Powered by Google
Editors' Picks
Arts + Books
Rec Room
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Adult Personals
Adult Classifieds
- - - - - - - - - - - -
FNX Radio
Band Guide
MassWeb Printing
- - - - - - - - - - - -
About Us
Contact Us
Advertise With Us
Work For Us
RSS Feeds
- - - - - - - - - - - -

sponsored links
- - - - - - - - - - - - -
Sex Toys - Adult  DVDs - Sexy  Lingerie

  E-Mail This Article to a Friend

Battle plan?
How relevant is Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers?

IN THE MID 1960s, as anti–Vietnam War demonstrations gained momentum and the civil-rights movement turned from nonviolence to urban riots and guerrilla war, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers was released in the United States and galvanized both. A docudrama recreating the first phase of the 1954-’62 Algerian War of Independence from French colonialism, it would inspire the radically inclined throughout the volatile ’60s with its depiction of a people’s determined struggle for freedom and independence against ruthless oppressors.

Four decades later, the film lives on, and so does the filmmaker. Last summer the Pentagon’s Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict set up screenings of the film for its members as a primer for the occupation of Iraq. More recently, the film has enjoyed re-release in several American cities, including Boston, where it opens this Friday.

I spoke to Pontecorvo, now 85 and living in semi-retirement, about the perpetual appeal and relevance of his film. "It is forever young," he says. And what we can learn from it? "Not how to make war, but to make peace."

Forever young it might be. Its lessons of peace, such as they are, indeed have yet to be learned. The images are painfully contemporary, the folly and injustice forever the same. Women plant bombs in cafés; Taliban-like moral watchdogs execute deviants; terrorists assassinate policemen and government collaborators and slip away into the population. Soldiers gun down demonstrators, detain people without trial, "interrogate" suspected insurgents with blowtorches and electrodes. Algiers looks as fresh as today’s news from Afghanistan, Haiti, the Middle East, and, of course, Iraq.

The Iraq comparison is a sensitive one. Certainly the acerbic maverick political pundit and frequent Atlantic Monthly and Vanity Fair contributor Christopher Hitchens finds it so. In a January 2 Slate column titled "Guerrillas in the Mist: Why the War in Iraq Is Nothing Like The Battle of Algiers," Hitchens explains why the two quagmires have nothing in common.

Now, I’m no expert, but some of his arguments seem a little fishy: is he the last person in the world who believes Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda? Others, however, seem plausible. The causes of war in each case were, as he states, quite different. Algeria had been a colony of France for 130 years; it was in fact a "department," an integral part of the French nation, and the French felt, at least at first, that they had no choice but to fight to retain it. As Colonel Mathieu, leader of the French paratroopers in Algiers, points out in a press conference, even the Communist papers wanted the rebellion crushed. Iraq, on the other hand, was a powerless pariah ruled by a shrunken would-be Stalin. It served as a convenient post-9/11 scapegoat, a resource for the Bush administration’s oil cronies, and a hoped-for quick fix to that pesky Middle East problem.

Hitchens and I might disagree over that characterization of Iraq, but in general I support his conclusion that the historical background of the two cases differs significantly. I also agree that knee-jerk liberals who’d like to use Algiers as a blueprint for the Iraq war’s failure are as misguided as those ’60s revolutionary groups, the Black Panthers in particular, who saw in the film a model for urban revolution. The latter-day "armchair guerrillas," as Hitchens characterizes those who want to push a glib analogy with their "pseudo-knowing piffle," are, as usual, dead wrong.

So much for the danger posed by armchair guerrillas, whoever they might be. But I think Hitchens misses the point of the film, and the relevance of present-day comparisons. Putting it bluntly, it’s not about history, it’s about policy. Not circumstances, but methodology. Terrorists and guerrillas still build cells and blow up innocent people to further their causes and demoralize the enemy. And those opposing them are compelled to use whatever means necessary to crush them. The bottom line in both Iraq and in the film is, as Colonel Mathieu tells the press in one scene, "Should we remain in Algeria? If you answer ‘yes,’ gentleman, then you must accept all the necessary consequences."

The other point Hitchens misses is that the armchair guerrillas weren’t the ones drawing the comparisons; the war-room planners in the Pentagon were. I’m sure they weren’t looking for ways to foment revolution, like the would-be revolutionaries in the America of the ’60s, but for lessons in how to suppress it. If not by the crude methods Pontecorvo graphically demonstrates, then through the more sophisticated interrogative, coercive, and propaganda methods developed in four decades of counterrevolutionary, anti-terrorist, and public-relations advances.

Not to suggest that our troops are torturing people in Iraq — physically, psychologically, or otherwise. But how would we know anyway? In 1965, when Algiers was first released, real life was reaffirming one of the film’s chief lessons. As the Vietnam War raged on, relatively few restrictions were imposed on the press. The war’s suffering, irrationality, and futility entered the lives of all Americans on the nightly news and in daily headlines. Before long, resistance to the war spread from radical activists to the mainstream, and the "political will" to prevail — more important than soldiers or military might, as the film’s Colonel Mathieu insists — eroded.

page 1  page 2 

Issue Date: February 27 - March 4, 2004
Back to the Movies table of contents
  E-Mail This Article to a Friend

about the phoenix |  advertising info |  Webmaster |  work for us
Copyright © 2005 Phoenix Media/Communications Group