Saturday, October 31, 2020

CONSENSUS #22. Battle of Algiers (1966)


SYNOPSIS:  "The Battle of Algiers" is about the Algerian independence movement set in the capital of Algiers.  It chronicles the guerrilla warfare tactics and the French counterinsurgency efforts.  Terrorist bombings lead to torture interrogations and a surge by the French Army. 

BACK-STORY:  “The Battle of Algiers” is an Italian/Algerian production released in 1966.  The film was subsidized by the Algerian government.  It was directed by Italian Gillo Pontecorvo in the neorealist style.   He was nominated for the Best Director Oscar and the film also got nods for Original Screenplay and Foreign Language Film.  It won numerous international awards.  The movie was banned in France for many years and the torture scenes were edited for the U.S. (I must have seen one of the edited versions) and the United Kingdom.

TRIVIA:  wikipedia, imdb

1.  The director brought in Ennio Morricone (who scored all of Sergio Leone’s films) to collaborate on the score.  Pontecorvo had a melody in mind for use in the film and was humming it when he went to see Morricone in his home.  When he arrived, before he could make his suggestion, Morricone proposed a very similar melody.  Pontecorvo was elated at the coincidence and only later was told by Morricone that he had heard him humming the melody and had pranked him.

2.  The only professional actor was Jean Martin (Col. Matthieu).  He had been in the French Resistance in WWII and then was a paratrooper in the Indochina War.  As an actor, he was dismissed from the Theatre National Populaire for signing a manifesto opposing the Algerian War.

3.  The movie was banned from France for the first five years.  The director received death threats.

4.  It supposedly inspired the Black Panthers, IRA, and PLO.

5.  The movie was screened at the Pentagon in 2003 in relation to counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq.  The invitation mentioned “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas”.

6.  It is one of the rare films to get Oscar nominations in separate years.  It was nominated for Best Foreign Film in 1966 and Director and Screenplay in 1968.


Belle and Blade  =  5.0

Brassey’s              =  5.0

Video Hound       =  4.4

War Movies         =  4.4

Military History  =  #24

Channel 4             =  #64

Film Site                =  no

101 War Movies  =  yes

Rotten Tomatoes  =  #3 


HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The movie is set in the Algerian War of Independence which lasted from 1954-1962.  Algeria had been a French colony since 1830. The FLN (National Liberation Front) was created in March, 1954.  It consisted of socialists, anti-colonialists, and Islamists.  The movie was inspired by the memoir “Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger” by an FLN commander named Saadi Yacef (he basically plays himself as Djafar in the film).  The war began with the Toussaint Rouge (“Red All Saints’ Day”) incident when the FLN launched thirty attacks on military and police targets.   French colonists (colons) demanded retaliation.  Colons conducted ratonnades (rat-hunts) to kill suspected FLN members and collaborators.    In August, 1955 the FLN reacted with the massacre of French civilians in the town of Philippeville.  Previously, the FLN had limited itself to military and police targets.  The gloves were off now.  A classic guerrilla war was underway.  Tit for tat.  Torture for torture.  The French army attacked villages deemed sympathetic to the FLN.  Villagers were relocated to strategic hamlet-like locations.  Meanwhile, the FLN was conducting kidnappings and performing ritual murder and mutilation of French soldiers.

                The Battle of Algiers began when members of a French militia planted a bomb in a Casbah apartment building resulting in the deaths of 73 Algerians.  This is the incident depicted in the film.  This led to the other historical depiction.  Three Algerian female militants planted bombs in a milk bar, a cafeteria, and a travel agency. 

                The French government started a counterinsurgency campaign with a large increase in troops deployed to Algeria.  The total peaked at 400,000 (including 170,000 loyal Muslim Algerians).   Gen.  Massau (the inspiration for Matthieu) was allowed to operate outside the legal barriers which means he could use torture methods to interrogate.  The movie accurately portrays the success of his methods.  The terrorist cells were rooted out and the insurgency collapsed in Algiers.  Ironically, this victory sowed the seeds of the eventual French defeat as the French public began to question involvement in Algiers.  This had some similarities to the aftermath of the Tet Offensive.

                The French used search and destroy methods and raised units of loyal Muslim irregulars.  You can guess what methods they used in what was essentially a civil war inside the war of independence.  Sound familiar?  The movie chooses not to reference the civil war aspect of the conflict.

                In May, 1958, the colons and French army officers overthrew the 4th French Republic and De Gaulle returned to power.  To their chagrin, DeGaulle decided to seek a peaceful solution to the quagmire.  Eventually a referendum was held that allowed the Algerian people to vote in favor of independence.

