This week, a newly restored 4K edition of the revolutionary 1966 film The Battle of Algiers returns to select theaters this Friday, including the Nuart, bringing the archetypal action film back to the big screen. Retelling of the Algerians rising up against the French colonial powers, the film is more relevant today than ever, as the north African and Middle Eastern countries become embroiled in conflicts that are unravelling the vestiges of colonialism in their regions. The following is an edited excerpt from scholar Sohail Daulatzai’s book Fifty Years of The Battle of Algiers: Past as Prologue, which digs deeply into the film, and reveals its surprising connection to Los Angeles.
Though The Battle of Algiers was made 50 years ago, it’s as if it never ended. From the corridors of power to the tunnels of Gaza, we are seemingly still living the film. Though director Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film centered on the defeat of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), the actual Battle of Algiers that took place from 1954 to 1957, it ended on the victory of the Algerian people as the new nation was born in 1962. The Algerian struggle for independence was itself part of a larger global, interconnected, anticolonial struggle being waged after World War II, an era of tremendous turmoil and upheaval that continues to have an enduring impact today.
Soon after the invasion of Iraq in late 2003, the Pentagon even invited the military brass to a screening of The Battle of Algiers, and the teaser read, “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.”
The Battle of Algiers is widely considered the greatest political film of all time, having won numerous prestigious international awards, including being nominated for three Oscars. It is mentioned by filmmakers as diverse as Mira Nair, Paul Greengrass, Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Oliver Stone, and Julian Schnabel, among others, as being deeply influential on their own work. The Battle of Algiers would win numerous awards worldwide and was nominated for many others, including winning the prestigious Golden Lion Award at its debut at the Venice Film Festival in 1966, where the French delegation walked out of the award ceremony in protest.
Throughout its history, the film has always been a battleground for competing ideas about power and politics at different historical junctures and in varying places around the globe. Not only was it banned in several countries such as apartheid South Africa, Brazil, Iran (during the U.S.-backed Shah’s regime), but it was pulled from theaters in Mexico, Uruguay and other places due to fears that it would incite rebellion. In addition to the Pentagon screening, the film has been used as a training tool by military juntas in South America in the 1970’s under the CIA-backed Operation Condor, by the British military in trying to control Northern Ireland, and other military strategists trying to crush popular struggles. But the film was also embraced by leftist groups such as the Black Panther Party, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Irish Republican Army, and the Weathermen, among others, as a source of inspiration.
The Battle of Algiers would open in Los Angeles as part of the New York Film Festival/West series on April 12, 1968, the week following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., which was clearly tied to his outspoken critiques of American imperialism in Vietnam and his linking of the war to domestic racism and economic inequality — a profound shift in his politics that was more aligned with the radical internationalist politics of Malcolm X and the burgeoning Black Power movement.
The Battle of Algiers opened the festival, which included films that dealt with the wars in Algeria and Vietnam, including Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai (1963) as well as Far from Vietnam (1967), a film Marker produced and initiated that included the work of six directors (including, among others, Jean-Luc Godard, Agnes Varda, Alain Resnais, and William Klein), who “wanted to affirm, by the exercise of their craft, their solidarity with the Vietnamese people in struggle against aggression.”
During its run, The Battle of Algiers broke box-office records in Los Angeles, including a screening where “a group of Black Panthers shows up one night, followed by a group of L.A.P.D. officers the next night.”
In Chicago, The Battle of Algiers opened at the 3 Penny Cinema on May 29, 1968, just three months before the historic Democratic National Convention took place there, an event marked by massive protests and riots, including the deployment of 12,000 police officers and more than 15,000 state and federal troops to try to quell the uprising. Known as the Battle of Michigan Avenue, the protests and riots marked a turning point in the American political landscape and revealed the deep fissures between the traditional liberals and a younger, revolutionary Left over the Vietnam War and domestic racism. The film was part of the revolutionary culture overtaking American society, and as a reviewer said, “Algeria and Alabama aren’t that far apart.”
