A review of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers and Queimada
If you are looking for a recommendation for socialist or revolutionary cinema, then you should start with The Battle of Algiers and Queimada by Gillo Pontecorvo, both of which are contenders for the best revolutionary film of all time.
He’s the most dangerous kind of Marxist, a Marxist poet.Pauline Kael
Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1965-66) and Burn! (1969) are, in my opinion, the two greatest political films ever made.Edward Said
When I’m asked if the film was difficult to make. I honestly explain that it wasn’t as difficult as it looks, even though you see a lot of people, because, once you have chosen this theme, you decide you must tell the truth.Gillo Pontecorvo, talking about The Battle of Algiers
Despite a long career as a director, Gillo Pontecorvo made only five dramatic feature films and a dozen or so documentaries. In a profile of him written by Edward Said, ‘The Quest for Gillo Pontecorvo’, Pontecorvo described how he found it difficult to commit to a project. In the 1960s, however, Pontecorvo collaborated with screenwriter Franco Solinas to make two imperishable classics about the dialectics of imperialism and revolution: The Battle of Algiers and Queimada (or Burn!). The first of these is revered as one of the all-time great political films while the latter has been criminally neglected.
Together, both films still have so much to teach us about the age of anti-colonial revolutions in the 1950s and 60s as well as about the insidious stranglehold of big capital over post-colonial countries.
In the late 1930s, Gillo Pontecorvo was transformed from a handsome, young, tennis-playing bon vivant into a communist militant and resistance leader when confronted by the existential threat of fascism (‘the cancer of humanity’). His elder brother, Bruno Pontecorvo, was both a dedicated communist and a renowned nuclear physicist who defected to the Soviet Union in 1950. Gillo Pontecorvo, like many another, left the Italian Communist Party in 1956, after the Russian invasion of Hungary; Franco Solinas remained in the party until his death in 1982. Pontecorvo remained an independent leftist for the rest of his life. After Queimada, he made only one further feature film, Ogro (1979) about the Basque separatist group ETA.
I was reminded of Pontecorvo’s two films while reading Elaine Mokhtefi’s beautiful memoir, Algiers, Third World Capital. Mokhtefi was an assistant to the press and information adviser to Algeria’s president from 1963 – 5, Ahmed Ben Bella. Algiers was then ‘the capital of revolutions’. As Amilcar Cabral (a major figure in Africa’s anti-colonial movements of the 1960s) famously observed at the pan-African festival in Algiers in 1969, ‘Pick a pen and take note: The Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Christians to the Vatican, and the national liberation movements to Algiers.’
Elaine Mohtefi’s memoir and the making of The Battle of Algiers
Mokhtefi writes ‘Every imaginable liberation organisation had an office in Algiers, from the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (the Vietcong) to the ANC, SWAPO, FRELIMO, the MPLA, student hijackers from Ethiopia and Palestinian liberation organisations’. The world she moved in was hectic and exciting, which she describes beautifully: ‘life was exciting and eventful. I was a fly on the window, looking in, beating its wings.’ Her memoir is unique both for its lack of bitterness or self-aggrandizement. She writes with love for Algeria and its people, one of whom, Mokhtar Mokhtefi, she married.
During the filming of The Battle of Algiers, there was a coup by General Henri Boumediene who ousted President Ahmed Ben Bella. This caused some consternation among supporters of the revolution. Fidel Castro was indignant. In France the former Trotskyist turned libertarian communist Daniel Guerin was equally perplexed. He was close to two advisers of Ben Bella who were the theoreticians of the autogestion movement in Algeria. Daniel Guerin was a fabulous character who had great faith in the people of Algeria to self-organise towards something vital,
You should make the land of Algeria a fertile experience of true socialism, that is of libertarian socialism. I have no confidence in your leaders, whoever they are. But I have always confidence in the depth and authenticity of the Algerian revolution.
There is a fascinating book published by AK press called Eyes to the South: French Anarchists and Algeria that discusses Guerin’s deep, lifelong engagement with Algeria. The author, David Porter, posits that Guerin’s classic text Anarchism: From Theory to Practice (1965) maybe have been in part influenced by the self-management experiments post revolution.
With the coup of 1965 there was a purging of left wingers in the government, but Boumedienne was eager to underline his Internationalist credentials by his open support for liberation movements worldwide. Algiers became a mecca for anti-colonial revolutionaries.
Elaine Mokhtefi describes as her brief cameo in The Battle of Algiers as her claim to fame: ‘I appear in that film of films for at least thirty seconds (!), clearly visible in the lower right-hand corner of the screen’. She also worked closely with Frantz Fanon whose writings are the theoretical underpinning for both of Pontecorvo’s films. According to Mokhtefi, a dying Fanon told Claude Lanzmann, ‘the lumpenproletariat of the cities and the poor, illiterate peasantry will take up arms and transform the world’. She also shares a lovely anecdote of another side of Fanon, in Ghana, where he was the first Algerian ambassador.