OPINION:   I was not too impressed at first, but the movie builds nicely.  It does not take long to realize you are watching something special.  The style  is very similar to “Rome, Open City”, but it is more polished.  Both come from the neo-realist school popular in Italy at that time.  “Battle of Algiers” has all the bells and whistles.  Hand held cameras, grainy film, use of nonprofessional actors, the newsreel look, prominent roles for kids.

                The acting is surprisingly good considering there is only one professional actor in the cast.  Jean Martin plays Matthieu with gravitas.  He is played as a reasonable villain.  His lectures on counterinsurgency to his officers and his condescending interplay with the press are very military.  He’s a charismatic Westmoreland (the U.S, commanding general in Vietnam).  One strength of the acting is you would not know that he was the only professional.  The other main actors do not come off as amateurish.  There are strong female characters and the boy Petit Omar is depicted as a valuable member of the FLN. 

                The themes are instructional on guerrilla warfare.  The movie clearly portrays the escalation that is inescapable in a guerrilla war.  Anyone conversant with the Vietnam War or the Filipino War for Independence will not be surprised with the dynamics of the film.  The suffering of innocents caught in the middle of the conflict is another theme.  Guerrillas being faces in the crowd and blending into the populace is another.  Matthieu represents the “end justifies the means” approach often taken by conventional forces faced with an insurgency.

                 “The Battle of Algiers” is an important film that lives up to its billing.  It supposedly inspired guerrilla and terrorist groups like the Black Panthers and IRA.  In 2003, it was screened at the Pentagon during the Iraq War.     It’s a pity it was not required viewing at the Pentagon in 1968 during the Vietnam War.

                In conclusion,  “The Battle of Algiers” is justifiably lauded by critics as a classic movie.  It reminds of movies like “Battleship Potemkin” and “Rome, Open City” in that respect.  Normally, I don’t put much stock into the term “classic”.  In this case, I think the movie holds up well.  I especially give it credit for being an accurate account of a military event that is not well known, at least not in the U.S.  I would not have it as high as #22, but it belongs in the top 100.  There is no better movie on insurgency versus counterinsurgency.

Friday, October 30, 2020

CONSENSUS #23. Platoon (1986)


SYNOPSIS:  “Platoon” is the fictional tale of a platoon in Vietnam in the middle of the war.  The unit has plenty of dysfunction and is divided between the dopers and the boozers.  It is also divided in allegiance between its two veteran sergeants.  Barnes (Tom Berenger) is the hard-core warrior who is not above matching the enemy’s atrocities.  Elias (Willem Dafoe) is the disillusioned conscience of the unit.  PFC Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) is caught between these two mentors.  The tension builds to a night battle.

BACK-STORY:  “Platoon” is the semi-autobiographical account of Oliver Stone’s experiences in Vietnam.  It came out seven years after “Apocalypse Now” and was followed soon after by “Full Metal Jacket” and “Hamburger Hill”.  More than those other films, it impacted the movie-going public and Vietnam War veterans.  It was cathartic.  It became the definitive Vietnam War movie.  The film was a big hit with audiences and most critics.  Produced for only $6 million, it made $138 million.  It was awarded the Best Picture Oscar and also won for Director, Sound Mixing, and Editing.  It was nominated for Original Score and Cinematography.  Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger got Supporting Actor nods.  The movie is ranked #86 on AFI’s Top 100 list.  The shooting was done in the Philippines (the Pentagon refused to support the film) and took only 54 days.  The film was shot in sequence and this began immediately after the boot camp for the actors.  Stone meant the film to be a counter to John Wayne’s “Green Berets”.

TRIVIA:  Wikipedia, imdb, Mental Floss, Tons of Facts

1.  Oliver Stone served in Vietnam and the film is semi-autobiographical.  For instance, the scene where Taylor saves the girl from being raped was based on an incident involving Stone.  The Taylor character represents Stone.  Stone wrote a screenplay about his experiences after the war entitled “Break”, but he could not get the financing for it so he went to film school.  He had sent the script to Jim Morrison of the Doors and he still had it when he died.  Stone saw Morrison in the Taylor role.  Later, Stone adapted the original script into “The Platoon” and eventually got funding.  Stone started with the premise of making a movie to counter “The Green Berets”.

2.  It was the first Vietnam War movie written and directed by a Vietnam veteran.

3.  The movie was filmed in the Philippines because the Pentagon refused to cooperate with it (for obvious reasons).  It was shot in only 54 days for an amazing $6.5 million.

4.  Many of the extras were Vietnamese refugees living in the Philippines.  Some were tourists.

5.  Dale Dye put the actors through a two-week boot camp that included digging fox holes, long marches, and night ambushes.  The actors were deprived of food, water, sleep, and bathroom facilities to make them angry, irritable, and exhausted.  Tom Berenger lost 28 pounds.

