Army of Shadows Remembers French Resistants
Jean-Pierre Melville’s magnificent Army
of Shadows (1969), from his own screenplay,
based on the novel by Joseph Kessel, is belatedly
making its American debut at Film Forum on
April 28 under the aegis of Rialto Pictures.
It took Melville (1917-1973) 25 years to bring
Kessel’s 1943 novel to the screen after
he read it in London, where he and Kessel were
serving with the Free French. Ironically, the
movie received mixed reviews from the French
critics, especially the post–nouvelle
vague reviewers at Cahiers du Cinema,
who dismissed it as an outdated homage to the
deposed and discredited Charles de Gaulle after
the riots of 1968. Marcel Ophüls’
The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) came out
just after Army of Shadows, and it reflected
a widespread skepticism in France and elsewhere
about the true extent of French resistance
to the German occupation.
Melville himself shared in this skepticism.
In a 1971 interview with Rui Nogueira, he asked
rhetorically, “Do you know how many Resistants
there were in France at the end of 1940? Six
hundred. It was only in February or March 1943
that the situation changed, because the first
maquis date from April 1943. And it was the
proclamation by Sauckel about sending young
people to Germany that made a lot of people
prefer to go underground. It was not a matter
Seen today, Army of Shadows is revealed
as a sublime tribute to the mostly doomed precious
few who responded to the call of conscience
in resisting the Nazi occupiers and the French
traitors who collaborated with them. Lino Ventura
as Philippe Gerbier is one of seven composite
characters drawn from real-life models of martyrdom
in the early years of the occupation. The others
are the resourceful Mathilde, played by Simone
Signoret; Luc Jardie, the chief, played by
Paul Meurisse; the extraordinarily self-sacrificing
François, played by Jean-Pierre Cassel;
Claude La Masque, played by Claude Mann; Felix,
played by Paul Crauchet; Le Bison, played by
Christian Barbier; the Baron de Ferte-Talloire,
played by Jean-Marie Robain; and Sere Reggiani
making a cameo appearance as a resistant barber
helping Gerbier escape from a Gestapo jail.
There are no spectacular triumphs for these
shadow combatants, only the constant, fear-drenched
danger of being caught, tortured and executed
by the relentless forces arrayed against them.
Of necessity, they became ruthless themselves
with comrades who betrayed them. Where Melville
is most masterly is in his placidly matter-of-fact
pacing of these life-and-death existences.
For a comparable cinematic achievement, I can
think only of Roberto Rossellini’s equally
sublime evocation of wartime heroism under
existential pressure in General della Rovere
(1959). Army of Shadows is a film to
be seen and savored for its moral magnitude.
a memorable cameo appearance in Jean Luc-Godard’s
Breathless (1960), portraying a pompous
best-selling novelist being interviewed by
What is your greatest ambition in life?
MELVILLE: To become immortal … and then
Immortality’s a hard thing to calculate,
but in his 13-film career (mostly in the genre
of film noir), Melville has cast a haunting
shadow of his own in film history.