One night Fanon and I went dancing. A Ghanaian photographer focused his camera on us. Frantz caught him on the edge of the dance floor, and warned him to destroy the photo (it appeared nonetheless in an Accra newspaper a few days later). The FLN had placed a boycott on all French cigarettes. When I shared my Gauloises with him, we became partners in guilt, breaking the ban together.
People’s opinions of The Battle of Algiers can be radically divergent. I remember reading an egregious attack on Edward Said by Clive James who smeared him as a terrorist sympathizer. His proof: Said’s favourable opinion of The Battle of Algiers and no doubt his lifelong commitment to the Palestinian struggle. The Pentagon screened the film in 2003 to prepare its troops for the invasion of Iraq. It is often said the Black Panthers treated The Battle of Algiers as a manual of urban insurrection.
For every person who thinks that it offers excuses for terrorism someone else will point out that it takes away any imprimatur for violent revolution. It is tempting to quote the Wilde line: ‘diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex and vital.’ As Sohail Daulatzai writes in his book Fifty Years of “The Battle of Algiers”: Past as Prologue,
The Battle of Algiers is an itinerant film, a nomadic text that has migrated around the world, and has, echoing Edward Said’s ‘travelling theory’ been embraced by a diverse group of revolutionaries, rebel groups and leftists, as well as revanchist, right wing dictators, military juntas and imperial war machines. 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.
The importance of Franz Fanon’s revolutionary liberation theory for The Battle of Algiers
It is the writings of Frantz Fanon that inspire both films. Obviously The Wretched of the Earth is a key text, but also A Dying Colonialism, a work that Daniel Guerin compared with Trotsky’s A History of the Russian Revolution. The portrayal of female revolutionaries in the film is very influenced by Fanon’s essay ‘Algeria Unveiled’, which is the first chapter of the book. This examined the vexed question of the veil in the colonial situation. Fanon says that,
There is thus a historic dynamism of the veil that is very concretely perceptible in the development of colonization in Algeria. In the beginning, the veil was a mechanism of resistance, but its value for the social group remained very strong. The veil was worn because tradition demanded a rigid separation of the sexes, but also because the occupier was bent on unveiling Algeria. In a second phase, the mutation occurred in connection with the Revolution and under special circumstances. The veil was abandoned in the course of revolutionary action. What had been used to block the psychological or political offensives of the occupier became a means, an instrument. The veil helped the Algerian woman to meet the new problems created by the struggle.
We can see this dramatized brilliantly in a stunning sequence where three women make themselves up in European dress in order to carry bombs to three locations. Originally this scene had a lot of dialogue but Pontecorvo made the audacious decision to cut the dialogue and instead to use baba saleem music, a ‘piece that closely resembles a heartbeat’.
There is so much tension in the scene but also a depiction of solidarity amongst the women. Pontecorvo manages to balance so many different elements: the humanity of colonised and colonisers within the pitiless logic of this struggle. We see assassinations, bombings and torture but nothing is ever crude or simplistic. I don’t think it will shock anyone to discover Pontecorvo’s support for anti-colonial revolution, yet the director of The Battle of Algiers doesn’t hesitate to show the horror of bombing a café or cold-blooded assassinations. In the café, before one of the women leaves her bomb under someone’s chair the camera lingers on the face of a child eating ice-cream. It is one of the many instances where Pontecorvo points to the awful toll of this kind of struggle. We see images of bodies under rubble and mourners keening the dead. The same music is played for the French and Algerian dead.
In 1964, two years after the achievement of independence by Algeria, former revolutionary fighter Salah Baazi arrived in Italy looking for a suitable director to make a film about the revolution. Italy was the biggest film producing nation in Europe at the time. He had three directors in mind: Francesco Rosi, who had recently made the masterpiece Salvatore Giuliano; Luchino Visconti, director of neorealist classic film about a Sicilian fishing community,La Terre Trema; and Gillo Pontecorvo, recently Oscar nominated for his harrowing concentration camp drama, Kapo.
The whole story of how Pontecorvo and screenwriter Franco Solinas came to make the film is fascinating. They had a project called Para, about a former parachutist in Indochina who is working as a journalist in Algiers during the war. The two even made a surreptitious trip to Algeria disguised as Journalists during the last months of the war. What became The Battle of Algiers is based on Saadi Yacef’s memoirs. He was the FLN commander in Algiers and, fascinatingly, plays a version of himself in the film. Thanks to Yacef’s prestige, Pontecorvo gained unprecedented access to the Casbah.
