Jean-Pierre Melville’s film Army of Shadows (1969) gives a dramatic account of the extreme dangers faced by the French who resisted the German occupation of 1940–1944. The time of the story is unspecified, but it is probably 1943, late enough for the Germans to have occupied the formerly unoccupied south (this occurred in November 1942), but early enough for the Resistance to still be concerned mainly with the struggle to survive.
Under the leadership of World War I hero Marshal Philippe Pétain, the French government surrendered to superior German forces on June 17, 1940, signing an armistice on June 25 that provided for the German occupation of the northern half of the country and French withdrawal from the war. Pétain governed from a temporary capital at Vichy, a spa town in the southern hills, and was popular at first. But his regime lost credibility as German victory receded and German exactions increased. Soon Vichy was helping the Germans repress the developing Resistance with its own police and special forces, the Milice.
A few Frenchmen fought the occupation from the beginning. Chief among these was a former tank officer, General Charles de Gaulle, who escaped to London as France was surrendering and broadcast a famous message on the BBC: France had lost a battle, he said; it had not lost the war. De Gaulle’s Free France gathered the slowly growing number of those who wanted to fight on, whether outside of France, in the Free French Forces, or in the internal Resistance.
Melville, like the author of the film’s source novel, Joseph Kessel, had himself participated in the Resistance in France, later escaping to London and joining Free France. His film thus has a very personal resonance, as well as a strong historical basis. “In this film,” Melville recounted in a 1971 interview with Rui Nogueira, “for the first time, I show things that I have seen, that I have experienced.” Many of the characters in the film are based on historical figures, and de?Gaulle and Pétain even make brief appearances—the tall, austere general, from behind, as he awards a medal to Resistance leader Luc Jardie in London; Pétain only on a poster in a barbershop. But beyond that, Melville told Nogueira, the words and adventures of his friends and acquaintances greatly influenced his telling of the story.
Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura)
The opening scene, of Philippe Gerbier in the French internment camp, is based on the experiences of Jean Pierre-Bloch, a colleague of Melville’s in Free France. Pierre-Bloch (he was born Jean-Pierre Bloch but later changed the hyphenation) was a socialist journalist and politician who escaped from a prisoner of war camp in 1940 and organized early parachute drops in the Dordogne region. In 1942, he reached London, where de Gaulle put him in charge of civilian intelligence operations in the Central Office of Information and Action. In 1943, he became minister of the interior in the provisional government set up by de Gaulle in Algiers, and he played a major role in establishing this government in France upon the liberation. He died in 1999, at ninety-three.
Gerbier’s escape from Gestapo headquarters in Paris, filmed in its actual location at the opulent Hôtel Majestic, was taken from an incident described to Melville by Paul Rivière. A schoolteacher who was wounded in the fighting in 1940 and soon joined the Resistance movement Combat, Rivière eventually directed hundreds of clandestine arrivals and departures of light aircraft ferrying arms, money, and people (including Lucie Aubrac; see below) between occupied France and London. Rivière survived the war; he died in 1998.
Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse)
Luc Jardie, the apparently unworldly scholar who turns out to be the supreme Resistance leader, is modeled on Jean Cavaillès, a celebrated philosopher of mathematics and science at the Sorbonne. Jardie’s books in the film bear the titles of Cavaillès’s philosophical works. Cavaillès went underground with the movement Libération-Nord, concentrating on sabotage and military preparation. He was shot by the Gestapo in 1944. Intellectuals, especially those who discovered unexpected and gratifying capacities for action and leadership during military service, were prominent in the Resistance. Cavaillès, from an independent-minded Huguenot family, had been decorated in combat in World War II, as his father had been in World War I. Another intellectual who was proud of his stamina was the influential historian Marc Bloch, who’d fought in World War I. Bloch was shot by the Germans for Resistance activity in 1944 also. Anthropologist Boris Vildé founded one of the earliest Resistance networks, run out of the anthropological museum in Paris, le Musée de l’homme.
