Friday, November 27, 2015

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

La battaglia di Algeri, Italy / Algeria, 121 minutes
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Writers: Gillo Pontecorvo, Franco Solinas
Photography: Marcello Gatti
Music: Ennio Morricone, Gillo Pontecorvo
Editors: Mario Morra, Mario Serandrei
Cast: Brahim Hadjadj, Jean Martin, Yacef Saadi, Tomasso Neri, Samia Kerbash, Ugo Paletti

Don't look now, but The Battle of Algiers just got one more turn of the screw more complex with the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. In this movie, as it happens, the French are not so sympathetic, and the Eiffel Tower is more a symbol of oppression than of liberated humanity. Which maybe just goes to show that the more things change the more they stay the same. A war against terrorism cannot be fought until the oppressions stop. That's a matter of common sense, or should be. Terrorism is and always has been and will be only a resort of desperate people. You can't fight a war against a tactic—that's been noted before. You have to make peace. The Battle of Algiers is what the opposite of that looks like.

It's tempting to say, for historical context, that Algeria was France's Vietnam, except Vietnam had already proved to be its Vietnam (after which it became our Vietnam). The career of France, as a colonial power, does appear a little hapless, which perhaps redounds to its credit—but don't miss the impulse in the first place. The events documented in this movie are the rump-end of 130 years of colonial occupation of Algeria by France. The Battle of Algiers is not antiwar, it is anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism. And it is especially good at observing the actions and motivations of both sides in this kind of war—the kind fought now in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria—as the situation escalates and spirals inevitably toward disaster. Life is cheap when you're in a revolution, or a police action. It seems to be the one thing both sides understand.

The Battle of Algiers is marked by a grim and harsh documentarian black and white. Here's another suggestion of its greatness—history itself changes this movie, at least in my own experience. The first time I saw it, in 1999, I thought it was almost a caricature, distorted by self-dramatizing exaggeration for effect. I filed it under '60s excess. When I saw it again nearly 10 years later, I was living in the post-9/11 world, where rational discourse ignored things like the insanity of preemptive war (e.g., Pearl Harbor), and argued vigorously for the efficacies and moral force of torture. You know, ticking clock stuff, man, lives on the line, man. As far as these people were concerned, the only problem with Abu Ghraib was that the pictures became public.

In that context, The Battle of Algiers didn't look like caricature at all. In fact, those present-day American views are represented very well by a self-important peacock of a French military man, Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu, who instructs his charges as follows: "The basis of our job is intelligence. The method: interrogation. Conducted in such a way as to ensure we always get an answer. In our situation, humane considerations can only lead to despair and confusion." That's War Realist 101. Jack Bauer himself couldn't have put it better.

This time, The Battle of Algiers looked like reality. And there, indeed, startlingly enough, come to see it again, were all the things we were hearing about in the news: torture (waterboarding, even) and its elaborate rationales, punishing military attacks across grossly uneven matchups of power, grinding cruelties of urban guerrilla warfare, the conduct of a revolution, and all the nested and embedded hypocrisies of values on both sides (though mostly, it must be said, on the side of the oppressor, the French). It's riveting—as war movie, as political statement, as history, as fully realized cinema. It's complicated and shrewd. The images are immediate and visceral. The music is great. It knows and shares many of the secrets, for both sides, of how these wars are fought. Though its director, Gillo Pontecorvo, never made another movie nearly as well regarded, it doesn't surprise me to find that The Battle of Algiers is considered to be one of the classics of world cinema, presently ranking #60 on the list of 1,000 greatest films at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

And again, one more time, history steps in, just when I am preparing to write about The Battle of Algiers, adding the next level of complexity with the "11/13" terrorist attacks in Paris. To be clear, I am entirely in sympathy with the French and the Middle Eastern refugees and have none for the ISIS forces, which have already demonstrated what they are—morally reprehensible, no matter how justified their grievances. But The Battle of Algiers (and, if I may, the French bombardments in Syria in recent days) remind us that France is a great world power that has previously made mistakes—grievous mistakes. This movie offers a crystallization of what we have seen again and again, before and since: a superior military power wins the battle, shortly before losing the war. The strutting master of war here, Colonel Mathieu, is a marker of that every time he is in the frame. The Battle of Algiers is an unforgettable and depressing tableau, which only gets denser and more complicated with the years and decades.


  1. Seems, though, like we hear ab the fundamentalist terrorists, the post-colonial crypto (and not crypto) warlord nationalists, the twisted mass murderers all the time. What a perplexing puzzle of evil they are. But not enough ab the Colonel Mathieus, or the domestic variety anyway: Cheney, the whole Iran-Contra to war on terror bunch, Kissinger, etc. On the international front Putin is our current bete noire scapegoat in this vein, right?

  2. Amen to that. The Cheneys and Kissingers, especially the ones who never put their lives on the line for anything, still get a surprising amount of leeway to fail. And they do, over and over. Putin could conceivably enter the GOP contest and win it at this point.

  3. I rented out The Battle of Chile this afternoon. I've always grouped that, The Battle of Algiers (the title, obviously), and Memories of Underdevolpment together.