Army of Shadows (1969): Jean-Pierre Melville Powerful Chronicle of French Resistance

The great French director Jean-Pierre Melville followed his trio of gangster films with “Army of Shadows” (L’Armee des ombres”) in 1969, one of French cinema’s most powerful chronicles of the Resistance.

Adapted from Joseph Kessel’s 1943 novel, the film depicts the activities of one Resistance group over a period of five months, from October 1942 to February 1943.

Widely regarded as the most historically accurate screen version of the Resistance movement, the film describe with authenticity the lives of some members, their tragedies, solitude, suspicions, and perhaps most important of all, the inhuman choice they were forced to make in order to survive.

As usual, Melville constructs his text with great economy, paying attention in detail to the precise characterization. The milieu is well-known to Melville since he had used it before in other films. In this film, he combines nostalgia for the past (through a different imagery for Paris and a different style of filmmaking) with his long-held interest in exploring issues of camaraderie, heroism, trust and betrayal (which are also recurrent themes and mainsprings of his eloquent gangster pictures). You don’t have to be an auteurist critic to detect other similarities. Hence, “Army of Shadows” is marked by the same mood of entrapment as Melville’s crime films.

The entire ensemble of vet actors is superb, including Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, and particularly Simone Signoret.

“Army of Shadows” is a personal political film: As a member of the French Resistance for two years, who later moved to the U.K. to join the Free French forces, Melville made two other features about this tumultuous period: “The Silence of the Sea (“Le silence de la mer”) in 1949 and “Leon Morin, Priest” (“Leon Morin, pretre”) in 1961. After “Army of Darkness,” Melville returned to his specialized turf with “red Circle” (“Le Cercle rouge”) in 1970, starring Alain Delon and Gian Maria Volonte.

End note

It’s hard to believe, but “Army of Shadows” has never been released in the U.S. This masterpiece got limited theatrical exposure in December of 2006 by Rialto, kid of a warm-up for the film’s DVD version. It’s a must-see for all lovers of film, not just fans of French cinema.

Some books refer to this film as “Army of Darkness” and/or “The Shadow Army,” rather than “Army of Shadows.”