“And what if I hadn’t run?” —Lino Ventura, Army Of Shadows
In the final act of Jean-Pierre Melville’s rediscovered 1969 masterpiece Army Of Shadows, Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), the dogged head of a Resistance network in occupied France, has been captured for the second time, and almost certainly the last. As the Germans escort him and a group of detainees to face a firing squad, Gerbier steels himself for the inevitable: “It’s impossible not to be afraid of dying,” he narrates. “But I’m too stubborn, too much of an animal to believe it. If I don’t believe it to the very last moment, the last split second, I’ll never die.” Once he actually stares down the nest of machine-gun turrets across a long corridor, Gerbier succeeds ever so briefly in blotting out the reality of his own imminent demise. He also refuses, in his head, to take part in the sadistic gamesmanship of the Germans, who ask the prisoners to race as fast as they can to the far wall as the bullets fly. Should any of them happen to make it to the wall alive, all they really earn is the opportunity to run again with another group, their deaths deferred a little longer. The proud Gerbier stays put at the starting gun, but as soon as a couple of warning shots are fired at his feet, off he sprints to the far wall like the other men, looking frantic and utterly defenseless.
Ironically, the run saves his life, thanks to a improbable and brilliantly timed rescue mission, but the film makes its point clear: There is no dignity in war. Though Gerbier quietly frets over what would have happened if he hadn’t run—and also, to a larger extent, whether what he’s doing is ultimately of use—his pride is clearly shaken. There are no tougher, braver heroes in cinema than this grimly determined man, but when his life was threatened, he wasn’t able to hold his ground and defy the Germans once last time. His instinct to flee haunts him, but then again, he’s haunted by such a sick accumulation of life-or-death decisions that he will never feel settled, much less enjoy the recognition that his insurgent activities made a difference. Army Of Shadows is a movie about survival and the necessity of gut-wrenching, soul-destroying actions in the service of a larger cause; for Gerbier and his comrades, it’s all sacrifice and no payoff.
Back in my introduction to the New Cult Canon column, I promised that in addition to covering films released after Danny Peary published his last Cult Movies book in the late ’80s, I’d also spotlight films that were produced much earlier, but have only recently been rediscovered and championed. Truth be told, any number of Melville thrillers—1955’s Bob Le Flambeur, 1967’s Le Samouraï, and 1970’s Le Cercle Rouge, in particular—would have been fine fodder for the column, considering how much his cool, minimalist, resolutely masculine films have influenced the current generation of auteurs, from Jim Jarmusch to Wong Kar-wai to Quentin Tarantino. But what’s astonishing about Army Of Shadows is that it’s a real, honest-to-goodness discovery, a clearly major film (possibly Melville’s best) that never officially made it to American shores until it was revived, to universal acclaim, in 2006. Much like I Am Cuba—the only other pre-late-’80s New Cult Canon entry—it’s proof of how the political and critical currents of the day can dramatically alter a film’s natural course.
Though Melville wanted for two decades to make a film about the French Resistance, he happened to choose the worst possible time for Army Of Shadows to be received by the cognoscenti. After Charles De Gaulle put down a student uprising in 1968, French critics were in no mood for a movie that championed the Resistance, and since those critics wielded major influence on programmers overseas, the film was effectively quashed. But though Melville does pay rightful tribute to those who sacrificed their lives fighting the Nazis, Army Of Shadows is still defiantly a Melville film—as bleak, unsentimental, and hard-won a portrait of heroism as you’ll ever see. Here’s a film that opens with a procession of German troops marching down the Champs-Elysées, a daily ritual that enforced feelings of hopelessness and humiliation among the occupied French. It scarcely gets more upbeat from there.
When we first meet Gerbier, the Germans have cleverly shuffled him off into a prison barracks of hopeless souls in an effort to neutralize his scheming. But we can see in his exchanges with a young electrical engineer that he’s a quietly persuasive leader, capable of turning fecund minds to radicalism and impressing upon them the urgency of taking action. Though his time at the camp ends sooner than expected, Gerbier again reveals his resourcefulness in the face of imminent torture or death when he conspires with a fellow detainee to stage an audacious, impromptu escape from a heavily guarded hotel. Here’s the man in action:
After Gerbier slips into the barbershop for cover, Melville gives the first taste of just how precariously his life hangs in the balance: His fate literally pivots on the razor’s edge, and there’s no way of knowing until the blade touches his neck whether the barber is sympathetic to the cause or to the Gestapo. The remainder of the film unfolds in a series of vivid anecdotes, as Gerbier and his compatriots survive (or don’t) imprisonment and torture, risky operations, and extreme isolation within their own country. Melville gives us a sense of how powerfully they’ve bonded, focusing particularly on the connection between Gerbier and an equally hard-nosed woman played by the incomparable Simone Signoret, but he also emphasizes repeatedly how the cause transcends all bonds. In order to function as a Resistance cell, they have to be willing to look past their personal allegiances and see the larger picture, even if it means killing someone they love. Take this remarkable scene, where Gerbier coaxes (and when that doesn’t work, sternly orders) his men into strangling one of their own for spilling his name to the Gestapo—while the guy’s in the room, no less:
Throughout the deliberate sprawl of Army Of Shadows, there are no inspirational speeches or moments of backslapping triumph, just a silent acknowledgment that its cast has to fight at a steep cost. And here’s the secret of the film: They never actually get anywhere. Every single operation we see involves them protecting their own flank and doing whatever horrible things are necessary to continue their viability as an active cell. Whether they’re springing their own men from Gestapo custody or assassinating them for fear of exposure, Gerbier and his mates carry out the death-defying missions and terrible mercy killings only to keep running in place. Other than the single German stabbed in Gerbier’s early escape from custody, no one from the other side dies; in fact, Melville had considered putting the footage of German soldiers marching by the Arc De Triomphe at the end of the film, just to drive the fatalistic mood home. Even Gerbier, in a moment of sad resignation, frets “I kid myself that I’m still of some use.”
Make no mistake: Army Of Shadows is a magnificent tribute to the men and women of the Resistance, but in true Melville style, it’s also the least sentimental paean to heroism imaginable. The title suggests a covert operation lurking persistently out of view, but the film goes further than that by showing acts of heroism that were never seen or acknowledged—or worse still, misinterpreted as betrayal. Army Of Shadows flies in the face of World War II adventures that romanticize Resistance movements as escapist derring-do; it’s clear that everyone onscreen is permanently marked by the things their courage and patriotism lead them to. If the film could be said to have a mantra, it’s Gerbier’s line “Do what must be done.” And to the doomed souls that lived by that mantra, Melville pays dignified homage.
Next week: Ginger Snaps
November 5: Hedwig And The Angry Inch
November 12: In The Company Of Men
November 19: Army Of Darkness