Keeping Occupied

Did The Battle of Algiers teach the Pentagon tactical lessons?

Legend has it that Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 film The Battle of Algiers has served a pretty dubious dual purpose. A docudrama that chronicles the popular uprising in the Algerian capital during the late '50s against French colonial rule, Battle has supposedly been used worldwide to train both urban guerrillas and the national armies that want to stamp them out.

The movie follows twentysomething street kid Ali La Pointe's three-year odyssey from imprisoned criminal to martyred rebel leader as French cops and soldiers seek to quell the urban-centered unrest. Given our current political climate, the film's rerelease is perfectly timed to provide a sly poke at our activities in Iraq. But how relevant is the film to America's present situation? Pro-Iraq War pundit Christopher Hitchens rejected the '50s Algeria/'00s Iraq analogy in an article on the Web site Slate. The Algerian rebellion ended France's long, exploitative settlement of the region, he noted, while the Iraqi insurgency is interfering with our fight against terror and Islamic fundamentalism.

One thing's certain: Battle is the only movie screened last year by both the leftist group International ANSWER (at Artists' Television Access here in town) and the Pentagon (for its staff). The civilian-led directorate that organized the Pentagon showing put out an invite that posited the flick as an object lesson in "how to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas," and urged attendees to debate the costs of using torture to gather intelligence in an occupation/guerrilla war. In other words, the feds used as a tactical tool a neorealist film directed by a disillusioned Italian Marxist that presents the occupation of an Arab land as futile. This seems more than a little ironic.

Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) engages in 
some nice, calm discourse.
Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) engages in some nice, calm discourse.

What did the Department of Defense really get out of its screening, which took place just months after Bush foolishly declared "Mission Accomplished"? One can guess its staff members saw Pontecorvo's unforgiving portrayal of violence on both sides as a caution against staying in Iraq for too long. Did they also see stalwart people's rebel Ali La Pointe as a fanatical Saddam/bin Laden-style fugitive -- and do they still think so now, considering Saddam's similar capture in a hole? How did they perceive suave Col. Mathieu (played by Jean Martin), the occupiers' Dirty Harry type, who publicly shows no qualms about extracting information via physical pain? Mathieu tosses off rather prescient lines about the "consequences" of occupation, France's "liberal media," and his personal empathy as a World War II Resistance fighter with the ideological ferocity of the Algerian rebels.

Whatever tactical lessons the Pentagon folks learned from The Battle of Algiers, they did see a masterpiece of '60s Italian cinema shot on location and fueled by a delightfully tense score by maestro Ennio Morricone, a duo of aesthetic pleasures that adds to the beauty and power of a movie you don't have to be a Pentagon insider to enjoy.

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