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David F. Walker
Monthly: April 2018

BadAzz MoFo’s Film Review Archive – THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS

Over four decades ago, Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers was considered one of the most provocative, politically incendiary movies of its time. The Black Panther Party used it as a training film, the French government banned it, and lovers of cinema revered it as a masterpiece. In 2003, the Pentagon hosted a special screening of the film, in hopes it would shed valuable light on how to deal with rebel forces in Iraq. The following year The Battle of Algiers was released in a beautifully packaged addition to the Criterion Collection, where it could be studied, appreciated and, no doubt, argued about.

Chronicling the 1954-1962 revolution that would eventually lead to the end of French colonial rule in Algeria, The Battle of Algiers is a bleak, uncompromising portrait of terrorist warfare and a war on terror.The film starts with French soldiers interrogating a captured Algerian prisoner. The man’s will has been broken, and his weary, tear-streaked face alludes to the torture he has endured. The French soldiers, led by the charismatic Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin), assure their prisoner he has done the right thing. But the emotionally dead gaze in the man’s eyes says something to the contrary. As Mathieu leads his men on a raid to find rebel leader Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), the magnitude of the betrayal that occurred moments before the camera entered the interrogation room becomes painfully clear.

Hiding behind a false wall in Algiers’ Muslim Casbah, Ali and his three companions in the Algerian National Liberation Front, or FLN, await their fate. As Mathieu and his men rampage through the apartment concealing them, Ali and his fellow rebels—which include a woman and a young boy—pray for an escape that will never come. As the moment of their impending capture—or death—comes ever closer, Ali reflects on the course of his life leading up to this point.

A communist who fought against the fascists during World War II and a student of Italian neo-realism, Pontecorvo brought both an artistic aesthetic and a political ideology to The Battle of Algiers. Shot in stark black-and-white, Pontecorvo’s film bears an uncanny resemblance to a documentary. During its initial release in 1965, the film’s distributor added a disclaimer: “Not one foot of newsreel or documentary film has been used.”

Such a statement might seem merely a hyperbolic marketing stunt, until you see the gritty reality Pontecorvo portrays. From the frenzied panic that follows a series of terrorist bombings to the throngs of Muslim dissidents who take to the streets to oppose French rule, much of The Battle of Algiers appears composed of actual riot footage captured just as the shit was hitting the fan.

Pontecorvo made a film of historical propaganda by working closely with the newly liberated Algerian government, as well as Saadi Yacef, the former leader of the FLN, who basically plays himself in the movie. But his roots in neorealism kept the director from crafting a film that paints its characters in absolutes. Instead, Pontecorvo and co-writer Franco Solinas create a world of moral ambiguity, in which the heroes are terrorists who resort to killing innocent civilians to advance their cause, and the villains are French soldiers who also resort to killing innocents to achieve their goals. No one is entirely good or bad, both sides are right and wrong. And while the film and the filmmaker clearly take the side of the FLN, Pontecorvo is careful to give the The Battle of Algiers enough sense of balance that it endures more like a historical document, and less like biased propaganda.

With the current situation in Iraq, and the Pentagon’s screening of The Battle of Algiers, much has been made of the film’s relevance to current events. Perhaps the most significant theme in that discussion is why the French refused to support military action in Iraq. What they learned during the Algerian conflict, and what is so brilliantly conveyed in this film, is that winning battles is not the same as winning a war.

To that end, The Battle of Algiers does not serve either as a great training film for political revolutionaries or as a helpful tool for understanding how to combat terrorists. Instead, it is a brilliant piece of cinema that offers a cautionary tale about the high cost of violence as a means to an end.

BadAzz MoFo’s Spaghetti Western Archive – COMPAÑEROS

I’m not sure if Sergio Corbucci was a balls-out Communist, or a Marxist, but he was definitely a cynic who leaned far to the left, which was reflected in his westerns as early as Django. In his earlier films, Corbucci merely had the same anti-establishment attitude that was found in much of the southern Italian world of cheap, working-class commercial filmmaking. The best of these directors—and to be sure, Corbucci is among the best—all had something they were trying to say. There were ideological and dogmatic messages lurking in the shadows of some of the best spaghettis, and by the time the genre was an unstoppable juggernaut in the late 1960s, some writers and directors felt comfortable enough to employ all the subtlety of a stick of dynamite with a fast-burning fuse shoved up your ass. For Corbucci, this change in how he projected his cynicism on the screen kicked into high gear with The Mercenary, carrying through to his next few films and right into Compañeros.

