Decades Blogathon – The Battle Of Algiers (1966)

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Welcome to another day of the event of the year: the Decades Blogathon – 6 edition – hosted by myself and Tom from Digital Shortbread! The blogathon focuses on movies that were released in the sixth year of the decade. Tom and I are running a different entry each day (we’ll also reblog the other’s post) and for Super Tuesday it’s the turn of Marta from Ramblings of a Cinephile, who turns her sights on the masterpiece that is The Battle Of Algiers (1966).

The gritty and rather bloody story of the uprising that led to the independence of Algeria in 1962 is shot by Gillo Pontecorvo in a compelling style.

Commissioned by the Algerian government less than a decade after the facts, it shows both sides in an unforgiving way – from the terrorist attacks of the Algerian militants to the tortures of the French army. Pontecorvo plunges the viewer in the middle of the action starting his tale with a raid of the French paratroopers to hunt down the last leader of the FLN (National Liberation Front), holed up in the Casbah, the Muslim district of Algiers.

The whole sequence is very gripping thanks to the amazing music by Ennio Morricone and introduces two of the main characters: Colonel Matthieu (Martin), who is in charge of quelling the rebellion and Ali La Pointe (Hadjadi), prominent leader of the FLN. From there it goes back to the beginning of the story, in 1954, with the recruitment of Ali, at the time a small-time con artist, by Djafar (Saadi), one of the leaders of the FLN.

Through Ali’s eyes we see how the liberation movement grows and how the violence escalates from individual attacks on policemen to bombing cafes and restaurants in the affluent European district. The viewer is also shown the reactions from the French, both sanctioned and unsanctioned by the government in Paris. The use of force is, of course, met with more violence until the situation is so dire that the army is sent to deal with it.

A contingent of paratroopers led by General Carelle arrives in Algiers in 1957, but the real, hands-on commander is Colonel Matthieu, veteran of WWII and the war of Indochina. He puts his experience to good use and slowly but surely dismantles the FLN, working his way through the organisation with ruthless efficiency; either killing or capturing its members and compelling information with torture. This fight without quarter seems to be over in Algiers since there are no more FLN militants, but rebels keep resisting in the mountains.

Algeria will gain its independence four years later mostly due to widespread popular demonstrations and the support of the UN, the latter due to a shift in the international public opinion that will become more sympathetic towards the Algerians and their plight.

What I find very interesting about this film is that it’s partially based on the memoirs of Yacef Saadi, who was a leader of the FLN, but it’s even-handed. It doesn’t demonise the French domination; the facts are presented in a detached way with a very effective documentary-like style.

It’s rather striking that, commissioned by the government of the newly independent Algeria, it avoids any bias and presents the events in stark but impartial light. It’s even more striking that the only professional actor is Jean Martin and none of the scenes are from newsreels but they are all carefully planned and shot to create the right effect.

Pontecorvo, his cinematographer Marcello Gatti and his editors Mario Morra and Mario Serandrei give us a true work of art.

Great Films You Need To See – The Candidate (1972)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the visually focused film magazine that proves there’s more to film than meets the eye. The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews throughout May with the theme of ‘politics’. This piece is part of the site’s Lost Classics section (featuring in my list of Great Films You Need To See), in this case the Robert Redford-starring The Candidate.

It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely when the political process finally surrendered to the whim of the media machine and devolved into little more than a playground trade-off centred on bite-sized slogans and soundbites.

The Candidate - as relevant and contemporary now as it was at the time of its release in the dark days of Nixon

The Candidate – as relevant and contemporary now as it was at the time of its release in the dark days of Nixon

‘Playing the game’ has become a damning pre-requisite for those who seek to govern us, as Robert Redford’s idealist-turned-stooge Bill McKay comes to learn in Michael Ritchie’s expose of the business-as-usual cynicism at the empty heart of party politics.

Largely filmed as if US Senate candidate McKay is being shadowed by a documentary crew, often with the sort of overlapping dialogue you’d expect to hear under such frantic circumstances, The Candidate painstakingly (and painfully) shows how the hamster wheel of campaigning chips away at McKay’s principles.

Bill McKay (Robert Redford) - guaranteed to lose in The Candidate

Bill McKay (Robert Redford) – guaranteed to lose in The Candidate

A respected community organiser who has never registered to vote (“he’s never seen the point of it”, according to his wife), McKay is assured by campaign manager Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) that he can say and do what he wants because he doesn’t stand a chance against long-serving incumbent Senator Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter) – a deal Lucas seals by scribbling the words “you lose” on the inside of a matchbook.

However, before he can say “read my lips…”, McKay is being maneuvered from the liberal left to the safe centreground; be it getting a haircut, donning a suit and tie just like his retired governor father (brilliantly played by Melvyn Douglas), or having his views skillfully edited by media manager Howard Klein (Allen Garfield) for the purposes of ‘man of the people’ TV ads.

A better way? - Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in The Candidate

A better way? – Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in The Candidate

McKay may spout hot air about being stifled from saying what he really thinks (for instance, when Lucas suggests McKay’s opinion on legalised abortion that “every woman should have that right” be watered down to “it’s worth studying”), but he ultimately does what he’s told – especially when the polls indicate the gap is closing on Jarmon.

Inversely, the further McKay moves away from the principles he once had, the more accomplished and popular he becomes with the people, who spout back his slogan “A better way” in ever-growing numbers.

Father and son: John J McKay (Melvyn Douglas) and Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in The Candidate

Father and son: John J McKay (Melvyn Douglas) and Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in The Candidate

Much like Warren Beatty, whose under-appreciated Bulworth (1998) is The Candidate turned on its head, Redford wears his politics on his sleeve. However, he cleverly undermines his liberal poster-boy image in his portrayal of a weak-willed puppet unable and ultimately unwilling to break the mould.

When real-life political commentator Howard K. Smith cuts to the bone of McKay’s campaign by exclaiming that “the Madison Avenue commercial has taken over as his standard means of persuasion; the voters are being asked to choose McKay as they would a detergent”, the candidate can only watch with the look of someone resigned to their fate.

Robert Redford plays Bill McKay in The Candidate

Robert Redford plays Bill McKay in The Candidate

The absurdity of the situation is encapsulated late on when a frazzled McKay self-mockingly starts jumbling his speeches together into one giant meaningless soundbite, while the lost boy look he gives Lucas when he asks “what do we do now?” after their unexpected election victory is priceless.

As relevant and contemporary now as it was at the time of its release in the dark days of Nixon, The Candidate is a reminder should one be need one that the house always wins.