Pontecorvo was a most fastidious filmmaker. He worked on every aspect of the film to ensure it had the look and feel of a ‘found’ document of a struggle. The Battle of Algiers is often discussed in relation to the Third cinema movement which proposed the decolonization of both the world and the medium of film. In the end, though, Pontecorvo was probably too much of a European auteur to fit into this film movement. Though he advocated a collectivist politics he was somewhat autocratic in his artistic approach. This would cause considerable turbulence on the set of Queimada when his working methods clashed with those of Brando. But every decision he made on The Battle of Algiers seems the correct one. It is a perfect a work of film art, if such a thing is even possible.
The Battle of Algiers is traditionally described as having two stories: one is the story of the defeat of the FLN in ‘battle of Algiers’ (1954-1957) by the Paras and the second is the chorale portrait of the growth of collective consciousness of the Algerian people that eventually culminates in victory over the French, the fourth biggest military power in the world. The closing scenes of the film are justly revered as some of the most astonishing ever captured on film. The pitiless logic of an anti-colonial struggle is represented by Ali La Ponte (a stunning performance by Brahim Hadjadj), unemployed boxer and street hustler turned implacable revolutionary versus Colonel Mathieu, the leader of the Paras. An intriguing aspect of Pontecorvo’s film is the very sympathetic portrayal of the Mathieu character whom film critic J Hoberman describes as ‘a Marxist in reverse’. Ironically, the actor who plays the representative of imperial authority, Jean Martin, was a leftist and a signatory to the petition of the 121 against the Algerian war.
Of course, the logic of Colonel Mathieu’s position is horrific: if you believe that Algeria belongs to France then you must accept to use of torture to defeat the secretive cell structure of the FLN. The film opens on a scene of a man who has been broken by torture to reveal the location of Ali La Pointe. Later, in the film, we see incredibly stark images of torture which recall the grisly scenes at Abu Ghraib.
Queimada an unjustly neglected classic revolutionary film
After the huge critical success of The Battle of Algiers, Pontecorvo was offered and turned down countless projects. With the war in Vietnam raging he was still keen to tackle further the topic of imperialism. Screenwriter Franco Solinas developed a story around the transition to a post-colonial situation. Queimada dramatizes the Hegelian master-slave dialectic in the curious Pygmalion-style relationship between Brando’s Sir William Walker, a British agent, and Evaristo Márquez’s Jose Dolores, a water-carrier.
Brando’s character is a variation of William Walker, the US adventurer who invaded Nicaragua in the nineteenth century. In the film, he molds the Dolores character into an anti-colonial revolutionary who overthrows Portuguese rule on the Island of Queimada, which ultimately helps facilitate the exploitation of the Island by the Royal Antilles’ Sugar Company. Jose Dolores and his band of revolutionaries eventually rebel against this new post-colonial administration and Sir William Walker (now under the pay of the Royal Antilles Sugar Company) has to return to the Island to put down the revolt.
Queimada is an amazing big-budget spectacle, a leftist Conradian style epic that has a fascinating central relationship between Brando and Marquez. Franco Solinas’ dialogue is brilliant: there are several bravura speeches by Brando, who plays a seductive, villainous, super-intellectual. There are traces of this character carried over from Solinas and Pontecorvo’s abandoned Algerian screenplay, Para. This was to have starred Paul Newman.
Marlon Brando is superb in the film, ‘the greatest actor in the history of cinema’ according to Pontecorvo. The filming process was notoriously difficult, with locations being switched from Columbia to Morocco late in the shoot. Also, fascist dictator Franco’s ludicrous preciousness about the perception of Spanish imperial history meant that the film became about the Portuguese empire and not the Spanish. Thus, the title changed from Quemada to Queimada.
Queimada dramatises both the transition from slavery to wage labour and from colonialism to post-colonialism. The film uses Brando’s incredible acting skills to great effect in two particularly powerful scenes. In one, Sir William Walker utilizes a very patriarchal metaphor to make the argument in favour of wage labour and freedom from foreign domination. In the other, he outlines the transformations than can occur over ten years and how these can reveal the contradictions of a century. He concludes: ‘and so often we have to realize that our judgements and our interpretation and even our hopes may have been wrong – wrong, that’s all’.
In the intervening ten years, Sir William has become ‘a changed man’, disillusioned, but he still pursues Jose Dolores with the savage counterinsurgency where he burns the island in a similar fashion to the behavior of the Portuguese centuries before. When the representative of Royal Sugar objects to this, Walker responds with a speech to General Shelton about the dangers of ships transmitting messages about successful revolutions around the Antilles,
Do you know why this island is called Queimada? Because it was already burnt once, and do you know why? Because even then, it was the only way to conquer the resistance of the people and after that, the Portuguese exploited the island in peace for nearly three hundred years.
