September 2, 2009

Taking It Home: The Battle of Algiers

("Taking It Home" is an alternative review style in which I share my thoughts on a movie's themes and how they may relate to my life, while focusing less on the acting, writing, technical aspects, or even plot of the film. It's a collection of the ideas I took home, "because the movie experience shouldn't end in the theater".)

How often has this scene played out in real life in Baghdad in recent years?

One of the benefits of my ignorance of film history is that I get to enjoy watching so many classics for the first time, often without any idea of what I'm going to experience, for better or for worse. Picking up on a tip from Rick Olson at Coosa Creek Cinema last December, I sought out the Battle of Algiers. And I'm here to report, after a period of bewildered shock, that it's one of the greatest films I've ever seen.

I must shamefully admit that
going against all film etiquette and common sense...I didn't watch this in one sitting (do as I say, not as I do). I started it way too late one night and, though completely engrossed I stopped it a natural pause about halfway through, before resuming a few nights later. This may have been for the best anyway, as there are so many courses served in this meal that a pause for digestion is probably appropriate. As such, this is the kind of film that almost demands a second viewing.

Regardless of how much you know or want to know about the French occupation of Algeria, this movie is required viewing because of the literally breathtaking similarities between that situation and the current American situation in Iraq. The use of torture, the U.N. involvement, the urban warfare, the tactics of insurgents, and on and on and on and on. Not since watching The Fog of War again a few years ago have been so floored by the idea of history repeating itself.

Apart from the striking historical relevancy, there are few other really fascinating aspects to The Battle of Algiers. For starters, it's based on "Souvenirs de la Bataille d'Alger", the book written in prison by Saadi Yacef, a former leader in the National Liberation Front (FLN). So the historical account, while somewhat one-sided, is accurate and offers fascinating insights into the motives behind an insurgency. Above all of this, Yacef himself stars in the movie as the leader of the FLN!

Yes, filmed on location in Algiers only a few years after the events it portrays took place, The Battle of Algiers exists as an almost delayed-time documentary; nearly all of the people on screen actually lived through the violent years of the French occupation. The combination of the physical location (and lack of a need for a production designer), the authenticity of the actors and extras, and the incredibly gripping cinematography makes for a stunning historical record, almost better, at least visually, than an actual documentary could have produced.

Then there's the haunting, lingering, poignant, simply unforgettable score by the legendary Ennio Morricone, which inexplicably did not receive one of the three Oscar nominations garnered by The Battle of Algiers (Director, Original Screenplay, and Foreign Film). You might also recognize the score from its use in the recent Inglourious Basterds, added for no other reason than for Tarantino to "pay homage" to yet another classic film.

I can forgive Tarantino for boasting about his film knowledge, but I can't forgive another note of trivia about this movie. As you can see from the text in the trailer below (which was produced in 2004 for the re-release of the film), The Battle of Algiers was screened at the Pentagon during the early months of the Iraq War (August 27, 2003, to be exact).
The idea was, one would imagine, to show the U.S. military brass what not to do in Iraq. A flier was made for the screening, which was attended by about 40 military and civilian experts.

It read as follows:

"How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank 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."

The following week in the New York Times, Michael Kaufman analyzed the significance of this screening. Think about it - the mightiest military in the world is possibly developing their strategy based on a movie. I don't think that's inherently wrong, it just goes to show the power of film. And in the case of Iraq it was probably a good idea; as Kaufman astutely observed, "At the moment it is hard to specify exactly how the Algerian experience and the burden of the film apply to the situation in Iraq, but as the flier for the Pentagon showing suggested, the conditions that the French faced in Algeria are similar to those the United States is finding in Iraq."

That's painfully obvious to us now, but keep in mind it really was not at the time. This was only six months after Saddam's statue was toppled, only five months after President Bush declared "Mission Accomplished". So the question then becomes, if both the public and the U.S. military agreed that they were facing an identical situation at that point in the war (before Abu Ghraib, before Fallujah, before the Iraq Study Group, before the surge), why did they continue to follow the French strategy?

After all, though the French eventually won The Battle of Algiers, they ultimately lost the war two years later after a spontaneous and peaceful uprising by the Algerian citizens. The old saying of "win the battle but lose the war" could not better describe what happened. I know it's easy to scoff at the U.S. military's decisions as we enter the middle of the seventh year of this war, but rewind back to late 2003 and it's still baffling to consider why they followed a historical precedent that ultimately failed. What made them think they could achieve a different outcome? (There is a Wikipedia entry comparing the two situations if you're interested.)

It's not meant to be a rhetorical question or a smug criticism. I'm honestly curious as to how the U.S. military incorporated the lessons from The Battle of Algiers into the Iraq War strategy.

If you have not seen this movie, immediately add it to your Netflix queue. If you've been following along with the Iraq War since 2003 you'll be shocked and possibly outraged. If you haven't been following along, well consider this a crash course in what's happened - for the second time.

What did you take home?


  1. It's one of the greatest of films, and it has the name of Daniel Getahun written on it's end credits. Knowing your taste like I think I do, I would have predicted this would immediately be seen by you as the masterpiece you declare it as in one of your great essays. As I am apparently th efirst comment here I can only hope and pray your readers come here, as this one is essential stuff. Right from the outset you offer a still and suggest it has been repeated. I always think of this film, even while watching THE HURT LOCKER, whose central subject is basically the same kind of guerilla tactics. While always chilled me the bone was the realism that was so intense that it made you think you were looking at events that were happening at that precise moment. Women placing bombs in garbage cans near soldiers on duty were chilling set pieces. The last segment is stunning, and as you are watching the events of the film you feel like you are experiencing history too.

    Congratulations on an extraordinary piece here. it's really one of your best, even if you did work INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS in there! Ha! Just kidding, just kidding.

    This is one of the best films of the 1960's.

  2. This is a great film. I remember it as an intense, visceral experience. The black-and-white is beautiful. If only American filmmakers could make as powerful a film about the mess in Iraq. Nothing made about Iraq approaches the power of The Battle of Algiers. Thanks for this piece on a classic that more people should view.

  3. Thanks, guys. This is one classic that really held up to the hype I'd heard around it, particularly because it hasn't aged a day.

    "you are watching the events of the film you feel like you are experiencing history too."

    Several times over, Sam. I know the movie has been screened in a number of countries at pivotal political points in the last 40 years. I know if anybody "got it" more than the U.S. military did, but I sure hope so.

    And I agree with Hokahey that any movie about Iraq so far (or at least the current conflict in Iraq) pales in comparison to the Battle of Algiers, including The Hurt Locker. Bigelow's movie, as suspenseful as it was, has only a fraction of the relevance and scope as Algiers.


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