Wednesday, May 16, 2007


We live in a world where armed conflict is more likely to be fought against urban guerillas than against sovereign armies on battlefields. Accordingly, THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS is a frighteningly relevant movie, despite being originally released in 1966. The movie is a two-hour black and white documentary-style retelling of the French suppression of the Algerian Nationalists. In a brutally straightforward police procedural, we see French Colonel Mathieu torture Algerian prisoners without compunction in his mission to systematically crush the rebellion. Played by the only professional actor in the film, Jean Marin, Colonel Mathieu has a chilling logic, which will no doubt resonate with contemporary audiences raised on 24 and Fox News: "Interrogation becomes a method when conducted in a manner so as always to obtain a result, or rather an answer. In practice, demonstrating a false humanitarianism only leads to ridiculousness and impotence. I'm certain that all units will understand and react accordingly."

As one might expect from a movie commissioned by Algerian nationalists though directed by an Italian, Gillo Pontecorvo, the sympathies lie firmly with the FLN. However, this is not propoganda. Pontecorvo is careful to show the brutality of the nationalists' methods. In particular, we see a pretty young girl plant a bomb in a cafe in the French quarter. The camera takes a chilling long look at the people who will soon be killed. Later, a journalist will quiz the nationalist leaders about their methods in a news conference.

THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS is then a remarkable war movie in that it shows war as it is, rather than as it was in the days of cavalry charges and shiny uniforms. The technical achievement in creating the documentary-like footage is impressive, as is the fact that the director questions the methods of both sides. The movie deservedly won both the Golden Lion and the FIPRESCI prize at Venice, but did not win any of the three Oscars it was nominated for. It lost out on Best Screenplay to THE PRODUCERS and for Best Foreign Language Film to Sergei Bondarchuk's WAR AND PEACE - both of which are also Pantheon films. Pontecorvo also lost out on the Oscar for Best Director to Carol Reed, for OLIVER! - an absurd result, especially when you consider that Stanley Kubrick was also in the running with 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

Despite the international acclaim, THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS was banned in France for years. More recently, the movie was apparently shown in the Pentagon on the eve of the Iraqi war. It would be fascinating to know what message those present took from the screening.....

THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS is on re-release in the UK. It is also available on DVD.

1 comment:

  1. Presumably the Pentagon were watching the film for tips on how to torture arabs, rather than to deplore the brutality of the French?