The other model for Luc Jardie was Jean Moulin, de Gaulle’s senior representative in France. Moulin was the highest-level public official to join de Gaulle. In 1940, he was the prefect (or local governor) at Chartres, in the Eure-et-Loir. Openly anti-Nazi, Moulin was dismissed from his position by Vichy. In September 1941, he joined de Gaulle in London. He was parachuted into France (like Gerbier in the film) on January 1, 1942, and again in March 1943. In May 1943, after months of negotiation, Moulin united the disparate and sometimes disputatious Resistance leaders of the southern zone in the National Resistance Council, under de Gaulle’s authority. Betrayed soon after, probably by a colleague liberated from Gestapo captivity (like Mathilde), Moulin died at the hands of Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon.
Mathilde (Simone Signoret)
The Resistance included many women, sometimes simply as shelterers—an indispensable function—but also in more active ways. It was often safer for a woman to carry messages, radios (as Mathilde does in the film), or even weapons, for she could pass unchallenged. Marie-Madeleine Fourcade actually headed Alliance, a three-thousand-agent organization that gathered intelligence and smuggled downed Allied airmen out of France. Women even participated in high-risk actions, as Mathilde does. One model for Mathilde was Lucie Aubrac, a high school history teacher who freed her husband, Raymond, from captivity in two daring operations. Unlike Mathilde, however, the Aubracs were flown to London when their situation in France became untenable. Lucie Aubrac lived until March 2007; Raymond is still alive.
Jean-François (Jean-Pierre Cassel) and Félix (Paul Crauchet)
While Jean-François’ decision to get himself arrested in order to try to bring help to Félix in Gestapo captivity is extreme, and does not seem to be based on an actual event that Melville was aware of, all the Resistance leaders willingly put themselves in the way of death. One of Melville’s friends in London was Pierre Brossolette. A socialist journalist before the war, Brossolette began his Resistance activities in 1940, with Boris Vildé. Reaching London in April 1942, he became the right-hand man of Colonel Passy, de Gaulle’s intelligence chief. Brossolette undertook several missions in the north of France to coordinate the various Resistance movements, in much the same way as Jean Moulin in the south. When he was finally captured, Brossolette threw himself from the fifth floor of Gestapo headquarters in Paris to avoid revealing secrets under torture.
In the film, during their visit to London, Philippe Gerbier and Luc Jardie see Gone with the Wind. Emerging, they remark that the French will be free when they can see this film and read the satirical weekly Le canard enchaîné in Paris—quoting a conversation that Melville actually had with Brossolette in London.
The death under torture, without yielding, of Félix and Jean-François is modeled on a story that every resister had heard: the end of Jean Moulin. Although no one alive knows exactly what happened, the Nazi torturer Klaus Barbie is said to have given a piece of paper to the mortally injured man that read, “Are you Jean Moulins?” Moulin took a pencil and crossed out the final s, thereby giving up the only name he ever would, his own. In the film, Jardie’s postscript gives him the same heroic end. What are supposed to be Moulin’s remains were reburied in the Pantheon, the national hall of heroes in Paris, in 1964, at the behest of de Gaulle, by then president of France.
Colonel Passy (André Dewavrin)
One of the first regular army officers to join de Gaulle in June 1940 was Captain André Dewavrin, who happened to be returning from duty in Norway via London when de Gaulle broadcast his famous speech on June 18. Lacking senior officers, de Gaulle made Dewavrin the chief of the Free French intelligence service, the Central Office of Information and Action. Dewavrin, who took the code name Passy from a Paris subway station, coordinated the collection of intelligence and also sabotage within France. In the film, we see Colonel Passy at his desk at intelligence headquarters, at 10 Duke Street in London, meeting with Gerbier and Jardie. The real Dewavrin played himself in this scene; he died in 1998.
Claude le Masque (Claude Mann) and Le Bison (Christian Barbier)
Melville wants us to see the French Resistance as an emanation of the entire French people, average folks as well as those of superior education and accomplishment. Claude le Masque and Le Bison represent ordinary people in this film. The customs inspector, too, knows when to look the other way. No ordinary people in this film are collaborators, which we know now is quite unlike reality. But the idea of a France quietly but fully supportive of the Resistance was a matter of faith for de Gaulle’s followers, including Melville. The fact that all the Resistance fighters in the film meet grim deaths is not fanciful, however. The turnover of Resistance leaders was in fact very high, although some did survive the war.
Robert O. Paxton is a professor emeritus of history at Columbia University. He has published several books, including Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order and The Anatomy of Fascism. This piece originally appeared in the 2007 DVD edition of Army of Shadows.