The Battle of Algiers was also screened in 1994 by a group of Chicano artists and activists at Regeneración/Popular Resource Center, a community center based in Los Angeles that was named after the journal started by Mexican anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón. The center, which was cofounded by Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha and run by a collective, used film, music, theater, and performance as tools to organize and create political education around local issues and concerns impacting Chicano and Black communities in Los Angeles in the aftermath of the Reagan–Bush years. These included performances by Rage Against the Machine, the Watts Prophets, performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Linda Gamboa, Aztlan Underground, and others and film screenings such as the 1973 cult classic The Spook Who Sat by the Door and The Battle of Algiers.
In my conversation with de la Rocha, he said that Regeneración screened The Battle of Algiers after the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in 1994 “as a way of providing a culture of critique and to better understand Third World liberation struggles.” The Zapatista rebellion occurred on January 1, 1994, the first day that the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement was to take effect. And it captured the imagination of the Global Left in the mid-to late 1990s, as internationals flocked to Chiapas in solidarity with what was the culmination of a centuries-long struggle of indigenous peoples in the Americas against Yankee-backed repression. De la Rocha would go on to say that when he first saw the film in 1988, “The Battle of Algiers was central to my own political development and it led to me to better understand the connections between art and politics and the possibilities it could have in galvanizing people.” De la Rocha’s radical and fiery poetry would form the basis of the iconic, genre-shattering band Rage Against the Machine, who, in the 1990s, were spearheading the cultural war being waged against the ravages of the new racial capital ushered in by the Clinton presidency.
The film’s influence on the band was evident, as the title of Rage’s last recorded album (and arguably their best) — The Battle of Los Angeles (1999) — was inspired by the film. Not only that but the photos on the album sleeve included one of the band in a confined space that de la Rocha says was directly modeled after a scene in the film where Ali La Pointe and his collaborators were hiding. According to de la Rocha, “I wanted that imagery from The Battle of Algiers because for me the band was a musical insurgency against the industry and the system that supported it.” The links to the film would carry over during the band’s subsequent world tour in support of that album, as the stage design changed in each city, where a large stage backdrop would read “The Battle of London” or “The Battle of New York.” The tour culminated in a DVD release of Rage’s performance in Mexico titled The Battle of Mexico City, which included the cover artwork of Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros; a documentary narrated by de la Rocha on the rise of neoliberalism and International Monetary Fund (IMF)-led globalization, the repressive U.S.-backed Mexican government, the Zapatista uprising, and the student strikes at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, which is the largest university in Latin America; and an interview with Subcomandante Marcos of the EZLN. The battle lines were drawn, and though it was a violent time, the 1990s were in some ways the calm before the 9/11 storm. Rage’s body of work throughout the decade was a warning shot that also proved prophetic in the post-9/11 era, and it did so carrying with it the legacy of The Battle of Algiers and the radical internationalism that was its utopian demand.
The nomadic nature of the film throughout the world and the archive of its traces brim with the triumph and the tragedy of popular struggles and the seemingly intractable forces that continue to shape-shift and seek the silencing and repression of these radical movements. But the film’s screening at the U.S. Pentagon in the post-9/11 era is not just another episode in the longer saga that is the dynamic afterlife of the film. Instead, the fact that it was produced during the era of decolonization, and that it inspired movements of anti-imperial militancy and Black Power, worker’s struggles, and student movements throughout the world, reveals that The Battle of Algiers continues to haunt the imperial consensus, an enduring reminder of a freedom dream not yet achieved.
Excerpt reprinted by permission from the University of Minnesota Press from Fifty Years of The Battle of Algiers: Past as Prologue by Sohail Daulatzai (Forerunners: Ideas First series). Copyright 2016 by Sohail Daulatzai.
Follow Sohail on Twitter: @SohailDaulatzai