A column in the Washington Post reported yesterday that the Pentagon's special operations chiefs have decided to screen The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 classic film of urban terrorist insurgency, for Pentagon employees on Aug. 27. The decision to show Algiers, David Ignatius writes, is "one hopeful sign that the military is thinking creatively and unconventionally about Iraq." He even quotes from a Pentagon flier about the movie:
How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. ... Children shoot soldiers at point blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.
It's welcome news that the military is thinking creatively about the American role in Iraq, but the lessons and pleasures of The Battle of Algiers are a lot more ambiguous than this Pentagon blurb implies. To praise the film for its strategic insights is to buy into the 1960s revolutionary mystique that it celebrates; it is the collapse of that very mystique that has contributed to the film's current obscurity and made screenings "rare."
Even so, The Battle of Algiers remains a fascinating artifact of its time. But when the film came out, viewers required a lot of context to understand it properly. Here's a primer about this famous and controversial film, and about how the ever-shifting moral of its story relates to the Battle of Baghdad.
What is The Battle of Algiers?
The Battle of Algiers was the premier political film of the 1960s. It was studied by the campus left for its lessons in revolutionary-cell organization and was obligatory viewing for Black Panthers.
The first part of the film depicts the campaign of terror launched by the National Liberation Front (FLN, called "the organization" in the film) against French colonial rule in 1956. * The story is built around a criminal-turned-revolutionary known as Ali La Pointe, and it details his political epiphany and his terrorist career. The movie's second half concerns the reaction by the French military, which consists primarily of a campaign of torture and murder, and focuses on the leader in charge of that campaign, "Col. Mathieu." Mathieu is by far the best-realized character in the film; his is the only role filled by a professional actor.
From its first release, the film was extremely controversial: When the film was finally shown in France, theaters were bombed. In Italy, viewers were attacked.
Is the movie accurate?
Within broad limits. Ali was indeed the hero of the Casbah, the Muslim section of Algiers; as the film suggests, his death marked the end of the real battle for the city. The French did torture and murder their way to tactical victory. Mathieu, for his part, is based mostly on the real-life Gen. Jacques Massu, who devised the counterterrorist strategy. Many sequences are meticulously accurate, such as the famous one referred to by the Pentagon in its flier, in which Algerian women put on Western clothes and makeup and then plant bombs at civilian French targets. Unsurprisingly, many characters are composites, and numerous details are fudged, made up, or altered. Among them is Ali's powerful last line in the film, directed at the French: "I do not negotiate with them." The line is actually appropriated from a speech by then-Interior Minister François Mitterrand, who had directed it at the insurgents.
Is there anything important that the film leaves out?
The film leaves out the insurrection that was taking place in the rest of Algeria, which makes it impossible for viewers to judge how the FLN finally succeeded in driving out the French, much less what was wrong with French military strategy. (Even now, some blame defeat not on the military but on Charles de Gaulle.) The movie also omits the struggle between the FLN and other anti-French factions for control of the revolution. It took an Algerian filmmaker, not a European, to tell the story of insurgents killing each other (Okacha Touita's 1982 film, The Sacrificed).
Instead of offering an explanation for the ultimate triumph of the FLN, Pontecorvo offers a poetic picture of Algeria's revolutionary resilience. "Even though some rivers seem to disappear," he once told an interviewer, "they run underground instead and always reach the sea." That's an appealing metaphor, but it's neither politically nor militarily instructive.