The Army of Shadows aka L´armée des ombres (1969): The Classic Movie on French Resistance

Bad memories, I welcome you nevertheless,  you are my distant youth.

If you are really interested in the topic of French Resistance there is no escaping this movie.  If you are truly interested in film there is no escaping this movie either. Especially not since there has been a recent wave of Resistance movies (Les femmes de l´ombre (Female Agents), L´armée du Crime ( The Army of Crime), Flame and Citron, Black Book, Winter in Wartime, Max Manus) and it is always good to see where they come from, what influences they had.

Jean-Pierre Melvilles´s L´armée des ombres aka The Army of Shadows (or in the Shadows) is a classic and a work of art.

It is beautiful like a foggy autumn evening, like the solitary cawing of a crow, like bare branches of a tree in winter, like the bluish colour of an early nightfall, like bitter sweet music and coffee drunk at midnight in an empty bar. (Would I  have to compare it to a contemporary movie, I think I would choose Shutter Island.  The movie as a whole and particularly the sad song during the end credits, Dinah Washington´s Bitter Earth blended with Max Richter´s On the Nature of Daylight, has a similar dense atmospheric quality.)

Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is captured by the Gestapo early in the movie. He manages to escape but knows he has been betrayed. Only one of his own could have told the Gestapo where this overly careful man was hiding.

Gerbier is head of a Resistance cell that operates between Paris, London, Lyon and Marseille. They always on the look out for people they can trust. They must always be careful, they could be betrayed anytime. They are hunted and on the run continuously. When they are caught by the Germans or the collaborators, they will be tortured mercilessly as the film shows drastically. But the group will risk everything to save one of their own.

The cell kills traitors as well  as people who become too risky. No matter how much they helped them in the past, no matter how much they like them. The group ultimately lives and dies for the cause.

Lino Ventura and Simone Signoret are fabulous in this movie. It is a pleasure to watch such assured actors.

A feeling of abandonment and utter loneliness pervades the whole film. It seems to illustrate the existentialist angst of the times. Melancholy in its purest form.

What impressed me most was the sound. No effects like we know them nowadays but so artfully and sparingly used noises and sounds and just a little bit of music. The rain in the beginning, echoing footsteps in empty streets, the ticking of a pendulum in a room, the distant cry of birds.

It is quite a sad movie and I would not recommend you watch it should you feel very blue. It would not cheer you up. But on days when you feel balanced enough you will admire these brave people and suffer with them when they find out one of them is being tortured but won´t speak, not even when he knows he is going to die.

And, please remember, this is a true story.

Women in War Movies

War movies are a genre in which women will rarely if ever play major roles.

However there are a few that come to mind immediately.




Girl friends

Resistance fighters




The nurse is by far the most common role. In many movies they are very prominent. Especially in the sub genre of the war romance they get more than just small roles. (Yes, Pearl Harbor (2001) comes to mind, but…)

Some fine examples of nurses can be found in The Lighthorsemen (1987), In Love and War (1996), The English Patient (1996).

Mothers, wives, fiancées are often found at the very beginning of a movie, when the soldiers leave their homes like in Dark Blue World aka Tmavomodry svet (2001). We often see them again, reading a letter arriving from the field as in The Thin Red Line (1998).  They serve as a sort of counterpoint to make the contrast between those who fight and those who stayed home even bigger. Then, you may find them once more at the very end, when the soldiers return home. One of the most poignant and touching wives is Madeleine Stowe in We Were Soldiers (2002). The story moves back and forth between the battle field and the home front depicting the agony the soldier´s wives went through when the telegrams arrived telling them one of their husbands had been killed.

Nurses become very often soldiers’ girl-friends which makes the two roles blend into each other. But many of the classic girl friends in movies depicting the second WW are the girls the men encounter in the countries they are shipped to. The American soldiers in The Pacific for example have Australian girl friends.

The role of the resistance fighter is quite a noble one. Not very frequent but appealing. Cate Blanchett as Charlotte Gray (2001) comes to mind. Or the women in Uprising (2001). And definitely Sophie Scholl (2005). The latest example of this kind is Carice van Houten as the jewish woman Rachel Stein who joins the Dutch resistance after having survived a massacre in the brilliant Black Book aka Zwartboek (2006).

Female soldiers that are even involved in combat are not very frequent. The most remarkable one I remember is the Vietnamese sniper in Full Metal Jacket (1987). A further female soldier  is played by Demi Moore in G.I. Jane (1997) where she is said to be the first woman  to have  been granted access to the navy SEALS.

Women as officers is by far more common. Again Demi Moore played a role in the excellent legal drama A Few Good Men (1992). And then there is Meg Ryan as medevac chopper pilot Capt. Karen Walden in Courage under Fire (1996).

Unfortunately some of the above mentioned portraits of women in war movies are quite questionable and have been criticised repeatedly (especially G.I. Jane).

I almost forgot the victims. Inexcusable. There are as innumerable female victims in real wars as there are high numbers in movies. One of the saddest are the victims in Vietnam war movies. I think of  Platoon (1986) and Casualties of War (1989). They are not the only ones. Of course not.

My favourite heroines are Cate Blanchett as Charlotte Gray, the wonderful Juliette Binoche as nurse  in The English Patient and, another nurse, Sandra Bullock in In Love and War, and the outstanding Julia Jentsch as Sophie Scholl. The first two are based on novels, the other two on historical facts. Sandra Bullock plays the nurse Ernest Hemingway fell in love with when he fought in Italy during WWI.