This rental sat on our shelf for weeks before we slid it into the DVD player, which promptly refused to play it until prompted a number of times. Army of Shadows (L'Armee des ombres, 1969) is a magnificent piece of work, surely the best of many I have seen on the role of the French resistance during World War II. (Here's a fine, thoughtful review by Roger Ebert, which captures precisely the mood and the quality of the film.)
There is, of course, a tendency to romanticize the dangerous and very often fatal actions of this brave network of people, many of whom died at the hands of the Nazi occupiers for their dedication to the cause of France's liberation. This film refuses that temptation. It is gritty, unrelenting in its portrayal of a small cell of resistance fighters, led by a Parisian intellectual and a hard-nosed engineer, who operate in the shadows, always within a slip-up or a traitor's breath of discovery, torture and execution. Yet it is definitely not an action movie in the usual sense. The scenes--and the individual shots--are long and slow, the suspense is not the moment-to-moment, seat-of-the-chair anxiety that Hollywood movies have inured us to. There is little violent activity--though we are not spared some glimpses of the results of torture. The suspense here is profound, both emotionally and psychologically, reaching into the depths of the souls of the main characters.
There are also moments of release, small triumphs and successes along the way--a rescue by a British submarine under cover of darkness, in a remote inlet; the landing of two small transport places with supplies. You sigh with relief when they are over. But there is also the ubiquitous, dark and pitiless presence of the occupation force, whose eyes and ears are everywhere and whose control is absolute. The resistance fighters have no illusions but that they are destined to die, yet they persist in their battle despite their resignation and despite the remorseless power of their enemy. There is a nobility in their courage that elevates them to tragic figures, admirable and pitiable all at once. They hold us in their grip without pathos or melodrama, simply as men and women who find their integrity and sense of honor tested by the times.
In these days and at this place of relative security--our social fabric, 9/11 notwithstanding, is not immediately threatened as was France during the Occupation--it is hard to imagine ourselves in so extreme a predicament. The moral questions are imponderable: to kill a friend for fear she could be compelled, by whatever means, to provide information that could jeopardize an entire network? To risk the lives of the innocent in order to achieve a worthy goal? It is to the credit of Jean-Pierre Melville, the director of "Army of Shadows", that he manages to put us there, making such questions real and immediate and hard, and asking us to stake, by proxy, our own lives and our own sense of honor.
I wonder that I had never come upon this film before, and am glad that I stumbled on it somehow on the Internet. For those who, like myself, are fascinated by the history of the fight to the death against Nazi tyranny, this is an indispensable part of the picture.