6.  Dale Dye was the technical adviser and was in the cast as Capt. Harris.  He also plays one of the helicopter gunners in the Elias death scene and he was in one of the body bags when Taylor arrives in Vietnam.  He did most of the voices heard on the radios.

7.  Stone suffered an attack of PTSD on set during the village scene.

8.  Keith David saved Charlie Sheen’s life when a helicopter suddenly banked and he almost fell out.

9.  Emilio Estevez was originally supposed to play Taylor, but funding fell through and when it was actually green-lighted two years later, Estevez was unavailable.  Sheen had been considered too young at the time his brother got the part.

10.  Before the marijuana in the bunker scene, the actors got stoned and then felt bad when the cameras were rolling.

11.  Tom Berenger’s scar took three hours in makeup.

12.  Lt. Wolfe is used as a how not to lead example in many military leadership courses.

13.  Mickey Rourke turned down Barnes and Nick Nolte turned down Elias.  Denzel Washington campaigned for the Elias role.  Kevin Costner turned down Barnes out of respect for his brother, who was a Vietnam veteran.  Stone cast Berenger (usually a good guy) and Willem Dafoe (usually a villain) against type.

14.  Keanu Reeves, John Cusack, and Kyle MacLachlan turned down Taylor.

15.  The movie won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Editing , and Sound.  It was nominated for Supporting Actor (Berenger and Dafoe), Cinematography, and Original Screenplay.

16.  It finished third at the box office in 1986 behind “Crocodile Dundee” and “Top Gun”.

17.  It was #83 on AFI’s list of greatest movies and #86 on the 10th Anniversary list.

18.  The actors chose how to decorate their helmets.  Sheen put “When I die, bury me upside down because the world can kiss my ass!”  Johnny Depp had “Sherilyn” after his current girlfriend Sherilyn Fenn.  Mark Moses put a picture of Alfred E. Neuman with “What, me worry?”

19.  In Elias death scene, the bullet blood squibs did not go off (you can see Dafoe holding the firing device), but the performance was so powerful Stone decided to go with it.

20.  Stone had red dirt trucked in for authenticity.

21.  The movie poster showing Elias with his arm up in the air was based on an acclaimed photo by Art Greenspon from 1968.

22.  Stone had an actual RPG fired in the final battle for realism.

23.  The final battle was based on a battle that Stone and Dye (as a military correspondent) were involved in.  Stone’s 25th Infantry Division was surprise attacked at night by a large North Vietnamese force.  Some of the enemy broke through.  Air and artillery support were the deciding factors in the American victory.  The U.S. lost 23 killed and claimed 348 enemy deaths.  The battle is known as the New Years Day Battle of 1968.  It has also been called the Battle of Firebase Burt and the Battle of Soui Cut.


Belle and Blade  =  4.0

Brassey’s              =  4.0

Video Hound       =  3.8

War Movies         =  5.0

Military History  =  #9

Channel 4             =  #6

Film Site                =  yes

101 War Movies  =  yes

Rotten Tomatoes  =  #63 


HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The film does not claim to be a true story, although Stone made no secret of it being autobiographical in spots.  Stone was a grunt along the Cambodian border in 1967.  Taylor stands in for him.  The narration reflects Stone’s situation when he entered the service.  The letters to his grandmother appear to be at least paraphrases of the young Stone’s experiences and attitudes.  The characters in his screenplay are supposedly based on several of his mates in the several platoons he was in.  There are obviously some composite characters which is standard for a film of this type.  Barnes and Elias were based on two of Stone’s sergeants, but they were not in the same platoon.  Stone did stop a rape as did Taylor and he was wounded in the neck in his first ambush, but the rest of the vignettes can be classified as based on incidents that happened to someone somewhere.


                The accuracy comes in the realism.  Stone was very serious in getting the details right.  For that reason, he brought in Dale Dye as his main technical adviser and Dye’s input was impactful.  Significantly, Dye tried to rein in some of Stone’s creative license (ex.  drug use in the field) – unsuccessfully by the way.  I think “Platoon” was the first use of his boot camp method of training actors to realistically portray soldiers.   With Stone and Dye working together, the film is a tutorial on grunt life in Vietnam.  Here is a list of facts you can learn from the movie that will save you from reading the numerous books I have read on the war:


