Of all the articles I’ve seen dissecting the decision of the Pentagon to show Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers as a primer in urban warfare by an insurgent indigenous population, none have addressed what I always thought was most interesting, the portrayal of the the triumph of the resistance as unavoidable destiny. The film’s politics are not ludicrous because of factual inaccuracies or one-dimensionally propagandist speeches, but because it’s all played as a game of dialectical materialism, in which a certain outcome will inexorably result.
The Slate article summarizes the movie, but it gives the film too much moral depth. When I watch The Battle of Algiers, Pontecorvo’s attitude is that all the actions of resistance are necessary, particularly the violent ones. The outcome is predetermined, as Colonel Mathieu implies: the proles will rise up against the oppresors, and they will win. Pontecorvo never rejects the idea of “sustained and bloody insurrection.”
(This sort of thing was popular in the 60s, and Pontecorvo is better at it than most. It’s far more politically engaging than Godard’s insane Weekend, which drags two garbagemen out in front of the camera in the middle of the picture to talk about what wonderful progress the revolution is making.)
The movie is still brilliantly effective because it is extremely rare for a movie to portray pawns of historical (Marxist) inevitability with such dignity. Viewers identify with these scared, nervous agitators, who hardly understand their own Hegelian destinies, because they slot into the role of the noble revolutionaries in Pontecorvo’s dialectical framework. They’re made noble by their role in the historical process. It’s not until after the movie finishes that you realize that you’ve bought into Frantz Fanon without even realizing it. Pauline Kael said:
The Battle of Algiers is probably the only film that has ever made middle-class audiences believe in the necessity of bombing innocent people–perhaps because Pontecorvo made it a tragic necessity…It’s practically rape of the doubting intelligence.
The sentiment is right, but I think she was slightly off the mark. Middle-class people would never sincerely believe in the need for their own self-destruction, but Pontecorvo does a good job of tricking them into sympathizing with their enemies. It’s less the tragedy that gets them than the sheer manipulation with which Pontecorvo plays up the revolutionaries and alienates viewers from the middle-classes of the film. Yet he does it in the context of macrohistorical forces, which is an amazing trick.
You have to wonder how effective it was on the Pentagon employees who watched it–probably not at all. But the real irony here, the huge irony, is that the Pentagon would air a movie that privileges ideology over facts, where the straitjacket of Marxist progression is tightly fitted over the messy (and less noble) Algerian resistance, in which the outcome is determined before the action even starts. No matter what the doubts of the individuals carrying out their historic tasks, says Pontecorvo, there was never a chance that Algiers would not be freed from French rule; first principles dictated it. There is no need for pragmatism or realism, nor for compromise, only for a decisive, inevitable show of force, destined to succeed. The distance between that vision and what actually happened in Algeria–decades more of authoritarian rule and poverty–is the real lesson the Pentagon (and the DoD, and Fox News, and the Weekly Standard, etc.) should take from the film.