Army of Shadows (1969)

June 6th, 2024
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Jean-Paul Melville | Cast: Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Simone Signoret | France, Action drama 145’

With the D-Landings currently commemorating their 80th anniversary here’s a film that reflects on the behind the scenes heroism of the French Resistance with a sombre sense of grandeur.

L’Armée des Ombres (Army of Shadows), adapted by Jean-Pierre Melville, a veteran of both the Resistance and the Free French Army, from Joseph Kessel’s 1943 novel, was released in 1969, ushering in a spate of Occupation-centred films that adopted a more critical approach: The Sorrow and the Pity and Lacombe Lucien come to mind.

Melville celebrates these underground heroes with a sense of gangster-like pride familiar in Un Flic, Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge. The men lived by a code of honour tempered with ruthlessness, yet watching this week’s BBC coverage compiled from the accounts recorded during real live interviews with the survivors in the immediate aftermath to the Siege of Normandy (that started on the 6th June 1944 and ended on 30 August) the allied soldiers talk of real vicious savagery from both sides on the battlefield. Soldiers were lynched and decapitated, their body parts removed and even stuffed in their mouths such was the fervour to bring the six-year conflict to a final close in ‘Operation Overlord’. This is the ugly side of war at the coalface but Melville’s focus is on escape, capture and subterfuge and this is particularly well illustrated by the scenes featuring Lino Ventura and Paul Meurisse when they embark on a secret 1943 expedition to England by submarine. The two have time to see Gone with the Wind in London, and Meurisse, whose character is based on Jean Moulin, even gets a medal from de Gaulle. @MeredithTaylor

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