The Battle of Algiers, arguably the most famous and influential political film ever made, was a sensation from the moment it opened at the Venice Film Festival in 1966. French audience members walked out of the screening: memories of the brutal eight-year war that culminated with Algeria's independence in 1962 were too recent and too raw. They didn't take kindly to a documentary-style drama that portrayed France's struggle to hold on to its North African colony as a doomed attempt to stem the tide of history. It won the festival's top prize anyway. There was no denying the power of Gillo Pontecorvo's stirring direction, Ennio Morricone's propulsive score, and Franco Solinas's screenplay, which dissected the tactics of the insurgents and the French with equal acuity. Shot on the streets of Algiers and cast primarily with non-actors--including Yacef Saadi, who was one of the leaders of the 1957 uprising--the film, based on actual events, seemed to have been snatched from real life. Indeed, when I first saw it in the early 1970s, it was known as the movie that members of the Weather Underground studied to learn how to organize a revolutionary movement.
Judging by results, I'd say they should have studied it a lot more closely, but three decades after the Weather Underground self-destructed (with a substantial assist from the FBI) The Battle of Algiers surged back into the public eye as a touchstone for strategists engaged in nontraditional warfare--on both sides. In September 2003, The New York Times reported that the Pentagon had screened it for officers and civilians involved in creating U.S. policy in post-invasion Iraq. "How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas" read a flier inviting guests to the screening. "Children shoot soldiers at pointblank 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." A Criterion Collection DVD released in 2004 accompanied the movie with scads of documentary extras underscoring its contemporary relevance. In one of them, a discussion of The Battle of Algiers as a case study, counterterrorism expert Richard A. Clarke points to an organizational chart of al-Qaeda and notes its similarity to that employed by the rebel FLN (Front de Liberation Nationale) in Algeria. Its cell structure ensured that capturing individual members and torturing them for information had little impact on the group's ability to function.
But the importance of The Battle of Algiers does not lie in its usefulness as a training film for terrorists or as a demonstration for occupying powers of How Not to Do It. Like many great works of art, it encompasses multiple points of view as it expresses a singular vision. Like all political art, it runs particular risks. Uncle Tom's Cabin, described by Abraham Lincoln as "the book that started this great war," has been dismissed by some modern critics as a sentimental Victorian effusion. Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat was carried from his studio to the Louvre in 1793 by a crowd of sans-culottes who venerated it as a tribute to a martyr to the revolutionary cause; this worshipful portrait looks quite different now to anyone aware of the thousands dispatched to the guillotine by those same sans-culottes in the atmosphere of hysterical paranoia that Marat's violent rhetoric fostered. The Battle of Algiers has not yet become merely a period piece, nor can Pontecorvo be accused of airbrushing the deadly results of his protagonists' deeds. Yet it too resonates today in ways the director surely never anticipated.
When it opened, the film was seen--and was intended to be seen--as the story of a national liberation movement, the uprising of an oppressed people who, denied equal rights in their own country, were determined to shape their own destiny. It does not invite viewers to think of the FLN primarily as a Muslim organization. FEN Communique Number One (an actual document that in the movie takes the form of a guerrilla broadcast in the streets of the Algiers Casbah) defines the rebels' goal as "independence and the restoration of the Algerian state in accordance with Islamic principles and the respect of basic liberties without distinction of race or religion." There's no suggestion that the two could be in conflict. In the prison where a petty thief named Ali La Pointe is recruited to the FLN, a rebel on his way to execution calls out "Allahu akbar"--God is great, the traditional opening of Muslim prayers--but follows it with the cry "Long live Algeria." Colonel Mathieu, leader of the French paratroopers dispatched to crush the rebellion, calls his opponents Arabs, not Muslims: their religion is irrelevant; he sees them as anticolonial guerrillas like the Viet Minh, whose 1954 victory at Dien Bien Phu made the French desperate not to be humiliated again in Algeria.
The speeches Solinas wrote for Mathieu and the FLN leaders set the parameters of the debate. Most Arabs in Algiers are not our enemies, the French colonel tells his men. "A small minority holds sway by means of terrorism and violence. We must deal with this minority in order to isolate and destroy it.... This isn't military work, but police work." Captured guerrilla Larbi Ben M'hidi gives the FLN's view when he is paraded in front of the press in handcuffs. Asked if the rebels have any chance of winning, he replies calmly, "The FLN has more chance of beating the French army than the French have of changing the course of history." The FLN lost the Battle of Algiers, and the film shows its leaders being picked off one by one, climaxing with French soldiers blowing up the house where All La Pointe is hiding, observed by a crowd of Algerians standing silently on the rooftops of the Casbah.
Yet the crowd has the ultimate say in a film that, for all its intelligent analysis of strategy and tactics, is at heart a romantic paean to the unstoppable force of the popular will. As Mathieu walks away from the debris of...