The Battle of Algiers
Finally got around to seeing The Battle of Algiers (1966), Gillo Pontecorvo’s black-and-white, quasi-documentary-style classic set in 1954, during the uprising that led to Algeria’s independence from France eight years later. It is stylishly shot and does not suffer — quite the contrary — from having a cast of nonprofessional actors. It retains its power, and it is amazingly relevant today. At a time when most U.S. troops are finally coming home from Iraq, when there are rumblings in some corners about a similar — and similarly rock-headed — adventure in Iran, this film should be required viewing; in fact, I’m told that Donald Rumsfeld screened it for troops heading into Iraq, though the good secretary himself would appear to have learned the wrong lessons from it. The Battle of Algiers, while not leading the viewer to condone indiscriminate slaughter committed by some Muslims, will make one reconsider what prompts violence against those whom the insurgents can see only as occupiers — whatever the occupiers may call themselves.
The film’s most pertinent point, for me, is made not by an Algerian freedom fighter but by the French lieutenant colonel in charge of rooting out the revolutionaries. At one point the lieutenant colonel is grilled during a press conference about his troops’ use of torture. (The film’s torture scenes are none the less powerful for being mercifully brief.) The colonel’s reply, in essence, is that if you accept that France should be in Algeria, then you should accept what follows from that. That was exactly my reaction several years back, when the photos from Abu Ghraib came to light: Why is anyone surprised by this? No, I do not condone torture. But if you supported the Iraq War (I’m proud to say that I took to the streets to protest it and dragged my children with me), if you turned on coverage of the “shock and awe” and thought it made for good TV, then you should not have been shocked when the war played out as wars do. Iran? Let’s think this through.
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I concluded a recent post on John Updike’s fictional creations Rabbit Angstrom and Henry Bech by writing that both characters “live, and let live.” Imagine my embarrassment, then, on discovering in the third and final Bech volume — Bech at Bay — that my man Bech becomes a murderer! Once you get over the shock, the whole thing is pretty funny.