In the current political climate, between the war in Iraq and the looming election, topical documentaries and fiction features have flooded the marketplace. But none are more relevant to the times than Gillo Pontecorvo's masterpiece The Battle Of Algiers, which was made nearly four decades ago. Throughout the years, the film has been tagged as a terrorist textbook, an inspiration for the Black Panthers and other radical organizations, yet its startling verity has recently proved useful for Pentagon officials eager to understand how networks like al-Qaeda operate. Still smarting from their moral and tactical failures in colonial Algeria, the French banned the 1965 film for several years, and some countries excised scenes revealing the systemic torture of National Liberation Front (FLN) operatives. But even though The Battle Of Algiers ranks among the great works of revolutionary cinema, Pontecorvo depicts insurgent warfare with a stark, evenhanded realism that feels like history painted on the screen. In fact, many prints actually come with the disclaimer that the film doesn't include a single frame of documentary or newsreel footage. And that's not a boast: It really does seem that real.
The phrase "lost the battle but won the war" applies to the violence in mid-'50s Algiers, where the FLN sounded the first shot in what would later build into a successful struggle for Algerian independence from the French. Pontecorvo fashions his narrative around an illiterate petty crook (Brahim Haggiag) who ascends to a key position in the FLN, but he spends less time on characterization than on the precise detailing of tactics and counter-tactics. On the Algerian side, the film presents a how-to manual on terrorist organizations, from the pyramid cell structures that protect against infiltration to the methods for sneaking weapons and homemade bombs across enemy blockades. When police shootings and attacks on European civilians escalate, the French respond by sending in a brilliant colonel (Jean Martin) to mount an aggressive military campaign, which includes the use of torture to get information.
The torture issue sparked a crisis of conscience in France, but Pontecorvo boldly refuses to make any moral distinctions between torture and terrorism, because both are necessary to achieve certain ends: The Algerians use terrorism to spark a larger insurgency ("Give us our bombs, sir, and you can have our baskets," one FLN leader tells a French journalist), and the French rely on torture to get solid information on enemy networks. Though Pontecorvo's sympathies ultimately lie with the Algerians, he powerfully registers the loss of innocent life on both sides, refusing to trivialize war's casualties for the sake of a radical polemic. Truth transcends all other values in The Battle Of Algiers, and it's a testament to Pontecorvo's talent that the controversy that has always swirled around the film rarely has anything to do with its accuracy.
Seizing on this galvanizing period in recent history, the three-disc DVD set provides a comprehensive look at the making of the film, its wide-ranging influence, and its current relevance as a case study in understanding modern terrorist organizations. No fewer than seven documentaries cover Pontecorvo's career, the French-Algerian War, and big-name directors inspired by the film, but the most intriguing supplement is a discussion with two former U.S. counterterrorism officials, including Richard A. Clarke, who famously testified before the 9/11 commission on the Bush administration's failures in the war on terror. Both men agree that short-term tactical victories like the one enjoyed by the French in Algiers can lead to long-term losses, because new enemy leaders and new movements can continue to sprout. When asked about The Battle Of Algiers' major lesson, Clarke responds that the real battle is over ideas and values, and that terrorists are only defeated when their ideas are marginalized. Now, if only this piece of wisdom held any currency today...