Out of the Casbah

  • by Erin Blackwell
  • Wednesday October 19, 2016
Share this Post:

As we contemplate war with Russia, or Hillary contemplates it, our world seems off-kilter and jigging its way toward some series of catastrophes we are unable and unwilling to meet, mitigate, or avert. Sunk in the miasma of disaster visuals, maybe we welcome the destruction that has so long been promised us by the Hollywood nightmare factory. What a relief to be able to focus the mind for a moment on a simpler conflict and a more courageous people, the Algerians of Algeria, who overthrew the imperial forces of France with little more than team spirit and rudimentary bombmaking. The Battle of Algiers (1966) starts Friday at Landmark's Opera Plaza & Shattuck Cinemas.

Gillo Pontecorvo's masterpiece is two hours long and earns every second. You hardly realize you're watching a film, you're so caught up in the story, which is nothing more nor less than a demonstration of how an indigenous people did, could, and can oust an occupying army that enforces the conditions of their slavery. Battle cleverly serves both as history lesson and primer. Beyond that, for our jaded American eyes, this 50-year-old view from the Arab streets is a stirring reminder that all creatures crave liberty, administered by themselves.

Like Rossellini in Rome after the Nazis were expelled, fellow Italian Pontecorvo filmed in the capital city that saw the action almost immediately after Algeria declared its independence from France on July 2, 1962. He filmed in black and white, beautifully rendering the chiaroscuro sun and shade of this African oasis. He used actors who weren't professionals. For the faces alone you should see this film. Faces carved from the desert sand. And to hear the language in its daily context rendered dramatic by the unshakable conviction that the status quo must be overturned.

After quickly establishing our hero, charismatic Omar Ali, moments before his death, the action flashbacks to Ali's recruitment by the NLF (National Liberation Front). The year is 1954, and Ali lands in prison, not for the first time, when he fails his mission to kill a cop. On his release, he's welcomed into the radical fold. Two years later, the cop killings begin in earnest. Checkpoints are established in order to hassle the natives going about their business, and that only inspires more people to rise up in the twisted alleys of the picturesque Casbah and terrorize the French colonials in their faux-Parisian cafes in the European quarter.

Pontecorvo created a textbook, not so much didactic as dynamic. He doesn't puff up the rebels or make the French mean. Au contraire . Although the Police Chief is a thug at heart, the military commander, Lieutenant Colonel Phillipe Mathieu, embodies the sobriquet "officer and gentleman," to which must be added, "philosopher." He analyzes the situation with world-renowned French meticulousness, briefs his men on the cellular organization of the NLF, and orders interrogation methods that get results. When newsmen whimper, Mathieu says, "I'm a soldier. I'm here to win. For Paris to decide, should the French be in Algeria?"

That, as Hamlet says, is the question. Should the U.S. be in the Middle East? or the China Seas? In Russia's backyard? The Pentagon, being soldiers, is willing to justify its budget. From their recent propaganda video, Megacities: "Even our counter-insurgency doctrine, honed in the cities of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, is inadequate to address the sheer scale of population in the future urban reality. We have defeated adversaries who have attempted to use urban terrain to their advantage. Urban conflict is written deep into the Army's histories. But in tomorrow's conflict, these megacities are orders of magnitude greater in complexity, and our current options do not meet strategic ends."