Paris 1919

| October 24, 2009

The negotiations following the end of World War One and culminating in the notorious Treaty of Versailles comprise what is arguably one of the most important and most overlooked events of the 20th century. Its deep influence and part of its fascination stem no doubt from its position in history- it is uniquely placed not only toward the beginning of a century but also at a convergence of sweeping political, social and technological changes. This captivating chapter in world history is the focus of Margaret MacMillan’s book “Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World” which served as the inspiration for director/writer Paul Cowen’s new docudrama “Paris 1919.”
Cowen has woven together archival footage and live drama to bring MacMillan’s narrative to life, resulting in a seamless blend of human intimacy and historical propinquity. The archival scenes themselves are visceral enough- the excitement of the thousands thronging the streets of Paris to celebrate the war’s end, the utter devastation of the northern French countryside, the grotesque poses of soldiers killed in ways heretofore unheard of- but the live action sequences, shot with excruciating attention to period detail, bestow an immediacy and familiarity that is rare to find in any film, let alone a documentary.
When dealing with so large and extensive a subject in a matter of 90 minutes, it is not realistic to expect a thorough study. Cowen’s imagining of MacMillan’s text is accurate in its emphasis on the Big Four- American President Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau and Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando (who later withdrew from the talks) – but overall “Paris 1919” seems unduly fixed on Western Europe and the U.S… Fleeting mention is made of the wider realm of influence these talks had- a young Ho Chi Minh (recognize the name, anyone?) was one of the delegates who requested an audience with Woodrow Wilson in the hope of winning self determination for what was then French Indochina (his request was ignored and the rest, as they say, is history). Some of the other pressing concerns at the time of the Paris talks- Bolshevism, self determination for colonies, the creation of separate Jewish and Arab states- are merely glossed over.
Nonetheless, “Paris 1919” is a stunner in its broad scope and detailed execution, not least because of the subtle but spot on performances delivered by the actors playing the Big Four- Nicholas Hawtrey as David Lloyd George, Jean-Gabriel Nordmann as Georges Clemenceau, Vincent Lo Monaco as Vittorio Orlando and an especially uncanny turn by Yan Brian as Woodrow Wilson.
“Paris 1919” is a captivating if not entirely comprehensive look at the tumultuous months following the armistice ending World War One and the powerful men whose dreams, greed, compromises and decisions reshaped the world and continue to affect our modern times.

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