Two Friends Talkin’ Movies: Army of Shadows (1969)

April 29, 2011

Army of Shadowsby Dave Umbricht and Nathan Cone

Welcome to a new column in the ever evolving world of Forgotten Flix.  We all know that watching movies is a lot of fun.  That joy of find something new.

Something amazing.

We also know that it’s even more fun to share that discovery with a friend.  So today, Dave Umbricht has asked his friend Nathan Cone to join him in a little game.

Every two weeks these guys will take turns suggesting a movie to the other.  The rules are simple, this must be the first viewing for the other guy and it must be linked in some way to the previous film suggested.

They will then discuss it over email and share the conversation with you.  Why over email?  Because these two friends have actually never met in person, nor spoken on the phone.

Dave’s so mysterious, no one even knows what he looks like.

Nathan lives in San Antonio and is the Director of Classical Programming at Texas Public Radio.  He also curates the Cinema Tuesdays series held during the summer months.  They met through the power of the Internet.

Nathan’s great film reviews can be found at or on Twitter (@TPRCinema).  Dave can be found roaming the halls of Forgotten Flix and on Twitter (@dumbricht).

Today they start with Dave’s suggestion of Army of Shadows, Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 film about the French Resistance.  Some spoilers may inadvertently pop in here.  Who are we kidding, it’s a discussion of a movie between two guys who didn’t know that you’d be listening, so they didn’t care.

That being said, management has reread the following and does not believe anything said will diminish your enjoyment of the film.  Join the conversation about this film in the comment section and see the end of the discussion for the next movie, so you can play along.


So, Nathan, what did you think?


I tried to do as little reading on the film as possible before watching it.  I did see that several folks placed it on their Top Ten lists of 2006, and noted that the movie had not seen an American release at all until that year.

Army of Shadows is different than almost any other WWII film I’ve seen.  We’re only given a tiny glimpse into the French Resistance movement in the film, a handful of lives on display.  I was struck by how little is shown on screen.

There are only about four or five principal characters, they have no huge armory, they inhabit rooms populated by next to no furniture, they speak somewhat dispassionately and flatly about the war and their struggle, and visually, they inhabit a nearly monochromatic world, as photographed by Pierre Lhomme.

There are few “big” scenes in the picture.  Even the Germans are less than stereotypical; they’re more like foot-soldiers than the common sadistic movie-Nazis. The prison break scenes are handled in kind of a dry manner.  To top the film off with an epitaph for the leads brings no closure, no sense that what they were doing mattered, or even helped the cause.

I felt kind of empty inside after watching it.


I can see how it could make you feel empty.  The ending is rather abrupt, yet inevitable.  A war movie probably shouldn’t leave you feeling anything but empty.  So many people gave their lives for a cause and so very few could probably point to the good that they did.  My grandfather told me what he did in WWII: he sprayed for bugs in Europe.

No Dirty Dozen like missions for him.  Did he feel like he contributed?  I don’t know.  He did what he had to do.  That’s what these characters are doing, just what they need to do, no matter how big or small.  I shouldn’t pontificate too much about war, as all I know of it comes from the movies.

But I have a feeling that the experience of war is not about the big moments, we only stormed Normandy Beach once, but the little ones.

I had a different experience when watching it.  I actually felt it was a big rousing adventure.  Only now that you point out how sparse most of those scenes are, do I see how much was done with so little.  The main reason it seems so big to me is the lead character, Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura).  The guy is a badass plain and simple.  When you meet him in the first scene, he’s just your average guy in a prison camp.  His escape from custody is masterful.  No elaborate plan, he’s just a survivor.

I think he could have taken down Schwarzenegger if he wanted.  But the beauty of his character is the lack of emotion.  He’s just so cool throughout, again, just doing what needs to be done.  I wish I could be that stoic in times of peril.

I do feel like a bit of hipster tool though when it comes to this movie.  I love the monochromatic late 60’s French film aesthetic that you described.  I could hear Tarantino geeking about this and I kept thinking that Soderbergh probably loves the episodic structure and would have made this movie if he could have.

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that I’m naming two of our great homage directors. For some reason it just hit me on a chemical level.


Well, I don’t know if a war movie should always leave you empty.  I know what you’re getting at by saying so, but there are war movies that I find emotionally fulfilling in a strange way, and often times war films are brilliant at bringing out character through intense conflict differently than other genres.  There are movies about war, and then there are movies about the men and women that are thrown into the midst of war.  I think Army of Shadows is more about the former than the latter, as you suggest.

It’s not a character-based film, though Philippe Gerbier is indeed a quiet badass.  He always be strategizin’, know what I’m sayin’?

Your comment about the big vs. little moments in war reminded me of The Big Red One.  Have you seen it?  The movie is full of yin-yang scenes of combat and R&R.  Small scenes, big scenes, that all add up a good picture of this small group from the First Infantry Division.

But back to Army of Shadows.  I think the film is a terrific example of both the necessity and futility of the Resistance.  It was necessary for these men (and women) to carry out their mission of resistance, to aid the Allies.  The futility of it — on a micro level — was encapsulated by the death of all principal characters, especially Mathilde (Simone Signoret).

Gerbier tells her to get rid of the photo of her daughter she carries, because it’ll give her away as a member of the Resistance.  He’s right, and it does.  But if she can’t hold onto family, even through a photo, what’s there to fight for?  That, to me, is what gave me the empty feeling.

I recognize Army of Shadows is a good film; I just don’t know if I liked the folks I spent 2 1/2 hours with, even if they were the good guys.


I finally saw The Big Red One a couple of years ago.  Of course, I’ve known of it my entire life, given that Mark Hamill made it during his run as Luke Skywalker (side note: the other movie that falls into this category is Corvette Summer – which couldn’t possibly hold up, but I swear I loved it as a kid).

One of my favorite quotes about war and war movies comes from Roger Ebert’s review of The Big Red One.  He recounts an interview with the director, Samuel Fuller, who states that all war stories are told by survivors.  I’ve watched war movies through a different lens since reading that.

As for Army of Shadows, I think you fleshed out my “emptiness” comment perfectly with your last thought.  War films may show us amazing examples of heroic feats performed under horrific conditions.  However, it is still war and there is so much lost (physically, emotionally, and spiritually) that there is an emptiness left.  Mathilde is a great example of this.

Of course, in life we have low moments and we pick ourselves up and keep moving.  Fighting in a war is such a central event in any person’s life, the experience never leaves them.  War movies can never capture that haunting element of loss because we don’t follow them for long enough (yes, there is a whole other subgenre of war movie, “the coming home” movie which deals with this subject matter, but I’m talking about active war films).

I completely see your point about the characters.  There were actually moments where I couldn’t remember who was who.  In the end, the characters are barely people, just empty shells doing their duty for the greater good.  I think I liked it a bit more than you because I fell for the plot and structure, deep characterizations are found elsewhere.

And now for the fun part, what film are you unleashing on me?


White Dog

So there you have it.  Nathan will divulge White Dog’s connection to Army of Shadows during the next discussion.  Watch the film over the next two weeks and join Dave and Nathan in the conversation. 

White Dog is currently available on Netflix Instant.


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