Favorite Film Series — Army of Shadows (Melville, 1969)

When we speak of our “favorite” movies, books, or music, repetition of consumption is the most common metric to measure our enthusiasm. There is an inescapable (if at times embarrassing) logic to that measurement. If I have watched Zoolander a half dozen times and Army of Shadows only twice, does that not indicate that I like the former more than the latter?

Perhaps, but …

As a principle, I buy the notion that we tend to watch what we like more frequently than what we don’t, but the correlation between frequency and endearment is no more exact than that between frequency and critical estimation. Other factors — such as accessibility and cost (in terms of both time and money) — may make it easier for us to revisit certain books or films than others. Even a singular reading or viewing experience can be so memorable or powerful that the art object that spawned it becomes a favorite. I’ve only read George MacDonald’s What’s Mine’s Mine once, but I have no problem calling it one of my favorite novels. I must have reread some of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books a dozen times while only going through Lord of the Rings thrice, but there is no question in my mind that the latter are better books.

Intensity matters as well. Movies that are purposed strictly to entertain are easier to watch multiple times. Movies that challenge, provoke, or startle can exact an emotional toll. Army of Shadows is such a film. Jean-Pierre Melville’s chronicle of the French resistance is my favorite film of 1969 and also my favorite war film. Because of its subject matter, the very things I admire most about it are the ones that can make watching it difficult.

Less a singular story or profile than a series of episodes drawn from the experiences of those in the French Resistance, Army of Shadows is perhaps best for two unforgettable scenes. In the first, the Resistance plans to execute a collaborator. When they arrive at the location they thought would be abandoned, they realized they cannot fire a gun without drawing unwanted attention. As a consequence, they must kill the man with their bare hands. Looking into a man’s eyes as you kill him — feeling his body strain and then finally relent — is a very different proposition from shooting a man in the back or dropping a bomb on a remote target.

This execution is contrasted with the emotional torture inflicted by the Nazis when they execute their prisoners. The men see their executioners set up with guns but the German officers state that if the condemned can run to and touch a distant wall before being shot in the back they will be spared for a later execution. Despite his intention to die without giving his enemies the satisfaction of seeing him run like an animal, Phillipe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) cannot command his legs to remain rooted to the spot. How that scene ends makes it one of the most bittersweet film memories of my lifetime.

The greatness of Army of Shadows comes from the way it is able to convey many of the cruel paradoxes of war. What is an intimate and messy affair for some ends up being a remote and tactical exercise for others. Those who struggle most to retain some sense of honor or principle suffer most in an environment where survival is almost dependent on how amoral and ruthless one is willing to become.

Melville’s film begins with a famous shot of soldiers marching by the Arc de Triumphe. It ends with an abrupt postscript informing us of the fate of the various members of the Resistance. This reverse (then circular) chronology is more than just a gimmick. By ending before the end but making the end known, the film denies us the emotional triumph of watching somone, anyone, escape war completely unscathed. By forcing us to experience vicariously the devastating emotional costs of war, and by highlighting those emotional costs over even the physical costs, the film forces us to grapple with the difference between “triumph” and mere “victory.”

I was born at a time and in a place where the threat of being drafted into war, much less being occupied and oppressed by a fascist army, was remote. But I’ve met men who served in Vietnam, World War II, Korea, Afghanistan, and other places with names less familiar. Not all of them were broken, but I sometimes fancy that all were psychically marked. Lino Ventura conveys a tiredness in the brow, a weariness in the eyes, and a stoop in the shoulders that all seem very, very familiar. The reason I like Army of Shadows better than any other war movie is that its predominant emotion is sadness rather than exultation or anger. That’s what I most often feel when I meet people who have had to resist evil.  Sometimes doing so means sacrificing a chunk of your soul in one swift and decisive moment akin to losing a limb. Sometimes it means a series of smaller but relentless sacrifices that chip away at whatever pillars of righteousness and rectitude sustain us.

 

 

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