The Cost of Violence in One of the Most Challenging Anti-War Films Ever Made

By  · Published on April 16th, 2014

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Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they bow to the ethical and empathetic complexity of a movie violently opposed to the inhumane destruction of conflict: Gillo Pontecorgo’s The Battle of Algiers.

In the #48 (tied) movie on the list, resistance fighters hoping for Algerian freedom from France square off against French soldiers – each employing their own methods of madness – with regular citizens in the crossfire.

But why is it one of the best movies of all time?

Scott: So as we learn from The Battle of Algiers, it’s difficult to start a revolution, more difficult to sustain one, and even more difficult to win one. More than anything, this movie might be about the “cost of destruction” and I think it’s important to begin with how stunning – really stunning — its violence is. Even in a post-Saving Private Ryan world, there are certain parts of this movie that are uncomfortable to watch.

Particularly any time groups of men with guns are running and/or threatening screaming children.

Landon: Or an entire cafe of patrons is shredded by a bomb.

It really is remarkable that this film was even made, and it remains one of the most complex films about war, the efficacy of violence and transnational conflict. While the film is an unambiguous anticolonial project (and that is, in of itself, remarkable to see on film), it also illustrates without reservation the costs of resistance.

Scott: I see Jefferson’s quote about the tree of liberty being replenished repeated a lot these days on Facebook, and I’m always tempted to post this trailer as a reply. An antidote for romanticism.

Landon: Not to jump the introductory part of our discussion to the ending, but I feel more and more every time I see this film that it’s ultimately hopeful about the enduring power of resistance, and of resistance as a project in and of itself, whether or not it reaches its ends.

After all, this is a film about micro warfare, not macro warfare.

Scott: Do you feel like that platform for resistance’s nobility is uncomfortable to handle with how forcefully and personally we’ve experienced terrorism?

Landon: I think it’s the cyclical nature of this very story that makes Algiers all the more relevant and striking even nearly fifty years on. What this film illustrates so potently is an anticolonial mindset and philosophy, or the knowledge of how the past is brought to bear upon present oppression. When we see the drunk man being chased by children, for instance, we’re not asked to see what’s immediately in front of us – a drunk – but to consider the outside determinations of hopeless behavior: the lack of agency Algerians have in claiming Algerian identity. It’s a film that radically asks us to see history in the present…

The equivalent today would be less transnational acts of terrorism, and more the reconstruction aspects of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: that fundamental contradiction that if a population is occupied, they can not also be “liberated.” And I don’t think the film’s empathy with Ali LaPointe severs the possibility for shared empathy with his victims and targets, especially in the cafe scene.

Scott: The question assumes a binary. That there are oppressors and people underfoot who are sometimes willing to fight back. Team A and Team B. Algiers resonates (even if it’s only in echoes) a half century later because pure colonialism has been replaced by a kind of flagless version where geopolitical interests are maintained, often through force.

But on the smaller scale, it’s more about violence of a certain kind being used because it is the only tool at a group’s disposal. Algiers is horrifically uncomfortable because it asks us to replace black hats and white hats with something we don’t want to recognize. Like watching videos of 9/11 and Abu Ghraib simultaneously. A gray minefield.

If this were an ’80s action movie, it would be a band of bank thieves holding up in a school, fighting against a beefy hero whose biggest flaw is smoking. But Algiers’ presentation demands that we replace FLN with (the easy version) early Americans fighting against the red coats ends-justifying-means style and (the impossible version) the same bomb-strapped people attacking us, seeing us as their oppressors.

Landon: Viewer alignment, empathy and how this film fits into the binarizing tendencies and themes on heroism in traditional war cinema is interesting, and the film’s greater avoidance of most genre tropes and easy answers is why it’s a film worth continually revisiting.

The film was shown, for instance, at the Pentagon in 2003, and the Defense Department says that the screening was meant to “illustrate the challenges faced by the French,” presumably in relation to America’s urban wars in Islamic countries. This, it almost goes without saying, is not the place of identification for viewers intended by this film, but as a portrayal of on-the-ground strategies of resistance, you one see how someone sympathetic to the French would take an interest.

But I think the Pentagon screening illustrates more potently how hard it is to read war films that don’t announce themselves as War Films in the traditional ways we’ve come to expect.

Scott: They are – like most great art – agitators. Meant to shake us up.

