Good guys and bad guys: The Battle of Algiers and The Dark Knight Rises

Algeria partnershipThe ‘chaos and fear’ inspired by The Battle of Algiers is certainly there, enhanced by another parallel between the two films – the location from which the uprising bursts forth. 

More than four decades after its release, Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece The Battle of Algiers (1966) remains a primary point of reference in the filmography of the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62), and in the war film genre more generally.

Indeed, the film’s impact extends beyond even these parameters, inspiring directors who, to lesser or greater extents, delve into what we might call ‘mainstream’ cinema. Directors to have cited the film as an influence include the English director Ken Loach and the American Steven Soderbergh. Both mention their admiration of the verisimilitude that Pontecorvo generates in his film, an aspect of The Battle of Algiers that has been the subject of academic study. Loach refers to its immediacy and the way in which the film makes a political event cinematic, without ever resorting to excess, as can often be the case with war films. For his part, Soderbergh refers to the near-necessity to include a disclaimer at the beginning of the film specifying that ‘not a foot of this film is documentary footage’. As well as influencing individual directors, The Battle of Algiers has been cited as a precursor to films such as Z (the 1969 French thriller directed by Costa-Gavras), Michael Collins (dir. Neil Jordan, 1996), and more recently the 2005 Steven Spielberg film Munich.

While highlighting the wide-reaching legacy of Pontecorvo’s film and its undoubted significance in the world of cinema, lines of comparison between The Battle of Algiers and the above films and directors are not hard to draw. Loach himself is known for his cinematic realism and a rundown of his cinematic output reveals firm socialist sympathies. Indeed, he cites his political engagement at the time of the release of The Battle of Algiers as another reason why he was captivated by the film. Soderbergh’s recent output includes the 2008 two-part biopic about the famous Cuban revolutionary figure, Che Guevara, and Soderbergh refers to The Battle of Algiers in his discussion of Che.

Political turmoil in the wake of the military dictatorship in Greece in the 1960s provides the backdrop to Z which, incidentally, was filmed in Algiers, while Michael Collins and Munich are also based on historical, ‘real-life’ events. The former tells the story of the Irish revolutionary, Michael Collins, who died in the Irish Civil War; the latter depicts the terrorism and counter-terrorism between Israeli and Palestinian groups in the aftermath of the murder by Palestinian terrorists of Israeli athletes and officials at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The parallels made between The Battle of Algiers and, in particular, Michael Collins and Munich inscribe Pontecorvo’s film, and in passing the Algerian War as well, within a wider, transnational context of war, terrorism, and counter-terrorism, underlining the relevance of The Battle of Algiers not just to the events that it represents, but to independence and anti-colonial movements around the world and to conflicts that remain of contemporary significance. The films mentioned above all share themes that The Battle of Algiers itself brings to the fore – political upheaval, revolution, war, terrorism and counter-terrorism, colonialism and anti-colonialism – all of which are explored through the lens of events rooted in history, even if none of the films succeed in emulating the grainy, black-and-white, documentary style that Pontecorvo deployed.

It was thus with a degree of surprise and interest that I found the latest director to cite The Battle of Algiers as an influence to be Christopher Nolan, the man behind the latest films in the Batman franchise. The final instalment in Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, premiered in July 2012, and brought an end to a story that commenced with 2005’s Batman Begins and 2008’s The Dark Knight. Interviews with Nolan and his team on the making of The Dark Knight Rises indicate that Nolan chose The Battle of Algiers as one of the films for the crew to watch and from which to gain inspiration before they started filming, with Nolan stating that ‘no film has ever captured the chaos and fear of an uprising as vividly as [The Battle of Algiers]’. In the remainder of this article, I will build on Nolan’s above statement, exploring the ways in which traces of Pontecorvo’s film manifest themselves in The Dark Knight Rises, especially with regard to the themes with which the final episode in the Batman trilogy engages.

For where The Dark Knight Rises differs from films such as Michael Collins, Che, and Munich is, clearly, in the fact that it is not based in any way on ‘real-life’ characters and events – quite the opposite. While The Battle of Algiers lends itself well to influencing films about revolutions, wars, and acts of terror and violence rooted in historical fact, how these themes might be transmitted to a superhero, comic-book film is less obvious. However, what has set Nolan’s Batman trilogy apart from the many films about comic-book characters and superheroes that seem to continue inundating cinemas has been its refreshing, more nuanced consideration of the issues that it brings to our attention, such as violence and terrorism. Though the films that make up the trilogy are still very much blockbusters, there is no American flag-waving nor, more importantly, a simplistically clear-cut representation of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. 

