Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), the head of a Resistance network, is arrested by Vichy French police on suspicion of resistance activity. Acquitted for lack of evidence he is nevertheless interned in a camp. He and a young communist begin to work on an escape plan, but before it can come to fruition he is transported to Paris for questioning by the Gestapo. He manages to kill a guard and make his escape.
Gerbier manages the resistance network in Marseille. He and three of his men, Félix Lepercq (Paul Crauchet), Guillaume Vermersch, a burly veteran known as Le Bison (Christian Barbier), and Claude Ullmann, a young recruit known as Le Masque (Claude Mann), need to execute one of their own members, a young agent named Paul Dounat, for having betrayed Gerbier. They find the house next door to that they are using occupied, meaning they cannot use their guns. Lacking a decent knife, they strangle him.
Lepercq recruits an old friend in a bar, Jean-François Jardie (Jean-Pierre Cassel), a handsome, risk-loving former pilot. On his first mission to Paris, Jardie meets Mathilde (Simone Signoret), a housewife who is one of the linchpins of Gerbier's network, and visits his older brother, Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), a renowned philosopher who lives a detached, scholarly life in his Paris mansion.
Gerbier travels to the Free French headquarters in London in a British submarine. On the submarine, Gerbier meets Luc Jardie, who proves to be the head of all Resistance networks. His identity is a closely guarded secret.
In London, Gerbier organises additional logistical support for the resistance and Luc Jardie is decorated by Charles de Gaulle. Whilst he is there Lepercq is arrested by the Gestapo. When Gerbier learns of this he cuts his trip short and parachutes into France.
Mathilde, in command after Lepercq's arrest, devises an audacious plan to rescue Lepercq, who is being tortured in a maximum-security Gestapo prison in Lyon. Jean-François Jardie, after hearing the details of the plan, writes Gerbier a letter of resignation and incriminates himself with an anonymous letter to the Gestapo so that he will be arrested and jailed with Lepercq. They share a cell, Jardie badly beaten and Lepercq now barely alive after being tortured repeatedly.
Disguised as Germans, Mathilde, Le Masque, and Le Bison use forged papers ordering Lepercq's transfer to a different detention facility as a ruse to rescue him. Their plan fails when the prison doctor pronounces Lepercq unfit for transport. When Jean-François sees that the rescue has failed, he gives Lepercq his one cyanide pill.
Having seen during the rescue attempt that the Gestapo are displaying his photo as a wanted man, Mathilde urges Gerbier to escape to London, but he refuses, saying that there is no-one to take his place in the growing Resistance. Shortly afterwards Gerbier is swept up in a raid by Vichy police and handed over to the Germans. He and his cellmates are due for execution, but subjected to an SS officer's sadistic game: they will live a little longer if they can run to the far wall of the room before being killed by the machine gunners. As the shooting starts, Mathilde's team toss smoke bombs to block the Germans' view, then throw a line to Gerbier who narrowly escapes.
Gerbier spends a month alone in an abandoned farmhouse deep in the countryside. Luc Jardie arrives to seek his advice following the arrest of Mathilde. They fear she has been forced to reveal the identities of her confederates because the Nazis have threatened her teenage daughter. Luc Jardie hides when Le Masque and Le Bison arrive. Gerbier orders Mathilde's immediate execution, but Le Bison refuses to carry out the order and swears to prevent Gerbier from killing her. Jardie emerges and convinces Le Bison that Mathilde is incapable of suicide but expects them to kill her. Later, Luc Jardie reveals to Gerbier that the argument he presented to Le Bison is purely speculative. Jardie and his team pull to a stop on a Paris street where they have located Mathilde. Le Bison shoots her twice. As the film ends, text screens reveal the eventual fate of the four men, dead by suicide or killed by the Nazis.
(The character of Luc Jardie is partly based on the philosopher/resistance leader Jean Cavaillès.)
Army of Shadows was released on DVD in Region 2 by the British Film Institute in November 2006 and in Region 1 by the Criterion Collection in May 2007. In 2013 Studiocanal Collection released a special Blu-ray edition including bonus documentary and bookletLino Ventura – Philippe Gerbier
Paul Meurisse – Luc Jardie
Jean-Pierre Cassel – Jean-François Jardie
Simone Signoret – Mathilde
Claude Mann – Claude Ullmann a.k.a. Le Masque
Paul Crauchet – Félix Lepercq
Christian Barbier – Guillaume Vermersch a.k.a. Le Bison
Serge Reggiani – The hairdresser
André Dewavrin a.k.a. Colonel Passy – as himself
Alain Dekok – Legrain
Alain Mottet – Camp commander
Alain Libolt – Paul Dounat
Jean-Marie Robain – Baron de Ferté-Talloire
Albert Michel – Gendarme
Denis Sadier – Gestapo prison doctor
When it was originally released in France in 1969, the movie, coming shortly after the events of May 68, had a poor critical reception because of the political context: De Gaulle was rather unappreciated at the time, and the glorification of the resistance had become taboo during the Algerian War. As a result of the poor reviews, the film was not distributed widely outside France, though it was very well received in the late seventies on its British release. American audiences were only able to discover the movie in 2006 when it was reissued, after which the film appeared in many critics' top ten lists of the best films of 2006.
Its score on the review site Metacritic is 99/100.