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    The Battle of Algiers

    The fire last time

    The 1965 film "The Battle of Algiers," about the rebellion against French rule in Algeria, is all the more chilling today for its resemblance to the U.S. occupation of Iraq.


    On the list of three-letter abbreviations with which American correspondents have peppered their Iraq War coverage with to make themselves seem clued-in (somewhere below "RPG") is "FRL." Those are the people currently shooting down helicopters and gunning down U.S. soldiers on the streets — our military likes to call them the "former regime loyalists."

    Directed by: Gillo Pontecorvo.
    Written by: Gillo Pontecorvo, Franco Solinas.
    Cast: Brahim Haggiag, Jean Martin, Yacef Saadi, Samia Kerbash, Ugo Paletti, Fusia El Kader, Omar.
    Cinematography: Marcello Gatti.
    Edited by: Mario Morra, Mario Serandrei.
    In Arabic and French with English subtitles.

    Related links: Official site
    Film Forum 209 West Houston St. (between 6th and 7th Ave.) (212) 727-8100

    There's a problem with that name. It's the idea that a shadowy cabal of Saddam Hussein's henchmen are behind the violent opposition in Iraq, and once we root them out all will be well again. That's the idea the French military officers have, too, in "The Battle of Algiers," and it doesn't work out very nicely for them.

    The film, made in 1965 by Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo and commissioned by the fledgling Algerian government, won top honors at the Venice Film Festival and has been hailed as a cinematic milestone, but has not been available on video for years. It is enjoying a resurgence now because of its horrifying resemblance to current events — it's said to have been used for training by both the IRA and British troops, more recently by the Pentagon, and by anyone else with a life-and-death interest in occupation, resistance and urban warfare.

    The Battle of Algiers  
    Shot on the streets of Algiers using mostly non-actors, including many who were actually involved in the resistance against French colonial occupation, the film grippingly recreates the origins of the anti-French movement. The movement starts with the awakening of a core of devout youths and prison inmates, who lead a kind of religious-purification boot camp among the faithful. The increasingly radicalized population begins to carry out attacks first against soldiers and then against French civilians, and these scenes are the most heart-stopping in the film. In the midst of an ordinary street scene, a gun, a gunman and a victim will converge in seconds — often from three different directions — and the evidence will evaporate in the time it takes the dead soldier to hit the ground. There's no telling where sudden death will come from. Fully covered old women pass guns under their chadors. Pretty, French-speaking girls carry bombs in their purses. Given that something similar is happening to our own soldiers in Iraq right now, it's a piece of blood-chilling horror every time we see this story from today's news repeated in a 38-year-old movie.

      The Battle of Algiers
    Alarmed by the ferocious rebellion, Paris sends in Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin), a veteran of the French resistance himself. Unable to fight an enemy that the army can neither understand nor identify, Mathieu elects to fight through intelligence rather than military might. "What will catch them is the police aspect," he tells his troops on arriving. "I know you don't like that word, but that is the only way to win."

    Using commando raids, interrogation and torture, Mathieu and his men work their way up from low-level cells toward the high-level masterminds, even as the rebellion grows increasingly brazen in targeting French civilians and soldiers alike. They have success in capturing individuals, but as history will tell you, the French lost the bigger battle. The French of the 1960s generation still look at Algeria as the site of their generation's greatest tragedy, much as Americans think of Vietnam. This was not war on a battlefield — not a contest of strategy and guts and all the usual elements of a war movie. It was a battle of cultures and popular will. Ultimately, the French lost because they weren't wanted there.

    This could be a lesson that "The Battle of Algiers" holds for us today. The success or failure of our own ill-considered enterprise in Iraq has little to do with the administration's faith in American power — it has to do with whether Iraqis want us in their country. We can fool ourselves that the current attacks are being carried out by a handful of former Iraqi honchos who pine for the good old Saddam Hussein days — but how many of those are there, really? The far greater danger is that the general population — Iraqi and, in fact, pan-Arab — is becoming radicalized by our arrogance. The danger is that our own leaders, not the shadowy friends of Saddam, are creating a cultural movement in Iraq. The stronger we make it, the greater the regret we will share with the French soldiers in this chilling film's last reel.

    FEBRUARY 12, 2004

    Reader comments on The Battle of Algiers:

  • Your review of 'Battle of Algiers'   from Iraq veteran, Feb 16, 2005
  • Re: Your review of 'Battle of Algiers'   from Chris, May 28, 2006
  • Re: Your review of 'Battle of Algiers'   from joebaby, Dec 13, 2006
  • Re: Your review of 'Battle of Algiers'   from Tom Hearndon, Jul 3, 2007
  • Old lesson for new intruders   from Eric, Feb 12, 2006
  • A great movie   from Nas, Mar 31, 2006
  • [no subject]   from sandra, Apr 6, 2007
  • This is a classic film ! ! !   from Lalit Rao, May 10, 2008
  • comments on film THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS.   from sapna khan, May 28, 2008

  • Post a comment on "The Battle of Algiers"