Film Studies: We saw a 'war on terror' in 1966

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We are supposed to be experts on terror now. We know the signs of it. We know what bomb damage looks like. And we know the twisted frown on faces checking to see whether they have survived. But nothing has taken away from the drama and the plausibility of Gillo Pontecorvo's film, The Battle of Algiers. That film is 40 years old, and it has been a teaching tool for would-be terrorists as well as those who seek to stop them. It is the real thing. But it was much more than that: it is the record of an attempt at freedom in a Third World country in the midst of the Cold War. It was the template for terrorism wherever it has occurred.

It is even the documentary reference for that moment in The Godfather Part II where Michael Corleone, observing a small act on the streets of Havana, announces - like Macchiavelli - that if people are prepared to die like that for what they believe in, there is no stopping them. So the edict goes out that we don't negotiate with terrorists. But we let their bombs incinerate our skins and destroy our principles - and then we make movies about them. They are the last politicians left.

Pontecorvo was born in Pisa in 1919, one of 10 children, Jewish, Italian, Communist. His brother, Bruno Pontecorvo, was a nuclear scientist who defected to Moscow. Gillo was approached by the leader of the insurgency in the Algiers Casbah, Saadi Yacef, to make a film about the battle against French occupation. In the end, Yacef was just one of many real people who figured in the film, and while it was clearly on the side of Algeria for the Algerians, it was a vivid portrait of all the damage done by such a campaign. There were some moves in some places to ban the film for political reasons, but in the end it was too shattering to be tied to one point of view. And so it became one of the seminal films about purposeful violence in the 20th century.

Why was this so? Pontecorvo had made other feature films - Kapo (1960) had Susan Strasberg as a concentration camp inmate, and it suffered from too much conventional dramatisation, too much sentimentality and too much gravity from Ms Strasberg. The thing about The Battle of Algiers was always that it looked and felt like a documentary, crowded with faces that had known too much fear and torture to be pretty. Apparently the Pentagon screened it in 2004 for its people trying to "clean up" Iraq. One would like to see Donald Rumsfeld talking about the movie in the way Errol Morris asked Robert McNamara, the former US Secretary of Defense, to review his own past in The Fog of War (2003).

Pontecorvo would deserve the obituaries that followed his death last week if he had made only that one film. But there is another, not nearly as successful, but fascinating and just as alarming in its implications.

It is called Burn! or Queimada!, and it was released in 1970; it is one of the few movie enterprises in the Sixties that had really captured the imagination and the participation of Marlon Brando. Brando plays Sir William Walker, a British agent sent in 1845 to the island of Queimada, controlled by the Portuguese.

Walker helps the black and former slave population take control of the island. The Portuguese are thrown out, but the black leader, Jose Dolores, is denied leadership. Ten years later, Walker is an outcast hired to return to the island. His task now is to defeat the rebellion led by Jose Dolores. Walker becomes a tyrant and a monster.

This is not nearly as successful a picture, and it had enormous problems in production - not least Brando's intransigence towards a director he had chosen and befriended. But in those days, Brando was as much of a traitor to himself as Sir William Walker must have been. This is a feature film, with amateur actors in a lot of the roles, and it suffers from that. But the political parable is inescapable and there is still great power in Brando's degradation. It makes his earlier film, Viva Zapata!, look childish in its account of a similar dilemma - how can the spirit of necessary revolution be protected against political compromise?

Pontecorvo's battle with Brando might make a film in itself. And Brando was clearly intimidated. Pontecorvo was a striking man: handsome, a deep-sea diver and a very good tennis player. He had been a leader of the Milan resistance against Mussolini in the war. While he worked in film from 1945 onwards, having his training with the Communist director Joris Ivens, he was a man of the world. For a time, he actually directed the Venice Film Festival, where The Battle of Algiers won the Golden Lion. In old age - he was 86 when he died 10 days ago - he still made small documentaries. At the announcement of his death, the government of Algeria sent a crown to be part of his funeral.

That sort of respect is better than Oscars and it is a mark of the way - ever since Lenin - some political leaders have known that film is without equal as a way of bringing news of the world and its crimes to those who have to sit in judgement, even if they are powerless. It is worth stressing that the US government, wise in the ways of demoralisation after the Vietnam war, have taken great pains to restrict TV network coverage of Iraq. So what we know of that chaos is limited to news reports. Except that the technology has outstripped the control. Even in Abu Ghraib, adolescents and other failed humans had their digital cameras and their camcorders with them; they were as proud of what they saw as some Gestapo officers were at Auschwitz. And so, crude snapshots gave the game away. Or a small part of it.

In America, Pontecorvo was always suspect because he admitted to being a Communist - it seemed a natural thing to be in his Italy. His example is one among many that the movie camera must go into battle with the other shooting machines, if we are to have a chance of knowing or accepting the wars fought in our name. There should be a Pontecorvo prize given every year to cameramen and women who have brought back the news.