The re-release of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 black-and-white film The Battle of Algiers, recreating France’s suppression of the 1950s Algerian uprising, is an extraordinary experience. Granted, the audio dubbing of gunfire sounds a bit rickety now, and the way the intertitles switch between Italian and French is eccentric, but everything else makes this a newer-than-new release. It is of its time in many ways, yet somehow more extreme, and more contemporary, than anything else around. Famously, the Pentagon arranged a special in-house screening in 2003, evidently fascinated by exactly the same qualities that have mesmerised the movie’s followers elsewhere: its icy candour on the subjects of counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, and the vital importance of torture in eliciting information. Those torture scenes are laid out in montage for us without any self-conscious emotional affect or drama; they include blowtorching the suspect’s naked torso, waterboarding, and clipping electrodes to the earlobes before hand-cranking the voltage. These scenes are presented without any of the internal humanising or dramatising conflict that would be considered vital now: they do indeed look almost like a military training film. Another sort of director, possessed of a more conventional liberal scruple, might have felt the need to show a torturer’s inner pain or the torturee’s hidden backstory. But Pontecorvo shows them in terms of strategy.
The anti-hero is Colonel Mathieu, played by Jean Martin, the paratroop commander entrusted by the French government with putting down the Algerian revolt. He is a tough, wiry professional soldier of the sort adoringly imagined by Frederick Forsyth: a veteran of the French Resistance who shrugs his shoulders at any possible irony. He is the centrepiece to the most remarkable sequence, captured on the film’s poster. At the head of his troops, he simply leads a triumphalist, introductory parade down the main street, to reassure loyal citizens that the French army will crush the terrorists – and to face down the terrorists themselves. He strides easily, casually, with no sidearm on show, utterly confident in the power of the spectacle he has created. With his fatigues, beret and faintly sinister sunglasses, he looks like a cross between a top para in Northern Ireland and an IRA chief. Mathieu’s face moves in and out of shadow on this sunny day: the result of the natural light that Pontecorvo is using, and integral to his “newsreel” effect.
The French authorities first license a covert bomb attack in the casbah – “state terrorism” before the phrase was invented – but then, under Mathieu, they embark on a disciplined campaign of isolating terrorist cells, torturing them for the names of operatives further up the pyramid-chain until the key figures at the top are obliterated. No nonsense about hearts and minds: this is a military solution to a military problem. “The culprits are presumed to be Muslim …” Mathieu crisply briefs his men, and a 2007 audience holds its breath. “… so they will be able to hide more easily in the Arab quarters.” This film was composed in an era when Islamic identity was not as important as it is today: there are no mosques, no religion here. Then the keyword was “Arab” and it easy to forget that as recently as the first Iraq war in 1991, the question was whether a putative brotherhood of Arab nations would support Saddam. Mathieu’s campaign is crowned with Pyrrhic victory.
The terrorists are beaten, but a later popular uprising drives the French out, precisely as Mathieu had enigmatically appeared to predict, using Dien Bien Phu as his benchmark: the Indo-Chinese imperial burden which the French fatefully handed on to the Americans. Whatever they made of The Battle of Algiers at the Pentagon, this is a must-see for everyone else now.