Army of Shadows (French: L’armée des ombres) is a 1969 French film directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. It is a film adaptation of Joseph Kessel’s 1943 book of the same name, which blends Kessel’s own experiences as a member of the French Resistance with fictionalized versions of other Resistance members. Army of Shadows follows a small group of Resistance fighters as they move between safe houses, work with the Allied militaries, kill informers, and attempt to evade the capture and execution that they know is their most likely fate. While portraying its characters as heroic, the film presents a bleak, unromantic view of the Resistance.
At the time of its initial release in France, Army of Shadows was not well received or widely seen. In the wake of the events of May 1968, French critics denounced the film for its perceived glorification of Charles de Gaulle. At the time American art-film programmers took their cues from Cahiers du cinéma, which had attacked the film on this basis, and so it was not released in the United States for almost forty years. In the mid-1990s Cahiers du cinéma published a reappraisal of the film (and Melville’s work in general), leading to its restoration and re-release in 2006. The film was greeted with critical adulation in the U.S., landing in many critics’ year-end top ten lists
October 1942 in Nazi-occupied France. Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a distinguished civil engineer and the head of a Resistance network, has been arrested by Vichy French police and is placed in a camp. A few days later, the French authorities hand Gerbier over to the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo, and he is transferred to headquarters in Paris for interrogation. Gerbier manages a daring escape by killing a guard and makes his way back to Marseille where his network is based.
Gerbier’s right-hand man, Félix Lepercq (Paul Crauchet), has identified a young agent named Paul Dounat as the informant who betrayed Gerbier to the Vichy police. With the help of Guillaume Vermersch a.k.a. Le Bison (Christian Barbier), a burly French Foreign Legion veteran, Gerbier and Lepercq take Dounat to a safe house to execute him. They are met there by Claude Ullmann a.k.a. Le Masque (Claude Mann), a young upstart eager to prove himself. The execution cannot be done as planned, by shooting, because of a family next door, and in the end the traitor is strangled.
Lepercq happens upon an old friend in a bar, Jean-François Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel), a handsome, risk-loving, former pilot. Upon Lepercq’s offer, Jean-François joins the Resistance. On his first mission to Paris, he meets Mathilde (Simone Signoret) who under the guise of a housewife is one of the linchpins of Gerbier’s network, unbeknown to her family. His first mission accomplished, Jean-François? pays a surprise visit to his elder brother Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), a renowned philosopher who lives a detached, scholarly life in his Paris mansion. (Luc Jardie’s character is partly based on the actual philosopher/resistance leader Jean Cavaillès).
Gerbier plans to travel to the Free French headquarters in London via a British submarine. On the sub, Gerbier meets Luc Jardie, who is actually the Grand Patron (Big Boss), the head of all Resistance networks whose identity is a closely guarded secret.
In London, Gerbier organises additional logistical support for the resistance and Luc Jardie is decorated by Charles de Gaulle himself. Gerbier takes shelter from an air raid in a night club. Gerbier must, however, cut his trip short when he learns that the Gestapo has captured Lepercq. He parachutes back into France and finds shelter in a château near Annecy in the French Alps. Meanwhile, Mathilde has taken command after Lepercq’s arrest. Learning that Lepercq is detained in a maximum-security Gestapo prison in Lyon, she devises an audacious escape plan. Jean-François?, who has been sitting silently through the discussion of the plan, makes his decision. He writes a letter of resignation to Gerbier and mails an anonymous letter to the Gestapo to incriminate himself. His gamble is successful: after a brutal interrogation, he is placed in the same cell as Lepercq. Lepercq has been repeatedly tortured and lies on his bunk barely alive.
Dressed as a German military nurse, and accompanied by Le Masque and Le Bison wearing German uniforms, Mathilde arrives at the gate of the Lyon prison in a stolen German ambulance with a forged order for Lepercq’s transfer to Gestapo headquarters. However, the prison doctor, though duped by the order, examines the moribund Lepercq and pronounces him unfit for transport. Mathilde had not anticipated that contingency and can only leave the prison empty-handed. Jean-François?, seeing that any chance of escape is now lost, tells Lepercq that he has several cyanide pills and offers him one (hiding from him the fact that he in fact only has one pill).
On the run again after the Gestapo has discovered his Annecy hideout, Gerbier meets Mathilde in a Lyon restaurant for debriefing. Mathilde urges him to escape to London in view of the mounting danger; she has seen his face on a wanted poster on the wall of the Lyon prison. Mathilde departs, but a happenstance Vichy police raid of the restaurant for food rationing violations captures Gerbier. He is handed over to the Germans and, after a few days in prison, is taken with his cellmates to a firing range where an SS officer explains a sadistic game in which the prisoners are to race to the far end of the room as a machine gun firing squad fires upon them. As the shooting starts, Mathilde’s team, who have been lying in wait on the roof of the corridor, throw smoke bombs into the line of fire to block the Germans’ view, then throw a line to Gerbier who narrowly escapes. Le Bison then drives Gerbier to an abandoned farmhouse deep in the countryside, where he is to wait for the situation to cool down.
After one month of solitude, Gerbier receives an unexpected visit from Luc Jardie who has come to seek his advice after Mathilde has been arrested. Despite Gerbier’s earlier warning, Mathilde was carrying a photo of her daughter in her wallet when she was caught. The Gestapo offers her a choice: either Mathilde tells all about the network or her daughter will be sent to a military brothel in Poland. The Grand Patron has barely finished explaining the situation when Le Masque and Le Bison arrive. Jardie, wanting his presence to remain secret, hides in the back room while the two men hand over a coded status report telling that Mathilde has been released the day before and that two Resistance men have been picked up the same afternoon. Gerbier orders Mathilde’s immediate execution, but Le Bison refuses to carry out the order and swears to prevent Gerbier from killing her. As a fight is about to break out, Jardie emerges from the back room and defuses the tension by the sheer force of his personality. He convinces Le Bison that the only reason Mathilde acted the way she did — betraying only minor agents, and convincing the Gestapo to release her under the pretext of leading them to her network — was to give the Resistance a window of opportunity to kill her, thereby sparing the network and her daughter. Le Bison reluctantly agrees to take part in the operation and Jardie announces that he too will be present as a final homage to Mathilde. Later, however, Jardie reveals to Gerbier that the argument he presented to Le Bison is purely speculative.
A few days later, Mathilde is walking the streets of Paris when Jardie and his men pull up next to her in a stolen Wehrmacht car. Seeing them, Mathilde freezes and keeps her eyes locked into Jardie’s while Le Bison pulls out a pistol and shoots her twice, after which the car speeds away. As the film comes to an end, silent text screens tell us the eventual fate of the four men: Le Masque will manage to swallow his cyanide pill in time, Le Bison will be beheaded in a German prison, Jardie will die under torture having betrayed no other name than his own — and Gerbier, will decide not to run this time.
The final shot is a POV from within the car, the Arc de Triomphe prominent in the windshield, until a soldier literally waves them away.