The central character in Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows (1969), Philippe Gerbier, is a totally ordinary looking fellow, perhaps bordering on homely. Gerbier's appearance is appropriate to the film. There are no handsome, dashing leading men. No exciting chases, dramatic explosions, or torrid love scenes. Instead, Melville presents the story of the French Resistance as being comprised of regular folks, in many cases, doing quite regular deeds to confound and defeat their Nazi oppressors during the occupation.
Army of Shadows is realistic in depicting the resistance. But more than a study of that time in history it is a look at people thrust into extraordinary circumstances and how they react. An informer is caught and brought to a house where he is to be killed but neighbors have moved in next door and would hear the gunfire. Our heroes have no silencers and no knives but they are under orders to do away with the young man who has betrayed some of their fellows. What follows is a heart wrenching scene of execution that is graphic more in what it shows about the psychological toll on humans that killing can exact than on the physical act of dying.
There is another scene in which an elaborate plot is hatched to free a compratiot from the Gestapo. The plan is neither spectacularly successful nor heart-breakingly foiled. At the point of nearly succeeding the plan becomes sadly unnecessary. Such things happen after all.
One of the greatest French directors, Melville was a lover of America and American films (he even Americanized his name) and best known for such gangsters films as Bob Le Flambeur (1956) and Le Samourai (1972). But as a veteran of the Resistance he knew the territory in making Army of Shadows. Perhaps that is why he did not glamorize it. Instead he showed people facing decisions in pivotal moments that could cost them their life or the lives of many others.
Lino Ventura, who portrays Gerbier, is ideal as the film's central figure. He is a realist not swayed by sentiment but he is reflective and thoughtful. His long sad face draws our attention and in its stoicism keeps us grounded in the awful grind of war. When he runs from the Gestapo it is not an exciting dash for freedom but a desperate attempt to stay alive so as to fight another day. The sound of Gerbier's shoes against the sidewalk provide punctuation to his dash. We also clearly see that to survive in war, as to succeed in sports, it is better to be lucky than good.
Melville was also careful in the rest of his casting, with only Jean-Pierre Cassell adding any glitz to the cast. The lone female lead is played by Simone Signoret who here is more of a dowdy middle aged aunt than screen siren.
The only real lightness comes when Gerbier and his boss are taken to London. There, in addition to business, they take in Gone With the Wind at a movie house and Gerbier later finds shelter in a lively bar during a blitz. Later back in France, the strains of Glenn Miller – and especially the faces of a lovely young lady from the bar – are vivid pictures in Gerbier's mind when his death seems immenent.
Meanwhile the Nazis are not made out to be monsters. That would be too easy and Melviille doesn't go for such cheap tricks. After starting the movie with an unforgettable march of Nazis down the Champs Elysees, Melville doesn't much focus on the Germans anyway.
Army of Shadows is full of wonderful moments such as when the French policeman riding in the back of the police van with Gerbier and chatting idly with him pauses to look down at Gerbier's handcuffs. Melville holds the camera on the cop's face for a few seconds as we see his smile fade in remembering his companion's circumstances.
This is not a depressing movie. No film this well made can be – it is my number two ranked all time foreign language film behind Grand Illusion (1937). Army of Shadows could be seen as a tribute who those who sacrificed their lives or part of their souls in resisting Nazi oppression. But like any great film its themes are broader than that. It is the story of what people do, how they get up each morning and take care of whatever business that awaits them. Whether they are living in a small village at a time of peace or in a war torn city during an enemy occupation. It's also about how, regardless of external circumstance, we all face choices.
But what choices these people faced!