L'Armée des ombres (Army of Shadows) is Jean-Pierre Melville's film about the French Resistance during World War II. Sombre, pessimistic, and filled with a sense of inescapable and predestined resolution, L'Armée is by turns both heartless and sympathetic, both convinced and morally ambivalent. With blue and gray eyes (the film's dominant colour palette) it looks deeply into the moral ambiguity of both war and resistance -- and into the actions that both seem to demand -- but it seems to always refuse us the opportunity either to disengage entirely or identify completely with its characters and their actions. Though the narrative often picks up the stories of other resistance member's as well, L'Armée primarily follows Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a high-ranking member of the French Resistance. Unlike the grand war films -- the storm the beach, rescue the prisoners, defeat the enemy type of films -- L'Armée is a very subdued affair, muted in tone and scope, and muted, one might say, in its depiction of the heroic figure. The film's characters are not the young and the reckless soldiers and freedom fighter idealists that often accompany war films; they are hardened, professional, dedicated and appear both worn out and morally tired. Melville's resistance members have more in common with the type of characters we would normally associate with crime or gangster films -- like Melville's own Le Cercle Rouge (1970) -- rather than with war films: they are cool, aloof and detached; they go about their business in silent resignation, poised for sacrifice. In not glamourizing his subject, Melville humanizes it.
When Steven Spielberg was trying to create a sense of moral fatigue in Saving Private Ryan he was only faintly approximating what Melville is able to accomplish in L'Armée des ombres almost thirty years earlier. But while Spielberg allowed Ryan to slide across the line from moral fatigue to thinly veiled nihilism and into a faint disgust for its subject, Melville never lets L'Armée slump into such a relaxed posture. The resistance may be facing a hopeless battle, and they may know it, but neither they nor the film ever suggest that this is a pointless battle. The moral question that haunts the film is not "should we fight?" but "how should we fight?" which seems to me to be a much more relevant question, both in terms of WWII and present conflicts. So often war films -- especially those of the high-brow variety -- contemptuously dismiss the necessity of war, as if WWII could have been avoided if we all had developed of more liberal understanding of the world; so often war films -- especially those of low-brow variety -- blindly grope about for an often false binary structure and an easy rhetoric of good versus evil. L'Armée des ombres, more mature than either of those types of films, navigates between the two without really compromising either. It's a rather remarkable fusion of pessimism and conviction. One might call it realism, I suppose. I call it strong filmmaking.