The Battle of Algiers (5/10)

Copyright © 2004 by Tony Medley

When you look at the movies getting all the Oscar buzz, Master and Commander, Mystic River, Cold Mountain, Lost in Translation, The Station Agent, et. al, you realize what a dismal movie year 2003 was. While some of these might have been mildly entertaining, some wouldnít have gotten past the story board in 1939, or in any other year I can remember, for that matter.

So I took a busman's holiday and went to see a much-ballyhooed film from the past, The Battle of Algiers (1965), a black and white semi-documentary of what someone called the bloodiest revolution in modern history. I guess whoever said that never heard of the American Civil War.

Regardless, this is a pretty good example of filmmaking, despite the fact that itís far too long at 2:03. Thereís no character development whatever. Itís just an episodic telling of the years of 1954-62 in Algeria. Itís the story of France, who opposed the war to liberate Iraq by deposing Saddam Hussein, defending its colonial rule of a conquered people in Algeria, and the Muslim population fighting back. It seems to show a more sympathetic and personal view of the killings of Algerians by the French, although it does show the Algerians as using women and children to set bombs to kill innocent Europeans in discos and bars. Many of the killings by Algerians are cold-blooded murders of seemingly innocent policemen. But the policemen are presented as little more than simple ciphers, not as real people with families, so thereís little emotion when we see them murdered.

Another weakness of the film is the bloodless way it shows the murders of policemen. They are shot and when theyíre shot they just fall as if they are in a faint. Modern films at least show the violence of being shot by showing what happens to a victim when the bullet tears through the body. The Battle of Algiers was shot in a time when filmmaking had become sophisticated enough to show the damage done by a being hit by a bullet.

It shows three terrorist bombings of innocent Europeans and the way the bombings were accomplished in a sympathetic, realistic way. The excellence of the filmmaking is that it looks like they must have used newsreel footage, but everything was shot by filmmakers with actors.

This film has received a lot of praise from critics, but not that many people will find this that entertaining. You donít really get involved because thereís no character development. Itís just a series of vignettes, although one person, the illiterate uprising leader, Ali la Pointe (Brahim Aggiag), appears in the beginning and in the end.

When things got really violent the French brought in WWII hero Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin) whose idea was to capture and kill the four leaders of the FLN (the National Liberation Front) and the revolution would end. He did but it didnít.

What it does do is highlight French hypocrisy. Despite the lofty rhetoric of present day France in attempting to keep Saddam Hussein in power, the French in Algeria are shown with no scruples. They killed and tortured at will and with impunity. No Geneva Convention for them. Anything went, including decapitation. The French ruled Algeria despotically for 132 years and were fighting to subdue a colonial outpost against their subjectsí will. When the French were finally forced to allow a vote in 1962, 91% voted in favor of independence.

Contrasted with the despicable French actions in Algeria, the U.S. is fighting to liberate Iraq and get out as fast as we can. No torture, and scrupulous adherence to the Geneva Convention. If thereís a parallel, itís to equate the French in Algeria to Saddamís Baathist party.

In fact the Algerian revolution cost the French around 18,000 dead military and 3,000 dead civilians. The number of Algerian dead has been estimated as high as one million.

If you want to learn about the Algerian war of liberation and/or see an example of quality filmmaking, you might find this worthwhile.

January 19, 2004

The End