Of the dozen or so moments in Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows (Criterion, $39.95) that haunt long after the credits have rolled, it's the simplest glances that chill your blood. You can almost see the stomachs lurching. You can almost hear the blood rushing out of faces. The first time this happens, a member of the French Resistance is offering himself up to the Nazis, all the better to inch closer to a captured compatriot and plan their escape. But lofty ideals like courage and sacrifice seem different at ground level. Faced with the Reich's nonchalant efficiency, the man's eyes betray his shock.
Name, the Nazi asks.
The man refuses.
The Nazi doesn't threaten. He shrugs. Too bad, he says matter-of-factly. They prefer to attach names to the men they execute.
The second time your blood runs cold - and Melville has never been the warmest director to begin with, so the ice water in these veins is particularly effective - our hero, the leader of a Resistance cell (Lino Ventura), finds himself led to certain death. A civil engineer before the war, he has the cool composure of a professional, with an eye for identifying the weakest point, adjusting, and squeezing away to safety. But now the odds appear rather blunt. Along with his fellow prisoners, he finds himself in a long hallway, a firing range. At one end of the room are Nazis fiddling with a machine gun, and at the other end, a concrete wall.
We'll give you a chance, the Nazi explains. Run fast from the guns. The first to touch the wall will be spared and placed with the next batch of prisoners to be executed - probably tomorrow.
Our hero's face stays blank.
He will stand his ground.
But they shoot at his feet, and surprised, he sprints to the end, to both his shame and his luck.
Needless to say, Melville's notions of patriotism and courage are painful and muddy, the facts harder to confront than the idealism. And he should know. He was a member of the French Resistance; the picture is an adaptation of Joseph Kessel's 1943 memoir, but make no mistake, Army of Shadow's attention to specifics, the somber evocation of unbearable truths, the tinge of melancholy despite acts of savagery, the film's epigraph ("Bad memories, I welcome you anyway. You are my long-lost youth.") - that's Melville rummaging through his heartbreak.
A hero uneasy with heroism.
At a time when the country is at war, and patriotism often reduced to shorthand (like the right to wave a flag, or pack a pistol), it all feels very relevant.
So why did it take Army of Shadows 38 years to reach video - which it does this week in an two-disc edition from Criterion? Moreover, why did it not play a single theater on this side of the Atlantic until last year, finishing 2006 on a number of critic's Top 10 lists? Thousands of books are released each year, and as many albums. It's not so uncommon to stumble on a genuinely overlooked musical masterpiece; and it's not unprecedented to find a great book that was ignored in its day. But there is definitely a sense, when it comes to movies, that everything important has been seen, judged, canonized.
Everyone's seen everything.
So how does this happen?
How does a classic, made in 1969 by a well-known, respected director, fall through the cracks?
How could it be missed?
Very easily, it turns out.
Melville preceded the French New Wave (which gave us Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, among others) with somber, existential films of gangster cool like Bob Le Flambeur and Le Samourai; but he was no friend to the New Wave. And his great subject was the Resistance, and in 1969, when Army of Shadows was released, there was hostility in France for Charles de Gaulle, who had led the Free French movement. That old talk of the French Resistance felt nostalgic, and sentimental, and revisionist, and here was another picture glorifying and romanticizing it.
Hardly, but that was the line.
As Melville says in one of the documentaries included on the extra disc that his generation had sown the seeds of such distrust. Sometimes, understandably, it could sound like everyone who was in France during World War II had been skulking through the streets of Paris and dodging Nazis for the Resistance. Melville knew it wasn't true, and one of the haunting aspects of Army of Darkness is how there seems to be no one left in France, only Nazis and the men (and women) who fought back, albeit in quiet.
Pay close attention the scene in which the civil engineer parachutes into a restricted area. He lands in a swamp. A serious filmmaker, Melville was not without a sense of humor: having parachuted beyond enemy lines, a Frenchman surrounded by Germans, our hero hears only the mocking croak of the frogs.
It's not the only sound.
It's what he hears:
Frog, frog, croak, croak.
The film is essentially episodes, a grab bag of escapes and sacrifices and the kind of small missions that Melville himself undertook during the war - rowing a Resistance leader out to a waiting submarine, smuggling radio parts by the Germans. But again, without being snarky about heroism, and without being blindly loyal to the cause, he reminds us these were regular people. In one early scene, the Resistance catches a traitor to the cause and decides to kill him, but they're not murderers.
No one knows how to do it.
If the scope is somewhat reminiscent of last winter's CIA epic The Good Shepherd, the movie's dour drained-of-pigment colors, its ancient European locales, not to mention its murky juggling of morality, make it a grandfather to Steven Spielberg's Munich. (Spielberg had to have seen this first.) These men live with fatalism, their sacrifice stripped of glory and honor, their very government complicit, most of their fellow countrymen silent. Yet they carry cyanide pills, to die for their country if needed. That's patriotism - knowing you won't be honored. Indeed, never having it cross your mind.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org