In 1954 Algerians began a guerrilla war to claim their country from the French, and the French started fighting like hell to keep it. Maybe it's just a coincidence, but that was right around the time the West began to realize the Sahara's potential to cough up oil.
The latter is perhaps one of the few facts of import you won't learn from The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo's stunning 1965 docudrama on the subject. The classic film, just re-released in a pristine 35 mm print, covers the three key years when the rebels of the National Liberation Front led an uprising against a colonial French government that had ruled since 1830.
Shot on location in black and white using mostly nonprofessional actors and lots of hand-held camera, The Battle of Algiers burns with immediacy. From Pontecorvo's portrayal of the remorseless but hardly irrational guerrillas waging a campaign of terror against civilians and the French military, to his depiction of that military's resolutely life-sized soldiers, it's a clinically detailed tour de force of gripping narrative, political insight and humanity under duress.
However haunted it is by the Gallic ghosts of Indochina (which France had abandoned just months before Algeria ignited) -- and however it resonates with current American imperial adventures -- The Battle of Algiers stands on its own as great film.
Though based on a script treatment by former rebel leader Saadi Yacef -- who co-stars as FLN chief El-Hadi Jaffar -- it's no propaganda piece (though French authorities disagreed, banning it from theaters until 1971). The French in the film, even stiff-backed paratrooper Colonel Mathieu (played by the cast's lone professional actor, Jean Martin), are not portrayed as monsters, but merely men sent to do a job -- one that unfortunately demands they torture suspects. The Muslim Algerians, meanwhile, are far from romanticized, or exoticized: Rebel captain Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) starts out an illiterate street crook. And when Pontecorvo shows us young Muslim women, disguised in Western dress, planting bombs in a café, a teen milk bar and an Air France lounge, he has them look into the faces of their soon-to-be victims; the cost of terror is marked.
Pontecorvo, himself once a member of the Milan Resistance, clearly learned some lessons from his neorealist-filmmaking countrymen (maybe especially Rosellini and his Resistance-themed Open City), retaining their humanism but shedding their occasional sentimentality. We're privy to the details of daylight knife and gun attacks on cops -- and to retaliations by European vigilantes. We see the planting of the bombs, the frighteningly realistic explosions and the confusion afterward. There's a French hearts-and-minds campaign (free loaves of bread for ghetto-dwellers!); there's the militant children of the uprising; there's Jaffar's unexpected lisp, and Mathieu's almost courtly regard for captured rebel leaders. The result is a film of incredible sweep and indelible verisimilitude.
The Battle of Algiers, made in the midst of that great spasm of anticolonial nationalism that convulsed Africa and Southeast Asia after World War II, is distinguished by its candid, unsensationalized portrayal of the perspectives of both European colonialists (of whom there were then one million in Algeria) and the brown people they thought it their destiny to rule. But it's impossible to watch the film and not think of the U.S. and Iraq (and -- when the French section off Arab parts of Algiers with razor-ribbon, and the flow of people bottle-necks at ID checkpoints where only Arabs get searched -- of Israel and Palestine).
And the similarities don't end with an occupying Western force battling it out with the natives in a poor Muslim country. Pontecorvo's depiction of mindset is unnervingly reminiscent of today's headlines. In The Battle of Algiers, France's solution to terrorism is to ship in more troops, who are greeted by crowds of cheering Westerners. Mathieu assures skeptics that the violence is due to "a small minority" (technically true -- though we also see that minority's nonviolent support system). "France is your motherland," is bullhorned to the Algerians -- a message repeated, if need be, in "interrogation" rooms, with blowtorches and electrodes. The simple Algerian desire for Islam (Muslim weddings must be conducted in secret), for democracy and self-determination, seems as unintelligible to the French as do the passionate ululations of veiled Algerian women at political demonstrations. Westerners unable to impose their culture (why can't they think like us?) end up like one of the film's bombing victims, wearing a sullied white linen suit as he emerges, coughing and baffled, from the smoking rubble of a café.
There's another succinct lesson, too: Technically, France won this particular "war on terror." The FLN was wiped out in '57. "We got a fine on 130 years," Col. Mathieu concludes philosophically. But that wasn't the end of Algerian nationalism, which reasserted itself with a vengeance, leading to popular French opposition to continued occupation and to independence in 1962. As Pontecorvo makes plain, the Algerians simply want to rule themselves -- which is why it's chilling when at an international press conference held at a peak of hostilities, Mathieu declares, "You'll all agree that we must stay." In Arabic and French, with subtitles.