L’armée des Ombres (Army of Shadows) (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969)
When it comes right down to it, Jean-Pierre Melville’s wonderful Army of Shadows probably comes as close as any film ever did to depicting what the French resistance actually looked like. And yet, as filmgoers, we can’t help but see this movie, at least in part, as an absurdist comedy. This is not a resistance full of fresh-faced Steve McQueens and Harrison Fords; these guys are older, balding, paunchy, not devastatingly handsome. Even one of the film’s most suspenseful scenes, a daring rescue of a number of imprisoned resistance members, has to inspire a few giggles; it’s one of the most inept escape attempts in history. It succeeds despite itself. But we laugh because it’s not what we expect to see. These aren’t the tanned, fit, top-condition doughboys without whom, we are told, no country is capable of winning a war. No, these are actual soldiers, in it for love of country, willing to die for freedom. And they look a whole lot more like you and me than they do like Jared Leto.
Philippe Gerbier (Monsieur Gangster‘s Lino Ventura), the head of a branch of the Resistance in Vichy-controlled France during World War II, is arrested by the government. As he is being delivered into the hands of the Nazis, Gerbier escapes and heads for Marseilles, the center-point of his network. The rest of the film, for all intents and purposes, is Gerbier, with the help of his network, evading both the Vichy thugs and the Gestapo, who have decided to take a personal interest in the matter. This involves a good deal of skullduggery, rooting out moles in the network, running around under cover of darkness, rescuing captured network members who might be able to reveal Gerbier’s location under torture… all in a day’s work.
While one cannot call Gerbier’s network France’s most photogenic, man, they sure can act. I mean, come on, Lino Ventura! Paul Meurisse (Diaboliques). Jean-Pierre Cassel (Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie). Simone Signoret (Room at the Top). Gerbier’s right-hand man is played by Paul Crauchet (Le Cercle Rouge), who as I write this passed away just three weeks ago. The group’s go-to heavies? Claude Mann (India Song) and Christian Barbier (Trans-Europ-Express). I could go on; I could have made this entire review a thousand-word roster of outrageously good French actors. After all, Melville cast it that way. And we haven’t even touched on the enemy!
…who, somewhat surprisingly (or, perhaps not, given that this is a Jean-Pierre Melville movie rather than, say, a John Ford one), are skillful, accomplished, and far from the one-note paragons of evil we, the filmgoing public, also expect in movies like this. (I really need to stop and correct myself here; I do mean “the American filmgoing public” each time I use that phrase, and I am sorry I did not accentuate that earlier.) In the film, as in the war, the French resistance are up against damn near impossible odds. Rather than things blowing up a lot, these folks needed to rely on their wits, their life skills, and a tremendous amount of luck. There is a great deal of desperation to be found here, a ubiquitous dread hanging over these characters. All of this is entirely plausible. The Joseph Kessel novel upon which the film’s script (adapted by Melville) is based came straight from Kessel’s own impressions as a member of the French resistance, along with those of other resistance members he interviewed. (That the book was published in 1943 at all is an astonishing thing, if you think about it.) Melville, who during the war aided the Resistance as a member of the Free French Forces, simply applied that realism to his film (with, no doubt, his own memories as yet another layer). The result is one of the finest French films to appear during the sixties—tough, unflinching, and not nearly as funny as we Americans seem to find it. ****