Follow TV Tropes


Film / Army of Shadows

Go To

"In this film, for the first time, I show things that I have seen, that I have experienced."
Jean-Pierre Melville

Army of Shadows (French: L'armée des ombres) is a 1969 French film directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. Adapted from Joseph Kessel's 1943 book of the same name, it is a dramatic thriller depicting the French Resistance in Occupied France during World War II. Both the author of the novel, and the director of the film, were actual veterans of the Resistance.

Set in late 1942-1943, at the height of the French Occupation, around the time of the Nazi advance to Stalingrad and before the opening of the Second Front, the story revolves around a resistance unit comprised of Philip Gerbier (Lino Ventura), Mathilde (Simone Signoret), Jean-François (Jean-Pierre Cassel), Le Masque (Claude Mann), Felix Lepercq (Paul Crachet), Le Bison (Christian Barbier), with their leader being Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse). The film chronicles a series of missions undertaken by Jardie's Cell, preparing reports, organizing supplies and above all staying hidden and escaping the Gestapo and the Milice. Much of their time is spent laying low, executing comrades who rat out or break under torture, or aiding the escape of key Resistance leaders.

The film was controversial at the time of its release for its startlingly bleak portrayal of the Resistance and the Occupation, and its perceived glorification of Charles de Gaulle (who had come under international scrutiny in light of the events of May 68). It did not receive an American release until 2006, when it became an unexpected commercial success in arthouse cinemas.


  • Adaptation Expansion: The memoir was written during the war, in 1943, in London. Melville adds an epilogue at the end stating that all of the characters were dead, when they were alive in the book. Melville did this because many of the characters which served as inspiration for Kessel had died since the book was written.
  • All for Nothing: Most of the missions we see in the film end up like this.
    • The attempt to free Felix from the Gestapo goes through extensive preparations but at the last minute, Jean-François bails out, leading Mathilde, Le Bison and Le Masque to risk it on their own, by posing as a Nazi group arriving at Lyon to escort Felix to Paris. However Felix is so badly tortured that he can't move so the breakout gets cancelled.
    • The attempt to free Philip Gerbier later leads to Mathilde's arrest and forces the unit to execute her.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Subverted. One of the associates of Jardie's Cell is the aristocrat Baron de Ferté-Talloire who allows his massive estate to be used as a clandestine location for recon planes to drop off and fly away. The aristocrat notes that before the war, he was a royalist who was opposed to the Republic and even trained his staff in operations should the opportunity for a royalist uprising arise. But now he's part of the Resistance trying to restore the Republic and he and his staff, after being discovered, are arrested and executed without a trial by the Nazis.
  • As Himself: André Dewavrin played himself, when he was an intelligence officer tasked with coordinating the French Resistance under the Code Name "Colonel Passy".
  • Bookends: The film opens with the Nazis marching in front of the Arc de Triomphe and the final shot is of the Resistance group in the car driving through Paris with the Arc de Triomphe visible and then swerving away from it.
  • Chummy Commies: The camp at the start of the film has Gerbier befriending a young Communist named Legrain. During imprisonment, Legrain even befriended a Catholic priest, and he and Gerbier bond despite the latter not sharing his communist views.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture:
    • The Gestapo at Lyon submit French resistors to severe beatings and the film doesn't back away from showing the effects of the violence. Felix in particular is so badly beaten that his face is covered in purple and black bruises and is so dazed that he can't be moved, and his only mercy is when Jean-François gives him a cyanide pill that he smuggles in.
    • The Nazis also indulge in psychological torture during a particular method of execution where captives are made to run a trench where a machine gun turret fires at them with the promise that those who make it to the end, will be allowed to run again next time, to test their luck to see if they can survive.
  • Downer Ending: Jardie's unit end up breaking apart when Mathilde gets arrested and seemingly forced to collaborate with the Gestapo who promise her that if she refuses they will force her daughter into prostitution. They are then forced to execute Mathilde and drive away. Then titles inform us that all of them would eventually die in horrific ways before the war ends. The only silver lining is the Foregone Conclusion, that the Nazis eventually lost, and France would be liberated, but none of them would live to see it.
  • Epigraph: The film opens with a quote by the French poet Georges Courteline:
    "Mauvais souvenirs, soyez pourtant les bienvenus [Unhappy memories! Yet be welcome]
    vous êtes ma jeunesse lointaine...[for you are my distant youth.]"
  • The Faceless: Charles de Gaulle is briefly glimpsed with his face covered in shadow and then from the back over his shoulder as he pins a medal on Luc Jardie but he's unmistakable on account of his height and his famous army green suit that he sported during the war.
  • Monument of Humiliation and Defeat: What the Nazis try to invoke by staging a full military parade before the Arc de Triomphe at the start of the film.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished:
    • The aristocrat who helped the Resistance gets murdered and executed by the Nazis alongside his staff.
    • Mathilde repeatedly risks her life to save Jardie's Unit and she saved Philip Gerbier from certain death. However she gets arrested and compromised by the Gestapo forcing Gerbier and her colleagues to execute her.
  • Resignations Not Accepted: Once you join the Resistance, your only options are survive or die before the Nazis capture you. Should you fail to take the cyanide pill, or break under torture, you will be killed. In the beginning, they execute one colleague for breaking under torture and not taking the pill by strangling him painfully. Near the end, they are forced to kill Mathilde.
  • La Résistance: A decidedly bleak, sad, yet highly heroic portrayal of the attempts by Resistors and Freedom Fighters to combat Nazism, and all the people who paid the price trying to help them and others.
  • Roman à Clef: Kessel, when he wrote the original novel during the Resistance, based the characters on his comrades, compositing and decompositing them to better hide them. Melville, when adapting the text, chose to make his own additions based on his wartime experiences. Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why Melville's adaptation killed off the characters still alive when Kessel wrote the book in 1943; some of them died by the end of the war:
    • Philippe Gerbier's constant run-ins and near-escapes from the Gestapo was based on two of Melville's associates: Jean-Pierre Bloch and Paul Rivière. The latter's encounter and escape from the Gestapo at the Hotel Majestic is recreated in the film.
    • Mathilde, Simone Signoret's character, is based on Marie-Madeleine Fourcade as well as partly on Lucie Aubrac. The former was, like Mathilde, a committed Resistance organizer of multiple groups and the latter was famous for planning and executing daring raids to free captives from the Gestapo.
    • The torture of Felix at Nazi hands in Lyon is based on many French Resistance activists who suffered under Klaus Barbie, most notably Jean Moulin.
    • Luc Jardie is based on Jean Cavaillès, like Jardie, a major scholar on mathematics and a respected academic. His status as the overall head of the Resistance is based on Jean Moulin, and the epilogue saying that he died under torture, only giving one name, his own, is a direct reference to Jean Moulin's passing.
  • Shout-Out: While in London, Gerbier and Jardie go see Gone with the Wind.
  • What You Are in the Dark: After Gerbier escapes from the Gestapo at the start of the film, he runs into a Barber (played by French star and character actor Serge Reggiani in a cameo) who agrees to offer him a shave and allow him place to stay. Gerbier even sees a Petain poster in the saloon but the barber then helps him leave, changing his trenchcoat for a better one.