In a role that is pretty much the same character he played in The Mercenary, Franco Nero stars as Yodlaf “the Swede” Peterson, a professional arms dealer come to Mexico during the height of the Revolution to sell weapons to the tyrannical General Mongo. The big problem is that Mongo can’t get to the cash, because it’s locked in a safe, containing “great wealth.” Only one person has the combination to the safe, Professor Xantos (Fernando Rey), the pacifist leader of the revolutionary movement, who happens to be locked in an American prison. The Swede agrees to bust the professor out of the joint—in exchange for half the contents of the safe. Accompanying the Swede is Vasco (Tomas Milian), one of Mongo’s soldiers. The shaky alliance of the Swede and Vasco finds firmer ground when they run up against John (Jack Palance) an old enemy of the Swede. Of course, our heroes are successful in rescuing the professor, but now they must face the Mexican Army, the Americans (represented by Palance and his crew) and Mongo’s men, all of whom want Xantos dead. None of this should be a problem, since Vasco is one of Mongo’s men, and since the Swede is only in it for the money—right? Of course not! Because in the grand tradition of all ZRFs (Zappata-esque Revolution Film) our heroes are about to discover convictions and a sense of honor they never knew they had.

Along with Django and The Great Silence, this is arguably director Sergio Corbucci’s best western, and definitely one of the shining moments in the genre. Corbucci covers areas in Compañeros that he explored earlier in The Mercenary, and both films share more than a few similarities, especially as both examine how industrialized nations serve to manipulate the political process in third world countries to their own benefit. But Compañeros approaches its politics with a mixture of lighthearted comedy, and over-the- top action that isn’t as finely crafted in The Mercenary, and when all is said and done, Compañeros is simply a better film. Jack Palance is at his nuttiest as Nero’s archenemy, a refer-smokin’ psycho with a wooden hand and a pet falcon named Marsha. Franco Nero and Tomas Milian both give stand out performances, and their chemistry together is right on the money. For Milian this is the type of role he best became known for—the Che Guvera-like revolutionary. As for Corbucci, this would be his last truly great western.

Read this review and others in BadAzz MoFo’s Book of SPAGHETTI WESTERNS.

Movie Poster of the Week – GODZILLA vs. MEGALON

I can’t lie, the poster for Godzilla vs. Megalon is terrible. I mean absolutely terrible. But here’s the deal, I saw this movie in the theaters when it came out, entered a contest, and ended up winning this poster. This was the first movie poster I ever owned (though I have no idea what happened to it), and is partially to blame for my obsession. But seriously, this is a terrible poster, and is pretty much a rip-off of the poster for the 1976 version of King Kong (below). Godzilla vs. Megalon came out in Japan back in 1973, but it wasn’t released in the United States until ’76. The World Trade Center is prominently featured in both posters, though I don’t recall if Godzilla and Megalon actually squared off atop the twin towers or not.

Movie Poster of the Week – THE MAN FROM HONG KONG

BadAzz MoFo’s celebration of the art of the movie poster (though not necessarily the movie itself).

The best movie posters of all time are those that really sell the movie, even when selling it as something a bit more than it is once it’s projected onto a screen. This poster for The Man from Hong Kong is one of those posters. The artwork is phenomenal. The movie, on the other hand, has a really great poster to make it look awesome. Other than an opening fight sequence with Sammo Hung, you really won’t see anything in this movie that can compare to the poster. Even lead actor Jimmy Wang Yu—of One-Armed Swordsman fame—isn’t as badass in the movie as he is on this poster. At the end of the day, I’d rather stare at this amazing piece of artwork for two hours than actually watch the movie again. Likewise, I’d stare at this other poster for The Dragon Flies, which is the same movie, just with a different title.

 

BadAzz MoFo’s Spaghetti Western Archive – A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL

The spaghetti westerns weren’t far along chronologically—although there were already a ton of movies—when the genre began to splinter off into specific sub-genres. In time there would be comedic spaghettis (the most notable being the Trinity films), spaghettis with a touch of horror, and even cross-over spaghettis that brought in Asian elements in the form of samurais and kung fu warriors. But the most important of these spaghetti sub-genres would have to be the politicized westerns. Usually set within the Mexican revolution (or at least something passing itself off as the Mexican revolution) some of the best films within the larger body of Euro westerns are found in this particular sub-genre, starting with Damiano Damiani’s brilliant A Bullet for the General.

