks are rigged with explosives), a messenger from the Resistance is sent across enemy lines to contact the Americans. He implores the Allies to act and afterwards U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower gives the Free French Forces under General Charles de Gaulle the go-ahead to move on Paris.
As the military situation deteriorates, Choltitz delays the order to destroy Paris, believing that Hitler is insane and that the war is lost, making the destruction of Paris a futile gesture. He chooses instead to surrender shortly after the Allies enter the city.
As the Free French Forces and De Gaulle parade down the streets of Paris, greeted by cheering crowds, a phone receiver off the hook is seen with a voice in German repeatedly asking "Is Paris burning?" From the air, Paris is seen, its buildings still intact and standing.
The film is based on the best-selling book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre and was directed by René Clément, from a screenplay by Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola.
The music is by Maurice Jarre. Jarre's music for "The Paris Waltz" had words added later by Maurice Vidalin and became a patriotic anthem sung by Mireille Mathieu under the title Paris en colère.
Is Paris Burning? stars Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, Gert Fröbe, Orson Welles, Anthony Perkins, Robert Stack, Charles Boyer, Yves Montand, Leslie Caron, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Simone Signoret and Alain Delon. The production was filmed in 180 sites. Claude Rich plays two parts: General Leclerc, with a moustache, and Lt Pierre de la Fouchardière, without a moustache. He is credited at the end only with the part of Leclerc. His role as the young lieutenant is not by chance: Claude Rich, as a teenager, was watching soldiers in the street when the real-life Pierre de la Fouchardière called him into a building to protect him.
The film is almost entirely in black and white, presumably to better blend the documentary stock footage that is included in the film. The film was shot in black and white mainly because, although the French authorities would allow swastika flags to be displayed on public buildings for key shots, they would not permit those flags to be in their original red color; as a result, green swastika flags were used, which photographed adequately in black and white but would have been entirely the wrong color. However, the closing credits feature aerial shots of Paris in color. The entire film was shot on location in Paris.
As the film had a predominately French cast, all sequences featuring French and German actors were filmed in their native French and German Languages respectively, which was then dubbed into English, while all the sequences with the American actors (including Orson Welles) were filmed in English.
The film was the fourth most popular movie of the year in France in 1966.
The film was nominated for two Academy Awards:Best Art Direction (Willy Holt, Marc Frédérix, Pierre Guffroy)
Best Cinematography (Marcel Grignon)
The film was spoofed in Mad magazine, in the September 1967 issue (#113), under the title "Is Paris Boring?"