But even without its complications, Algiers does a thorough job of showing how horrific all violence is. Side with the French, side with the terrorists, at the very least we see how it gravely affects people merely trying to buy bread.

Landon: Absolutely. While the film has a clear enemy given a face by French military commanders, that enemy is the larger impersonal system of colonialism, not a particular target. And while we are certainly sympathetic to LaPointe, he and others are not presented as heroes in the traditional cinematic sense (though I have no doubt the composite of people he represents were political heroes to the FLN), but as people using the only means they have at their disposal when put up against a brick wall. And at the same time, the patrons of that cafe aren’t “collateral damage,” they’re real human beings who suffer horrific violence. This is a film about the price of suffering.

I think that the film’s portrayal of the type of on-the-ground tactics of resistance that colonialism produces is illustrated early on, when barracks and checkpoints are put up around Algiers, a further blockade of the city meant to create safety but ultimately takes away further agency from the Algerians and, in turn, inspires escalating violence. That turn I think illustrates most clearly vast gap between the colonialist and the anticolonialist lens.

Scott: And that there’s a kind of creativity gap when it comes to enforcement. Probably one reason why it was screened at the Pentagon. It’s also interesting as an American (doused in the exploits of Audie Murphy and the Dirty Dozen) to watch an aggressively bloody war film without American interests in it.

Essential in a way that’s different than watching something like Grave of the Fireflies where America is a monstrous, firebombing titan. It goes a long way to revealing violence and power as universals, which is an idea that easily slips out of your mind.

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Landon: I’ve always wondered what it must be like to be a Russian cinephile and find yourself the go-to baddie for so many Hollywood films since the 1960s.

But to your broader point, yeah, a film like this is an exercise that helps to reveal our own ideological allegiances. It won the grand prize at Venice, but it wasn’t screened in France until 1971. Violence and power are universals, but how we interpret and position ourselves with them is often relative.

Scott: As someone without any power, I continue to relate to the people buying bread.

Landon: I think that’s probably the best position to be in.

Scott: Unless your in the alleyway outside the Casbah.

Landon: Let’s talk a bit about the film’s style. The opening scene features an interrogation that makes the film seem like a take on an espionage thriller, then when we flash back, we switch to more of a newsreel style, with a voice-over that we can’t place. It’s an odd and interesting choice, between genre and realism, that wsomehow works perfectly for this film

The film’s original poster, by the way, makes it look like the 1977 Inglorious Bastards

Scott: The genre hook is a Trojan Horse, but it’s also another method of throwing us off balance. But I can’t see Brad Pitt in a remake.

Landon: Indeed. It’s like the film itself uses tactics as its characters do.

Only if he plays the French general. Though that might be more of a Michael Fassbender role.

Scott: So can we consider this guerrilla filmmaking? Or is that too groan-worthy?

Landon: There was an anticolonialist film movement in Latin America known as Third Cinema – which distinguished itself from First Cinema (Hollywood) and Second Cinema (the arthouse tradition) – as a kind of rebellion against both political imperialism and stylistically in terms of cultural imperialism in international filmmaking (the dominance of 1st and 2nd). Such films have an at-times refined and at-times guerrilla style that doesn’t fit neatly in any tradition, and mixes documentary elements in. Algiers was never explicitly part of this tradition, but is often included as an unofficial example.

But Algiers does play with the genre of the war or espionage film in interesting ways that suggest any guerrilla aesthetics are calculated and part of a deliberately uneven mix of mainstream and non-mainstream filmmaking tactics – after all, it was scored by Ennio Morricone.

Scott: It’s a profound and vital film. If all war films are anti-war films, it’s one the most fierce an forthright. What would you suggest double featuring with it?

Landon: John Wayne’s The Green Berets. Also an unsettling war film, but for very different reasons.

As a real answer, probably Zero Dark Thirty. You?

Scott: I’d offer two options: Dr. Strangelove and Paths of Glory. I don’t know if there’s something particularly Kubrickian about Algiers, but if we’re looking for a pile-on version of a double feature, either one of those would help.

Maybe all three should be required annual viewing at the State Department.

Landon: I would very much want to attend that post-screening briefing.

“So, in conclusion, this shit is fucked up.”

Scott: “Let’s all go fly kites. It’s a lovely day outside.”

Next Time: Charles Chaplin’s City Lights

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