The Best Spy Movie Ever Isn’t James Bond — It’s This

Army of Shadows

Matthew Mosley in Collider: Has anyone exerted as much influence over the spy genre as Ian Fleming? Examples of espionage fiction may have predated his transition from naval officer to novelist by well over a century, but it wasn’t until the appearance of the British Secret Service’s finest asset, James Bond, that it became a cultural phenomenon (a feeling strengthened by the character’s legendary reinvention as one of cinema’s greatest icons from 1962’s Dr. No onwards). The success of the 007 franchise was a watershed moment for the genre, establishing a framework that everything released since has either deliberately aped or purposefully avoided. Seventy years on, the formula has lost none of its appeal… but it has contributed to the false impression of what being a spy is actually like. Of course, Ian Fleming knew exactly what he was doing when he put entertainment on a higher pedestal than realism, but it should be obvious that life in the Secret Service isn’t laden with shootouts and car chases. Being a spy is not glamorous – if anything, it’s rather mundane – but it also has the potential to be a lonely and disheartening profession where innumerable lives are lost for negligible results. It’s this feeling at the heart of the 1969 masterpiece, Army of Shadows.

Based on Joseph Kessel‘s 1943 book of the same name, Army of Shadows follows a small group of the French Resistance – specifically those associated with Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), a former civil engineer who now leads a resistance cell based out of Lyon – during the country’s occupation by Nazi Germany. When the film starts, Gerbier has already been arrested on suspicion of being a spy. There’s no evidence to prove their doubts, but doubt is all the proof they need. Before long he’s imprisoned in an internment camp alongside everyone else who could potentially cause trouble, but they’re going to have to do better than that if they want to break Gerbier’s spirit. He understands his assignment. His work is not easy, but it is vitally important lest his country remains under the oppressive grip of tyranny forevermore. But there’s another element to Gerbier that his captors overlooked – perhaps the most critical of all. He may be an idealist, but he is also a realist. Gerbier knows that his life is irrelevant. All that matters is the cause, and if he must die to bring life to that dream then so be it. It’s a sad image, but that’s the job.

The rest of the film continues along this bleak path. After escaping the Gestapo during an interrogation attempt, Gerbier resumes his duties undeterred. The first order of business? Assassinating the colleague who betrayed him. This is not an act of petty revenge, but an unavoidable tragedy that Gerbier and his fellow conspirator Félix Lepercq (Paul Crauchet) execute with a frightening level of banality. They intend to shoot him, but the arrival of next-door’s neighbors forces a change of plan. “There’s a towel in the kitchen”, Gerbier reminds his collaborators, a line uttered without a trace of emotion. The killing itself happens with little ceremony, after which Gerbier and Lepercq depart as though nothing had ever happened. They may be good people, but they’re not afraid to do bad things – a philosophy that encapsulates the following two hours. Death is coming for them all, but that’s no excuse to not do their part. Welcome to the resistance, comrade. Leave your heroism at the door.

So, Army of Shadows doesn’t exactly make for an uplifting discussion, but we should count ourselves lucky that it’s available to discuss at all. When the film was released in September 1969, Cahiers du Cinéma – cinema’s most esteemed publication – launched a full-frontal assault on the film due to its perceived support of Charles de Gaulle, a key figure in the fight against Nazi Germany who had since been elected President of France (and, most importantly, was currently despised by the working-class population due to his handling of the May 68 demonstrations). Additionally, the controversial events of the Algerian War had soured the heroic notion of resistance campaigns, damaging the film further. The response was so dire that American distributors (who held the opinions of Cahiers du Cinéma as analogous to biblical scripture) chose not to release it, leading Army of Shadows to go largely unnoticed until its reappraisal in the mid-1990s. International audiences had to wait until 2006 – a whopping thirty-seven years after its initial release – before they could watch it in theatres, where it received a unanimously positive reception. It has since become a staple on “greatest films of all time” lists, and one wonders if its time in the wilderness contributed to this stunning turnaround.

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1 thought on “The Best Spy Movie Ever Isn’t James Bond — It’s This

  1. If you are fed up with Bond and all the make believe that surrounds him try reading some fact based espionage thrillers, of which there are only a handful of decent ones. First of all do try reading Bill Fairclough’s Beyond Enkription. It is an enthralling unadulterated fact based autobiographical spy thriller and a super read as long as you don’t expect John le Carré’s delicate diction, sophisticated syntax and placid plots.

    What is interesting is that this book is so different to any other espionage thrillers fact or fiction that I have ever read. It is extraordinarily memorable and unsurprisingly apparently mandatory reading in some countries’ intelligence agencies’ induction programs. Why?

    Maybe because the book has been heralded by those who should know as “being up there with My Silent War by Kim Philby and No Other Choice by George Blake”; maybe because Bill Fairclough (the author) deviously dissects unusual topics, for example, by using real situations relating to how much agents are kept in the dark by their spy-masters and (surprisingly) vice versa; and/or maybe because he has survived literally dozens of death defying experiences including 20 plus attempted murders.

    The action in Beyond Enkription is set in 1974 about a real maverick British accountant who worked in Coopers & Lybrand (now PwC) in London, Nassau, Miami and Port au Prince. Initially in 1974 he unwittingly worked for MI5 and MI6 based in London infiltrating an organised crime gang. Later he worked knowingly for the CIA in the Americas. In subsequent books yet to be published (when employed by Citicorp, Barclays, Reuters and others) he continued to work for several intelligence agencies. Fairclough has been justifiably likened to a posh version of Harry Palmer aka Michael Caine in the films based on Len Deighton’s spy novels.

    Beyond Enkription is a must read for espionage cognoscenti. Whatever you do, you must read some of the latest news articles (since August 2021) in TheBurlingtonFiles website before taking the plunge and getting stuck into Beyond Enkription. You’ll soon be immersed in a whole new world which you won’t want to exit. Intriguingly, the articles were released seven or more years after the book was published. TheBurlingtonFiles website itself is well worth a visit and don’t miss the articles about FaireSansDire. The website is a bit like a virtual espionage museum and refreshingly advert free.

    Returning to the intense and electrifying thriller Beyond Enkription, it has had mainly five star reviews so don’t be put off by Chapter 1 if you are squeamish. You can always skip through the squeamish bits and just get the gist of what is going on in the first chapter. Mind you, infiltrating international state sponsored people and body part smuggling mobs isn’t a job for the squeamish! Thereafter don’t skip any of the text or you’ll lose the plots. The book is ever increasingly cerebral albeit pacy and action packed. Indeed, the twists and turns in the interwoven plots kept me guessing beyond the epilogue even on my second reading.

    The characters were wholesome, well-developed and beguiling to the extent that you’ll probably end up loving those you hated ab initio, particularly Sara Burlington. The attention to detail added extra layers of authenticity to the narrative and above all else you can’t escape the realism. Unlike reading most spy thrillers, you will soon realise it actually happened but don’t trust a soul.

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