It took me awhile to get into this highly acclaimed 1969 classic about the French Resistance in World War II. For the first hour or so (it’s close to two and a half hours total), I admired certain aspects of its realism, and the fact that’s it’s just such a skillful exercise in filmmaking, but I was somewhat forcing myself to watch. But gradually it won me over to where I was really quite engrossed in the movie for the last half or so.
Army of Shadows, from director Jean-Pierre Melville, focuses on a band of Resistance fighters operating in Nazi-occupied France. (In reading about the movie afterwards, I discovered these are real historical figures, and the movie—or really the book it’s taken from—is a combination of their actual exploits and fictional events. So “based on a true story.”)
It’s not exceedingly hard to follow, but it does take more concentration than the average movie until you gradually get a better sense of who’s who and how they relate to each other. It lacks a strong central storyline that one can follow from start to finish, which also can make it more of a chore to get into.
Instead it’s like you’re just observing their lives for a few months, including whatever smaller stories happen to occur during that time. The deeper you get into the film, and the more you get a feel for how they live, the more fascinating the film is.
So it’s not so much that you come away from the movie knowing a specific story with a start, a middle, and an end that takes two and a half hours to tell, but more that you come away from it with a certain understanding of what it was like to live the life of a member of the Resistance.
And what it was like, if this movie is accurate at all, was extremely, extremely dangerous (to the point that being killed—probably preceded by being tortured—within a few months or a year or two was virtually guaranteed).
At least you get to know you’re doing it all in a good cause, but man, I really don’t like those odds. As a Gandhian, I may have certain issues with their combating evil with violence and deception, but I’m in awe of the raw courage displayed by these folks (including a very impressive woman leader). It goes way, way beyond the kind of courage needed by a regular soldier in a regular war. (Except maybe if you’re a soldier on the wrong side in a totally one-sided superpower army versus pathetically outgunned conventional army type war, like present-day U.S. versus fill-in-the-blank. But even there I think your odds for survival are better.)
It’s also interesting that their operations so rarely involve doing anything that actually disrupts the Germans. They seem to spend roughly 90% of their time fleeing, hiding, attempting to break out their colleagues being held by the Gestapo, and killing their colleagues who have betrayed them (including if they did so under torture). They obviously need to remain free and concealed in order to be effective, but the remaining free and concealed part appears to be such a full time job that there’s little time or opportunity to actually spy or blow up bridges or assassinate German officers or whatever is in their job descriptions.
What is particularly well done in this film is the way it enables you almost to feel what it would be like to be in the most intense circumstances. The scenes I’m thinking of can be slow and lengthy, not in the sense of being dull, but more in the sense of using a lot of detail to establish and maintain a high state of suspense and a deeper empathy than just the shock or rush of something quick hitting and startling.
To give some examples, there is a scene where an informer they have captured must be killed, but a gunshot will be too loud and will call attention to their position, so they must gag and kill him by hand. There is another where a Resistance leader must make the first parachute jump of his life at night from a plane that has been the target of anti-aircraft fire. There is another where three Resistance members dress in German uniforms and attempt to infiltrate a facility where the Gestapo is holding one of their fellows.
In each case, I got caught up in what it must have felt like to experience such things. I felt the tension of those situations noticeably more than I do with most movies. There’s an intense realism to such scenes that’s quite impressive.
There’s also an exciting escape sequence that I wouldn’t rank quite that high, because it came much closer to a scene from a conventional movie where the hero survives in an exceedingly unlikely way that would require extraordinarily perfect timing and perfect luck from all concerned. It’s somewhere between the more realistic scenes of this movie, and, say, a James Bond movie. So that didn’t draw me in as much.
But what I find myself coming back to the more I reflect back on this movie is the sheer courage needed for these people to do some of the things depicted. For instance, the way the one fellow intentionally arranges his own capture and torture by the Gestapo in the hopes he’ll eventually be placed near enough to a prisoner they’re trying to get a message to. That’s so far beyond anything in my life experience that I have trouble even imagining being willing to do something like that.
Army of Shadows—given the length, the style, the fact that it’s subtitled—is certainly more taxing to watch than the majority of the movies I’ve written about. For me, the payoff warranted that effort, but not by a huge margin. Were I faced with the prospect of watching a comparable film by the same filmmaker, I would likely opt in favor of doing so, but it wouldn’t be a no-brainer. I’d have to be in the right, patient, mood to be willing to settle in and appreciate such a film.