One would think that a film about the French Resistance during WWII would feature grand moments of sabotage, gunfire, and the destruction of some German strongholds. That may be the case for a film created now, but it’s quite the opposite for the fantastic, Jean-Pierre Melville directed, Army Of Shadows. Focusing on a group of men and women from the Resistance, the film spends time showing viewers the way in which these heroic men and women lived their lives. It’s not so much what they accomplished, but how they manage to stay alive through it all.
Philipe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is a chief for the French Resistance. After a traitor has given him away, Philipe is imprisoned in a camp before being handed over to the Gestapo for questioning. Managing to escape from the Gestapo, Philipe returns to his Resistance network to deal with the traitor. From this moment on, viewers watch as Philipe and the other members of the network must deal with arrests, torture, and the possibility that any one of them could become a traitor.
The most strange thing about the film is that we never see the Resistance members do anything to stop the German army in France. Viewers don’t see them infiltrate headquarters, assassinate an important figure, or even pass along information. They may be doing these things throughout the film, but it’s not something that is ever shown or spoken of. What we watch are the various characters moving from one safehouse to the next, constantly avoiding arrest, or attempting to rescue one of their friends who have been captured. In fact, it seems that they have more to worry about from within their group. If someone is arrested, their rescue is important not only because they’re a friend, but also because they each have information they could potentially reveal.
There are some very surprising scenes of violence as well. Although not particularly gruesome, these moments are very shocking, and quite often sudden. Equally surprising is that many of these scenes don’t involve the German army at all. The French Resistance must deal with traitors among them, and although it’s not something they want to do, it’s something that must be done. This leads to an ending that may be expected, but one that is hard to accept. The final half of the film becomes so tense that it’s almost impossible to turn away from the screen.
Based on a novel by Joseph Kessel, which was in turn partly based on Kessel’s participation in the Resistance, the film captures a level of realism so many others are missing. There’s nothing glamourous about the character’s lives, as there was nothing glamourous about actually being part of the Resistance. These were people who fought for something they believed in, no matter how dangerous, and this is felt through the incredible performances of everyone involved. The cast captures the struggle of having to deal with constant fear, and the challenge of dealing with a traitor who was once their friend, perfectly. It may seem a bit slow at first, but it builds to a very tense second half that will have you on the edge of your seat.