                                    1.         Replacement soldiers (i.e. Cherries) were treated like dirt.

                                    2.        Sergeants ran the platoons.

                                    3.        Every soldier knew how many days that they had left in their tour.

                                    4.        If a Vietnamese civilian ran, it was assumed they were the enemy and you could shoot them.

                                    5.        Villages were burned if they were considered sympathetic to the Communists.

                                    6.        Some soldiers injured themselves to get out of combat.

                                    7.        Volunteers felt they were fighting for our society and freedom.

                                    8.        Latrine waste was burned using kerosene.

                                    9.        Drug use was common in rear areas.

                                    10.     Young Americans sometimes committed atrocities due to stress or revenge.

                                    11.     The Vietnam War gave some sociopaths an outlet.


OPINION:  I can still recall the impact “Platoon” had when it was released.  Numerous articles examined the effect the film had on the Vietnam veteran community.  Many vets claimed it was as close as anyone had gotten to what they had gone through.  It was cathartic for many and caused many to open up for the first time.  Most critics latched on to the film as the first true depiction of the war.  “Platoon” became the first combat film to win Best Picture since “All Quiet on the Western Front”.  Add to this the effect it had on the public in general.  The entertaining nature of the film made it the definitive portrayal of the war for average Americans.  Since that initial onslaught, the film has had a polarizing effect and has strong detractors. 


                Stone can claim truthfully that he is a much better director now than he was in 1986, but this is still his opus.  It was personal for him and the passion shows.  You can fault the agenda, but not the craftsmanship.  The movie had a low budget and no support from the Pentagon (no surprise there).  It does not show.  Dye made sure the details were correct.  The gear is spot on and the behavior, language, and life of the men are realistic.  Stone does not dilute the battle noises with mood setting background music.  The three battle scenes are among the best in war movie history.  Edge of your seat.  The movie reminds of "Glory" by mixing the human interaction with great combat.

                “Platoon” on the surface seems to be your typical dysfunctional heterogeneous small unit movie.  Stone does use the platoon to delve into the theme of divisiveness, but this is not a WWII or Korean War movie where each member represents an archetype.  No one is from Brooklyn, Italian, a ladies man, a hick, etc.  The dysfunction is created by the division between the dopers and the boozers.  There is no bonding on the horizon.   The acting is top notch.  The ensemble is of up-and-comers and they show great promise.  Sheen evinces the proper naivete and eventual loss of innocence.  The showier roles of Elias and Barnes are nailed by Dafoe and Barnes (both of whom were nominated for Best Supporting Actor; both robbed by Michael Caine for “Hannah and Her Sisters”).  Special mention to the two most loathsome characters:  Dillon as the psychopath Bunny and John McGinley as the ass-kisser O’Neill.  


                What sets the film apart from the standard war film is the metaphors.  Stone is not subtle in his themes.  Barnes and the boozers represent the right wingers in America during the war.  Elias and the dopers represent the doves.  Within this metaphor is Barnes as the win at all costs warrior and Elias is the disillusioned believer who now feels the war is unwinnable.  Most of the platoon represents the lower class cannon fodder sent by rich people to fight their ideological war.  Taylor stands out as the rarer idealistic volunteer fighting out of duty to American society.  Much of this is heavy-handed, but Stone does not seem to care about making it subtle.  For example, the boozers play poker (competition) while the dopers do singalongs (cooperation).  


                The movie flows smoothly.  This is partly due to the fact that it was shot sequentially.  The plot moves from soldier life to combat in an ebb and flow manner.  The dialogue is a strength and the soldier talk is not dumbed down for the average viewer.  “Snake and nape”?  Anyone good at context clues should not be too lost.


                In conclusion, to do this review, I watched the movie (for the fifth time, at least) and Stone’s commentary version and Dye’s take on the film.  Plus the making-of documentary and the other extras.  All this confirmed my original view when I saw the movie in a theater in 1986.  This is a great movie and still the best Vietnam War movie.  This is coming from a reviewer who admires all the other serious contenders (The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket).  


                I am aware that there are some ranters against the movie.  Stone is partly to blame by making comments about it being the realistic depiction of the war, instead of realistic depiction of the war.  Some veterans and pro-war types took offense to the negative portrayal of the soldiers and their actions.  They assume that Stone was implying the platoon was typical.  Stone was not apologetic about that impression.  On the other hand, anyone who has argued that the incidents and personality types did not exist in Vietnam is being na├»ve.  For instance, My Lai did happen and the incident in the movie was nowhere near the scale of that event.  Besides, I do not feel the movie demonizes the American soldier in Vietnam.  I cannot imagine people spitting on vets coming out of theaters. Empathy must have been the most common emotion.


             "Platoon" deserves to be in the Top 10, which it is in both Military History magazine and Channel 4.  It was hurt by middling reviews from three of my four books.  It does have a polarizing effect on critics.