Along with Leone’s Duck, You Sucker, A Bullet for the General is the “highly political” film people talk about whenever they mention politicized spaghetti westerns. “Oh, those movies were soooooo political”, they say; like they’re tryin’ to impress somebody, when in fact they are just stating the obvious. Which means I’m not impressed by the so-called critics who point out how political an obviously political movie happens to be. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—unless you can perform oral sex on yourself, I just ain’t impressed. Especially if you don’t know the driving forces responsible for the political nature of films like A Bullet for the General, and how these films came to exist.

The target audience for spaghetti westerns was working class Italians, primarily in southern Italy, which is where many of the filmmakers hailed from. In the years following Italy’s defeat in World War II, and having grown up during Mussolini’s fascist reign, many of these filmmakers harbored leftist, Marxist, and Communists sensibilities, and a distrust of government and symbols of authority that is reflective in some of the better films of the genre. These sensibilities catered to the anti-establishment views of the working class and younger audiences. The result would be films by populist directors like Sergio Corbucci, that spoke to the cynical nature that prevailed in Italy and much of the world during the turbulent 1960s, as well as the films like A Bullet for the General, which was the handiwork of a Communist director, writer, and actor.

A Bullet for the General is, in fact, one of the most politically charged spaghettis—and one of the best films of the overall genre—but at its heart and soul it is more than just a leftist indictment of colonialism, industrial globalization, and exploitation of third world nations. Yeah, sure, the film is that, but it is also an excellent character study, that makes up the backbone that allows A Bullet for the General to stand firmly over so many other films in this subgenre.

Gian Maria Volonté stars as El Chuncho, the leader of a gang of ruthless banditos. El Chuncho likes to fancy himself a member of the Mexican Revolution, when in reality he’s just a two-bit outlaw who steals guns from the government and sells them back to revolutionaries. While robbing a train carrying a shipment of weapons, the mysterious gringo Bill Tate (Lou Castel) joins El Chuncho and his gang (which includes the always bat-shit crazy Klaus Kinski). With Bill the Gringo along for the ride, the gang steals another load of weapons from a fort, which they plan to sell to the leader of the revolution. For a brief moment, El Chuncho considers staying and helping a village of peasants protect themselves from Mexican soldiers after they rise up and kill an evil land baron (NOTE: all land barons in spaghetti westerns are evil). Of course, our sorry excuse for a hero doesn’t stick around, giving in to his greed, leaving the town unprotected, and eventually the victim of a government massacre. All of this is going on while Bill the Gringo subtly plays members of the gang against each other. And, this raises the burning questions of exactly who is the gringo, and what is his eventual goal? Well, let’s just say that Bill ain’t exactly down for the cause, and this flick ain’t called A Bullet for the General simply ‘cause it sounds like a cool title.

When it’s all said and done, A Bullet for the General is one of the truly great spaghetti westerns, and one of the best of what I like to call the ZRF (Zappata-esque Revolution Film)—spaghetti westerns set specifically during the Mexican Revolution, with a BTR (Bandito Turned Revolutionary) as the anti-hero (an archetype that actor Tomas Milian would come to define). Damiani’s direction is solid, showing what a capable director with a great story and not-so-subtle agenda can do within the genre. Volonté is terrific as the amoral bandito that develops a conscious. Volonté is best known—at least to genre fans—for his work in Sergio Leone’s classic films A Fist Full of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More; but to be perfectly honest, those performances, for all their power, pale in comparison to his work in this movie. Volonté subscribed to hardcore leftist politics, to the extent that it would eventually dictate the roles he would accept. This movie is an example of the Marxist leanings that Volonté, director Damiani and co-writer Franco Solinas were looking to bring to the screen. Solinas also wrote the politically charged films Burn! and The Battle of Algiers. This combination of talent and their personal politics make for a fist-to-the-face-and-foot-up-your-ass film that is never afraid to say what’s on its mind.

Read this review and others in BadAzz MoFo’s Book of SPAGHETTI WESTERNS.

Movie Poster of the Week – VIGILANTE FORCE

BadAzz MoFo’s celebration of the art of the movie poster (though not necessarily the movie itself).

Up until very recently I had never even heard of Vigilante Force. I was simply looking for a usable image of the poster for Bill Lustig’s supremely classic Vigilante, when I stumbled across this work of beauty. How this poster or this movie slipped under my radar all these years is beyond me, but now I’ve got to see the movie (and maybe even get the poster, which would look great in my living room). Just check out this design. From the primary image of a shirtless Kris Kristofferson squaring off against Jan-Micheal Vincent (who’s looking a bit like Ron Howard) to the secondary images that provide those telling moments of sex, violence, and intrigue, this is a truly classic work of cinematic advertising art. Of course, this second design…well…it doesn’t quite do it for me. Maybe I’ll just skip this one.