I’ll always have a soft spot for 60s war movies, especially those that don’t come from big budget studios. Call me a snob if you must, but European films of the 60s manage to capture this enveloped feeling of angst and fear that Hollywood productions just didn’t have the time for when it came to adapting World War 2 to the big screen. Case in point, films such as The Cranes are Flying, Ivan’s Childhood and now Army of Shadows, were created to surpress the can-do Americanisms of the genre, and to display a much more heart wrenching experience of war.
Army of Shadows provides us a look at the behind the scenes activists of the war, and how their efforts in risking their lives for the sake of information led to an increase in war efforts and information. It is very much a film of risks, looking to take on the idea that in war, gunfire is not the only enemy, those that we once called friends are too. An adaptation of French journalist Joseph Kessel’s book of the same name, the film, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, is a cutthroat look into the French Resistance and the impact they had on the war.
Lino Ventura’s leading performance as French Resistance leader Philippe Gerbier is a resounding triumph. He brings us moral issues straight from the core of the post-war period and highlights them in a contemporary manner. Ventura, alongside Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel and Simone Signoret all lead a charge against overseas adaptations of a truly dreadful piece of history. Their performances are believable, nuanced with a touch of humility. Each character typically looks to dissect their own morals, with enough space for the audience to attach themselves to at least one character.
Army of Shadows is a little different in that regard. These characters differ only in personality. Their morals are much the same as one another, their goals are identical, with the liberation of France from Nazi rule at the heart of their operations. Although their opinions may differ, the group dynamic never wavers in the face of tough situations. There’s a scene halfway through the film regarding a hostage and it is truly some of the most gut-wrenching film I’ve seen in a long while. It’s impressive in that regard, as a film it manages to elicit such great and overwhelming feelings of fear, capturing its period of history evidently well.
A film that thrived on its initially middling reception, political conflicts of the late 60s prevent Army of Shadows from receiving contemporary adulation. Maybe that’s why it is so well remembered, painting such a true picture of war comes at a price, this time the price being ticket sales. Thankfully the film has come into its own, and Melville’s film is a great piece of work that captures a frankly harrowing number of scenes and combines them in frightfully efficient fashion.