That’s the logic of profit, isn’t it, my dear Shelton? One builds to make money. And to go on making it or to make more, sometimes it’s necessary to destroy. You know that fire can’t cross the sea because it goes out! But certain news, certain ideas travel by ships’ crews.
The revolutionary politics of the film Queimada
Queimada features some extraordinary Carnival scenes that lead up to the assassination of the Portuguese governor of the Island. It is the world turned upside down. As historian Natalie Zemon Davies writes of the scene, ‘it is infused with African motifs, the slaves are brilliantly costumed, their children covered with white fluid to make them look like ghosts, and their cries and dances transfix the soldiers until it is time for the attack’. There are scenes of both ceremonial keening (after the death of the rebel Santiago) and brilliant celebratory scenes around the dead Portuguese soldiers.
We know from histories of the Haitian revolution that Voodoo songs and spirits played a huge role in consciousness raising. Historian Carolyn E Fick writes, ‘insofar as voodoo was a means of self-expression and of psychological or cathartic release from material oppression’ it was still necessary to ‘translate that consciousness into active rebellion and, finally, into the life-and-death struggle of revolution aimed at the total destruction of their masters and slavery, that emancipation could and did become a reality’.
Queimada dramatizes this brilliantly, when Jose Dolores looks on at the villagers dancing in celebration around the bodies of the vanquished Portuguese soldiers. When we see Dolores and his band of revolutionaries’ marching along the beach it is with a realBlack Jacobin–style majesty of a people transformed. Ennio Morricone‘s beautiful music provides perfect accompaniment.
In some ways the scenes of Jose Dolores’ capture from his mountain redoubt and transferal into custody recall similar scenes in Viva Zapata, which also starred Brando. Though Walker is seemingly the victorious character in this long dialectical tussle, it is Jose Dolores who seems the wiser, he is quoted by a villager as saying,
José Dolores says that if what we have in our country is civilization, civilization of white men, then we are better uncivilized because it is better to know where to go and not know how than it is to know how to go and not know where.
Walker, one the other hand, is essentially a spent, cynical character. Dolores refuses to concede to Walker when offered a chance to escape: Sir William is conscious of the implications of Jose becoming a martyr and then a myth. Speaking to General Shelton, Walker makes the observation,
Walker: The man that fights for an idea is a hero. And a hero who is killed becomes a martyr and a martyr immediately becomes a myth. A myth is more dangerous than a man because you can’t kill a myth. Don’t you agree, Shelton? I mean, think of his ghost running through the Antilles. Think of the legends and the songs.
General Shelton: Better songs than armies.
Walker: Better silence than songs.
Earlier, after the initial vanquishing of the Portuguese, Walker spoke to Jose Dolores,
Walker: Who’ll govern your island, José? Who’ll run your industries? Who’ll handle your commerce? Who’ll cure the sick? Teach in your schools? This man? Or that man? Or the other? Civilization is not a simple matter, José. You cannot learn its secrets overnight. Today civilization belongs to the white man – and you must learn to use it. Without it, you cannot go forward.
Walker’s questions strike at the pernicious reality of the post-colonial situation. European civilization is based on the predation of other countries (‘what civilisation?’ asks Jose Dolores). This recalls Eduardo Galeano’s passage about ‘Europe’s legacy’ in Mirrors: A History of the World, Refracted,
When Belgium left the Congo, a total of three Congolese held positions of responsibility in government.
When Great Britain left Tanzania, the country had but two engineers and twelve doctors.
When Spain left Western Sahara, the country had but one doctor, one lawyer, and one specialist in commerce.
When Portugal left Mozambique, the country had a 99 percent illiteracy rate, not a single high school graduate, and no university.
A systematic underdevelopment of the colonies they exploited was a feature of empire. When the slaves of St Domingue made the greatest slave revolution in history they were ever after punished cruelly by the French and the Americans.
The ending of the film is ambiguous: Walker is stabbed as he walks along the port towards his ship. He hears a voice saying: ‘your bag, senor?’ which is exactly what Jose Dolores says to him on two earlier occasions: once, when he first arrives; the second, when he first leaves the island. This time, it is another, who stabs him, perhaps in revenge for Jose Dolores?
The Battle of Algiers and Queimada are two very different, yet revolutionary, films. Whereas Battle has the incendiary bite of third cinema combined with Italian neorealism, Queimada is an awesome-looking spectacle, more expansive and intellectual. Together they make a fabulous double feature. Hopefully, someone will produce a restored version of Queimada in the future. Until then, you can watch it on Youtube, either the American or European version.