Army of Shadows

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Army of Shadows
2006 theatrical re-release poster
Directed byJean-Pierre Melville
Written byJean-Pierre Melville
Based onArmy of Shadows
by Joseph Kessel
Produced byJacques Dorfmann
StarringLino Ventura
Simone Signoret
Paul Meurisse
Jean-Pierre Cassel
CinematographyPierre Lhomme
Walter Wottitz
Edited byFrançoise Bonnot
Music byÉric Demarsan
Distributed byValoria Films (France)
Fida Cinematografica (Italy)
Release dates
12 September 1969 (France)
6 October 1970 (Italy)
Running time
145 minutes

Army of Shadows (French: L'Armée des ombres; Italian: L'armata degli eroi) is a 1969 World War II suspense-drama film written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, and starring Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, Paul Meurisse and Jean-Pierre Cassel. The French-Italian co-production is a film adaptation of Joseph Kessel's 1943 book of the same name, which mixes Kessel's experiences as a member of the French Resistance with fictional versions of other Resistance members.

Army of Shadows follows a small group of Resistance fighters as they move between safe houses, work with the Allied militaries, kill informers and attempt to evade the capture and execution that they know is their most likely fate.[1] While portraying its characters as heroic, the film presents a bleak, unromantic view of the Resistance.[2][3]

At the time of its initial release in France, Army of Shadows was not well received nor widely seen. In the wake of the events of May 1968, French critics denounced the film for its perceived glorification of Charles de Gaulle; at the time, American art-film programmers took their cues from Cahiers du cinéma, which had attacked the film on this basis.[3] Because of this, the film was not released in the United States for almost forty years.[1][3] In the mid-1990s Cahiers du cinéma published a reappraisal of the film and Melville's oeuvre, leading to its restoration and re-release in 2006.[3] The film was greeted with critical adulation in the U.S., appearing in many critics' year-end top ten lists.[2][3]


Philippe Gerbier, the head of a French Resistance network, is arrested by Vichy French police on suspicion of Resistance activity. Acquitted for lack of evidence, he is still interned in a camp. He and a young communist begin to work on an escape plan, but before it can come to fruition, he is transported to Paris for questioning by the Gestapo. He manages to kill a guard and make his escape.

Gerbier manages the Resistance network in Marseille. He and three of his men, Félix Lepercq; Guillaume Vermersch, a burly veteran known as Bison; and Claude Ullmann, a young recruit known as Le Masque; need to execute one of their own members, a young agent, Paul Dounat, for having betrayed Gerbier. They find the house next door to the one that they are using occupied and so they cannot use their guns. Lacking a decent knife, they strangle him.

Lepercq recruits an old friend in a bar, Jean-François Jardie, a handsome, risk-loving former pilot. On his first mission to Paris, Jardie meets Mathilde, a housewife who is one of the linchpins of Gerbier's network, and he visits his older brother, Luc Jardie, a renowned philosopher who lives a seemingly detached, scholarly life in his Paris mansion. Some time later, Gerbier travels to the Free French headquarters in London in a British submarine. On the submarine, Gerbier meets Luc Jardie, who proves to be the head of all Resistance networks; his identity is a closely guarded secret. In London, Gerbier organises additional logistical support for the resistance and Luc Jardie is decorated by Charles de Gaulle. While they are there, Lepercq is arrested by the Gestapo. When Gerbier learns of the event, he cuts his trip short and parachutes into France's countryside.

Mathilde, in command after Lepercq's arrest, devises an audacious plan to rescue Lepercq, who is being tortured in a maximum-security Gestapo prison in Lyon. Jean-François Jardie, after hearing the details of the plan, writes Gerbier a letter of resignation and incriminates himself with an anonymous letter to the Gestapo so that he will be arrested and jailed with Lepercq. They share a cell, Jardie badly beaten and Lepercq now barely alive after being tortured repeatedly. Shortly afterwards, disguised as Germans, Mathilde, Le Masque, and Bison use forged papers that order Lepercq's transfer to a different detention facility as a ruse to rescue him. Their plan fails when the prison doctor pronounces Lepercq unfit for transport. When Jean-François sees that the rescue has failed, he gives Lepercq his one cyanide pill.