Ambivalence 

This ambivalence was exemplified first in The Dark Knight, the second of the trilogy, which won two Oscars in 2009, including Best Supporting Actor for Heath Ledger’s now iconic portrayal of the Joker. Though this iconic status has been heightened perhaps by Ledger’s tragic death in 2008, the Oscar points towards the success of the Joker in captivating audiences and blurring the ‘bad guy/good guy’ dichotomy. The Joker is a terrorist with few, if any, morals, but he is also the most entertaining character in the film and has all the best lines, causing him to overshadow Batman himself.

In The Dark Knight Rises, the role of the ‘bad guy’ is assigned to Bane who, though a very different character from the Joker, nonetheless blurs the dichotomy even further. The inevitability of comparing Bane with the Joker has led to some reviewers dismissing Bane as a one-dimensional brute who plays the convenient role of the jihadist for mainstream American audiences. This does Bane and the film a disservice. For Bane is a terrorist with a clear ideology – to fight against class inequality and the hegemonic powers. Firstly, his aim is to free the downtrodden and oppressed of Gotham who have been marginalised and forgotten, while the dominant classes have grown richer at their expense (highly symbolically, one of Bane’s first targets is the stock market). However, Bane’s ultimate goal is to bring Gotham to its complete and utter destruction: the city must be punished for its years of lavishness and greed. As one reviewer put it, Bane is ‘a gas-masked revolutionary [...] who paints himself as “Gotham’s reckoning”’. The use of the word ‘revolutionary’ here underlines the notion that the depiction of Bane as a terrorist is debatable (that old saying about freedom fighters and terrorists comes to mind), and points towards the idea that Nolan is not seeking to simply cast the latest Batman ‘bad guy’ as a the archetypal anti-American terrorist.

Parallels between Bane’s uprising and the uprising in the The Battle of Algiers reinforce this point, and suggest that Pontecorvo’s film might have constituted a greater influence on The Dark Knight Rises than Nolan himself lets on. The ‘chaos and fear’ inspired by The Battle of Algiers is certainly there, enhanced by another parallel between the two films – the location from which the uprising bursts forth. For the narrow and maze-like corridors of the Casbah in The Battle of Algiers, substitute the underground sewer where Bane forms his army of rebels: both locations prove difficult for the authorities to penetrate, making the acts of terror that stem from them all the more effective, as bombs go off in the centre of either Algiers or Gotham.

As Bane’s uprising goes ‘overground’, he compels the downtrodden citizens of Gotham to take back control of their city from their rich oppressors. As well as providing contemporary echoes of deep resentment towards the current economic crisis, Bane’s call-to-arms to the oppressed (the ‘wretched of the earth’ to borrow from Frantz Fanon’s famous reference to the victims of colonisation) and ultimate goal of Gotham’s complete destruction recalls the need for colonised subjects to rise against the colonial system and put a violent end to it - a notion that Fanon himself puts forward in The Wretched of the Earth (1961).     

At the end of The Dark Knight Rises, Batman overcomes Bane and saves Gotham – an inevitability of Hollywood blockbusters that, granted, gives the impression that Nolan was on Batman’s side, the side of ‘good’, all along. However, it has been said of The Battle of Algiers that the film is ‘clearly on the side of the Algerians in their liberation struggle’, even if it is ‘far from being a Manichean film’. While The Battle of Algiers may be clearly on the side of the Algerian revolutionaries, it also aims to present ‘a balanced version of the Algerian war’, including ‘a sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of the French colonel Mathieu’.

Similarly, The Dark Knight Rises may present Batman as the victor in the end but, in the final two films of his trilogy, Nolan presents us with a more nuanced portrayal of the classic comic-book ‘bad guy’, starting with the highly entertaining figure of the Joker, and ending with the revolutionary, anti-establishment rhetoric of Bane. This blurring of the ‘good guy/bad guy’ dichotomy has largely contributed to the way in which Nolan has redefined the comic-book film genre, and testifies to the unlikely extent of the legacy of The Battle of Algiers.


This article is part of the Algeria and the Arab Revolutions: Pasts, Presents and Futures partnership, funded by the Universities of Portsmouth and Sussex. Read more about openDemocracy's editorial partnerships programme.

About the author

Jonathan Lewis is a lecturer in the School of Languages and Area Studies at the University of Portsmouth where he teaches on the Francophone Africa MA.  His recently completed his PhD at the University of Exeter on ‘Conflict and Remembrance in Franco-Algerian Literature, 1981-1999’.