When film director Jean-Pierre Melville’s L’Armée des Ombres (Army of Shadows) was released initially in France in 1969, the critical response was hostile. One reason was certainly the political climate at that time. Another may have been disappointment that Melville was interrupting his run of gangster-noir masterpieces — Le deuxième souffle (1966), Le samouraï (1967), Le cercle rouge (1970), and Un flic (1972) — with a movie about the French Resistance.

Whatever the reason, by the time Army of Shadows finally arrived in the U.S. a few years ago, it was 37 years old and the director had been dead 25 years. It’s sad that Melville never witnessed the enthusiasm and praise his “cinematic failure” eventually received.

Already a big Melville fan, I was first in line to see Army of Shadows when it opened in a little art theater near my home in 2006. It practically blew me through the back of the auditorium and into the snack bar. I saw it again recently, and I still find it gut-twisting, unrelenting, and uncompromising.

To say this movie is about the French Resistance is probably to shortchange it. Army of Shadows is a cinematic textbook about resistance … period. Its lessons: Resistance against tyranny isn’t romantic. It isn’t swashbuckling. It isn’t glorious. Rather, it’s lonely. It’s tragic. It’s pushing the envelope further and further, taking it as far as you can. It’s often hopeless. Too frequently, it’s about betrayal. Heartbreak. Impossible choices. And it usually ends in death.

There are absolutely unforgettable, devastating moments in Army of Shadows. Here’s one:

An operative named Felix is captured and tortured by the Gestapo. A plan to rescue him is doomed to fail, and freedom fighter Jean François seems to back out of the operation and disappear in disgrace. But what Jean François has actually done is send an anonymous letter to the Gestapo, exposing himself as a member of the resistance. His plan is to be arrested so he can smuggle a single cyanide pill to Felix in order to end his comrade’s pain, even though he will himself face torture. None of Jean François’s associates will ever know of his sacrifice for a friend.

Here’s another:

Operative Phillippe Gerbier is captured. He and seven others are lined up at the end of a long tunnel by the SS. The prisoners are told they may begin running to the other end of the tunnel before the machine guns start firing. Whoever reaches the far wall will be spared execution — until the next day, when the process will be repeated. Gerbier, believing he’s finished, decides not to run and play the Nazis’ game. What finally occurs is surprising and haunting.

Army of Shadows is dark, but its soul is filled with self-assurance and courage. It is, I think, a libertarian “must see” film.