It’s August, a month for barbeques and beaches. And here I am with a film about violence and revolution. Why? Because ISIS. Because Jeb Bush thinks we need to go back to Iraq and Trump wants to “take their oil.” And because, if you say you love film but haven’t seen this one, there’s no better time to watch one of the greatest films ever made.
Almost every war movie stacks the deck. Enemy soldiers wear dark clothes, are unshaven, speak in accents and die in large numbers at the end. Heroes are played by actors who get $10 to $20 million a film; of course they get to go home and pick up their lives where they left off.
Moral complexity? Not that you can notice — war movies are like Westerns, just with better weapons.
Political movies are no better. The filmmaker — if not the studio — is on one “side” or other. The movie is a function of its point-of-view.
What if there were a political film without a hero? A war movie that doesn’t take sides?
“Battle of Algiers” is that film. It is not only one of the greatest movies about conflict, it is, according to many critics and this unabashed fan, one of the greatest films ever made.
“Battle of Algiers” is rooted in fact. It covers the period from 1954 to 1957, when Algeria was a colony of France and Algeria’s National Liberation Front led uprisings in Algiers. French troops were sent in. The revolt was crushed.
But the movie is not the record of a victory or a defeat. It’s about what makes people cry “Enough” and do something about it. It’s about the cost of conflict and the loss of innocent life. And, in the end, it’s about the tide of history — in this case, about what may be the inevitable result of colonial occupation.
The movie looks like a documentary, shot in black-and-white by a cameraman who used to flinch when the bombs exploded.
In fact, there is not one frame of historical footage in the film.
As for actors, there are 150 amateurs in the film. The only professional is the French Colonel. The Algerian boy who plays Ali La Pointe was an illiterate street kid with no acting experience. Journalists and French soldiers were played by tourists.
As for taking sides, Pontecorvo doesn’t. He doesn’t even have a designated hero. He’s following a “collective protagonist” on the Algerian side and the power of France — personified by Colonel Mathieu, who was a Resistance fighter during World War II — on the other.
For all that, “Battle of Algiers” is one of the most controversial films ever made. When it was released in 1967, it was widely honored — it won the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival and was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Screenplay (Gillo Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas), Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film. It was also banned for years in France after some theaters showing it were bombed. For a decade or so, it was shown — with noisy projectors and sheets for screens — in the Middle East as a training film for insurgents. And in 2003, the Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict at the Pentagon screened the film as a possible scenario of what American troops might face in Iraq. [To buy the DVD of “Battle of Algiers” from Amazon, click here. To rent or buy the video stream and watch it now, click here.]
The plot: Ali La Pointe is a petty criminal in jail for a minor offense. There he sees an execution of a fellow Algerian whose last words are “Allah is great! Long live Algeria!” When he’s released, Ali is recruited by the National Liberation Front, which has developed an effective new tactic — making war on French civilians. Like this:
This scene immediately follows:
These scenes have almost no dialogue. They’re pure cinema: image and action, characters in motion. They split the viewer down the middle. It’s very hard to cheer the French, but what can you say about people who put bombs in coffee shops and blow up high school kids? Does the end justify the means? If not, how do you effectively break the yoke of colonial oppression?
For all the action scenes — and “Battle of Algiers” has some of the most astonishing street fights and scenes of “terrorism” ever filmed — it’s the conflict of ideas that’s most stinging. Here’s a news conference with a captured freedom fighter:
Journalist: M. Ben M’Hidi, don’t you think it’s a bit cowardly to use women’s baskets and handbags to carry explosive devices that kill so many innocent people?
Ben M’Hidi: And doesn’t it seem to you even more cowardly to drop napalm bombs on defenseless villages, so that there are a thousand times more innocent victims? Of course, if we had your airplanes it would be a lot easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets.
Most of all, there is a compelling argument about the wisdom and effectiveness of torture. Here’s the leader of the French Army in Algiers:
Col. Mathieu: The word “torture” doesn’t appear in our orders. We’ve always spoken of interrogation as the only valid method in a police operation directed against unknown enemies. As for the NLF, they request that their members, in the event of capture, should maintain silence for twenty-four hours, and then they may talk. So, the organization has already had the time it needs to render any information useless. What type of interrogation should we choose, the one the courts use for a murder case, that drags on for months?… Should we remain in Algeria? If you answer “yes,” then you must accept all the necessary consequences.
The music is by Ennio Morricone, who scored Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns” — better believe it will haunt and agitate you. And when you see what happens at the end of the film, you’ll know why I tell you that your heart level will definitely elevate.
The film is in French. The subtitles are large and clear. But you don’t need to hear the sound to understand the plot. Understanding the message is much more difficult. Indeed, forty years after “Battle of Algiers” was released, its issues are the biggest international challenge we face.
If you love movies, this is necessary viewing.
Spike Lee, Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh and Oliver Stone talk about “Battle of Algiers.”
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler.