The Battle of Algiers (1966)

the battle is over but the war goes on
the battle is over but the war goes on | Source

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The Battle of Algiers (1966) won several prestigious awards in its day, the tempestuous sixties. A look back should indicate that they were well-deserved. For its kind, political and controversial, The Battle of Algiers is difficult to match or surpass. Although few fans or connoisseurs are likely to relate directly to the upheaval in 1950s Algiers against French rule, it is very easy to find oneself at some point cheering on the inside for common citizens who fight so tenaciously against great odds with no army or outside help, few supplies, and little in the way of materiel. They are called "filthy Arabs" throughout but endure these and other jibes with the transcendent vision of a non-colonized future.

Writing in the early 1920s, Hitler remarked that "European states are like pyramids stood on their heads. Their European area is absurdly small in comparison to their weight of colonies, foreign trade, etc." The consequential development of a policy aimed at the conquest in Europe, of Europe, by a single European power, however, is considered much too harsh and tragic an alternative. Besides, England, among others, showed in pre-Ghandi India just how lucrative and happy, for those in luck, a colonial arrangement could be. Needless to say, the people of Algiers were neither impressed by European nations, culture, or the fact, if applicable, that their oppressors had fought in the resistance against Nazism. They preferred to be free no matter what.

They prove their resolve again and again. This film is unique in that its look is so gritty with the grainy, uncontrived appearance of a documentary. As a result, it is hard not to think that bold photo-journalists caught actual events live by means of serendipitous encounters on a hand-held Bell & Howell 16mm. Few actors and actresses in the film are credited, but one who is is Ali Brahim Haggiag. His character, Ali La Pointe, born in 1930, never amounted to much. But an education in the prison system with its seemingly daily executions has enabled him to rise to the equivalent of a public enemy in the minds and communiques of the French colonialists.

The National Liberation Front employs loudspeakers to keep people informed. It is serious: no alcohol, drugs, or prostitution. When actual fighting breaks out, guns to shoot French policemen come into existence as if by magic in the unlikeliest places: a rack of vegetables, an Arab woman's voluminous garb, a trash can. Success encourages the rebels, but they are constrained to be patient and careful. Weeks, months, and years must first pass. Liberation is always in sight if not at hand. Somehow, the obscure requirements of insurrection are met. The use of barbed wire, checkpoints, sealing the Casbah, and the daunting presence of armed, uniformed soldiers in substantial number are not enough to undermine the FLN. The Lt. Col. (Jean Martin), who marches in after the UN decides to discuss the situation, comments ruefully on how Jean-Paul Sartre has declared solidarity with the FLN. Without saying as much, he intimates that in this case, force majeure will just not get the job done.

French force is nonetheless effective. Raids tear Arab men from their families in the middle of the night. Despite denials, torture is used in several hideous scenes. There are beatings, acts of vandalism, and arrests. Confessions are forced in shabby rooms with strange tools of the trade. A leader of the revolt taken custody commits suicide, allegedly, while in restraints. A French spokesperson tells Algierians that France is their motherland. But this feeble and desperate piece of propaganda falls flat, drowned out by ululations. The connection to a parent nation has been severed. The groundswell is overwhelmingly against the occupiers. Nevertheless, the valiant underground, too, is guilty of excess. There is no rock solid justification for explosions in packed bars or at a crowded racetrack, prefiguring, unfortunately, tactics refined and perfected by modern terrorism. Roger Ebert wrote in 1968 that the director, Gillo Pontecorvo, was ever mindful that "bombs cannot choose their victims". His techniques on the surface were mostly those of neutrality. Nonetheless, few viewers in the international audience are likely to weigh the issues on the scales of blind justice. As presented, the battle is for the Algierians to win and the French to lose.

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