FAMOUSLY SCREENED at the Pentagon, but not the White House, this classic 1965 dramatization of a violent popular revolution (on disc Oct. 12) was re- released for the big screen earlier this year with a new level of relevance due to events in Iraq. For viewers astonished by its documentary-style re- creation of how Algeria's FLN guerrillas threw the French out of their country, Battle almost seemed like current CNN footage from Baghdad playing in black-and-white. The strategies for both insurgencies are the same: Place hidden bombs to kill both occupiers and civilians; shoot the foreigners in the back; hide behind women and children. Here, the invading army resorts to torture far worse than Abu Ghraib, but the effect is the same—the natives' hatred increases all the more; the resistance movement grows and is further radicalized. While the French win the 1957 struggle for Algiers itself, they lose the war five years later.
If the history on this three-disc set seems ominous, it should. Beyond the impeccable transfer one expects of Criterion, there are several extras that speak explicitly to our current political reality. In one of several excellent featurettes, directors testify to Battle's lingering impact. "You're going to find it very relevant today," says Oliver Stone. "The chickens are coming home to roost." Julian Schnabel chimes in, "After 9/11, I wanted everyone to see this movie. I wanted everyone to see that grief is something that has no nationalities, that is . . . universal."
That empathy works both ways, of course. If the Arab world can understand 9/11 as something less than a nefarious Jewish (or CIA) pretext for grabbing their oil, Americans have to see how the Iraqi insurgence is more than just "terrorism." In Battle, the French and FLN alike "both do horrendous things when in battle," says director Gillo Pontecorvo, an Italian-Jewish resistance fighter against Mussolini who knows something about wartime ethics.
The DVD set also includes a discussion featuring former White House counterterrorism director Richard Clarke, who says of the French, "They lose because there's no political strategy." Instead of the Americans winning in Iraq today with tactics and technology (like smart bombs in Fallujah), he adds, "You'll lose the war if you're bad . . . at the battle of values and ideas."
We know Dubya won't watch this incredibly timely, essential film if reelected, but I wonder if there's still hope for John Kerry.