Having seen during the rescue attempt that the Gestapo has displayed his photo as a wanted man, Mathilde urges Gerbier to escape to London, but he refuses and says that no one can take his place in the growing Resistance. Moments afterward, Gerbier is swept up in a raid by Vichy police and handed over to the Germans. He and his cellmates are due for execution, but subjected to an SS officer's sadistic game. They will live a little longer if they can run to the far wall of the room before they are killed by the machine gunners. As the shooting starts, Mathilde's team tosses smoke bombs to block the Germans' view and thus throws a line to Gerbier, who narrowly escapes.

Gerbier spends a month alone in an abandoned farmhouse deep in the countryside. Jardie arrives to seek his advice following the arrest of Mathilde. They fear that she has been forced to reveal the identities of her confederates because the Nazis have threatened her teenage daughter. Jardie hides when Le Masque and Bison arrive. Gerbier orders Mathilde's immediate execution, but Bison refuses to carry out the order and swears to prevent Gerbier from killing her. Jardie emerges and convinces Bison that Mathilde is incapable of suicide but expects them to kill her. Later, Jardie reveals to Gerbier that the argument he presented to Bison is purely speculative. Jardie and his team pull to a stop on a Paris street, where they have located Mathilde. Bison shoots her twice. The final text screens reveal the eventual fates of the four men, all of whom died either through suicide or at the hands of the Nazis. Gerbier's precise fate is not revealed, only that on 13 February 1944, he "decided not to run this time".


Critical reception[edit]

When it was originally released in France in 1969, the movie, coming shortly after the events of May 68, had a poor critical reception because of the political context since de Gaulle was rather unappreciated at the time, and the glorification of the Resistance had become taboo during the Algerian War. As a result of the poor reviews, the film was not distributed widely outside France, but it was very well received in the late 1970s, on its British release. American audiences were unable to discover the movie until 2006, but when it was reissued; the film then appeared in many critics' top ten lists of the best films of 2006.[4]

According to online review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes the film has a "Certified Fresh" score of 97% and an average rating of 8.6/10; the critics' consensus states: "Originally made in 1969, this recently reissued classic is a masterful examination of the inner workings of the World War II resistance efforts."[5] Its score on aggregator site Metacritic is 99/100.[6]

Upon its 2006 release, Roger Ebert added Army of Shadows to his "Great Movies" list, writing: "This restored 35mm print, now in art theaters around the country, may be 37 years old, but it is the best foreign film of the year."[7]

Cinematographer Roger Deakins has called Army of Shadows one of his favourite films.[8] as has director Lawrence Kasdan.

DVD, Blu-ray releases[edit]

In Europe, Army of Shadows was released on DVD in Region 2 by the British Film Institute in November 2006 and then again in 2013, as part of the Studiocanal Collection, in a special Blu-ray edition including a bonus documentary and booklet.

In the United States, both a Region 1 DVD and Blu-ray were released by the Criterion Collection in May 2007. By 2010, the film was out-of-print. In January 2020, a re-release of Army of Shadows was listed among the Criterion release announcements for April 2020.


  1. ^ a b Ebert, Roger (2006-05-21). " Great Movies: Army of Shadows". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2008-05-05.
  2. ^ a b Tobias, Scott. "Army Of Shadows".
  3. ^ a b c d e "Army of Shadows: Out of the Shadows". The Criterion Collection.
  4. ^ "Metacritic: 2006 Film Critic Top Ten Lists". Metacritic. Archived from the original on 2007-12-13. Retrieved 2008-01-08.
  5. ^ "Army of Shadows (L'armée des ombres) (1969)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 19 May 2019.
  6. ^ "Army of Shadows". Metacritic. Retrieved 16 July 2011.
  7. ^ Ebert, Roger. "Army of Shadows Movie Review & Film Summary (1969)". Retrieved 19 May 2019.
  8. ^ Hanna, Beth (2013-09-23). "Cinematographer Roger Deakins' Handwritten List of Top 10 Films Includes Kubrick, Leone, Melville and More". IndieWire. Retrieved 2020-12-08.

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