An extraordinary political melodrama about liberation struggles in colonial settings, produced by its female star and released at the same time as Mehboob Kahn’s Mother India, with which it would ideally be programmed. It would also make a fantastic double bill with Gillo Pontecorvo The Battle of Algiers (1966), which also features the character of Jamila. When we began this podcast I was a bit anxious that we weren’t knowledgeable enough on Chahine’s oeuvre to say anything worth listening to. But as I’ve began reading the literature on Chahine, I realise that what we know and can bring to the table is a knowledge of film history and film aesthetics. None of the books on Chahine I’ve read, for example, mention the influence of Gone With the Wind on this film — extraordinarily interesting in the light of current discussions of the film — and we are beginning to dig out patterning: the melodramatic mode, the politics that underpin, the extraordinary long takes often shot in and for depth, the filming from the inside out, the mobile camera, the ease with which affect is generated, the cinephilia through which one sees and where one detects the influence of Dreyer’s Joan of Arc (1928), Sirk’s mise-en-scène, American post-war musicals; the homoeroticism more evident in some film than others but always a running thread; the filming of individuals with crowds, which are often depicted as community but also shown to turn against the individual. This is a film based on a true story and filmed in the heat of the moment where the fate of the heroine was not yet settled. It’s an extraordinary film that once more raises questions regarding the relations between political cinema and film form. We highly recommend it.
The podcast can be listened to below:
The film can be seen below
Some of you may find useful the 2019 Ritrovato Catalogue on Jamila, The Algerian, with its plot summary and credit listings:
Bette Davis’ recompense for having missed out on Gone With the Wind; one of her greatest hits; a legendary performance that’s still the gold standard for screen acting. The film’s themes – the conflict between North and South, the battle of the sexes, the constraints of societal morays on individual identity and expression, the price women pay for over-stepping those limits – all are expressively explored. William Wyler directs with great fluidity — the camera always seems to be craning, gliding, moving in, accenting – and in depth. Yet, it feels restrained – or rather, right: it never feels too much.
Watching the film is an immersive experience, as if one is drifting into a cloud of pure emotion, probably lifted there by Max Steiner’s score. The realm of feeling – complex, understandable, contradictory, ours – feels right on the surface of the film; on its skin; and communicated from there to our own. It’s almost a great film. What stops it from being so in my view is all the happy-clappy slaves singing their joy at the Halcyon plantation. This is by no means the worst offender in its time. In fact one can argue that there’s a context in which it can be seen as liberal and progressive. But it does offend current eyes and ears, at least mine.
And yet here is also Davis’ Julie, one of her most popular and celebrated performances, goading Pres (Henry Fonda), challenging his masculinity, confronting convention, proud, arrogant, spoiled, then humiliated and suffering. She’s great, a witch – we don’t know how she achieves what she does; how she communicates such complexity so clearly — and completely bewitching in all her legendary moments: getting off her horse, choosing the red dress, the ball sequence, goading Pres with his ‘stick’ in a phallic battle she wins, the humiliation of her attempts to win him back, her final self-abnegation at the end. A must for anyone interested in great screen acting.
Orry Kelly’s costuming is better than Walter Plunkett’s for Gone With the Wind
The first of three Davis films directed by Wyler, the others being The Letter (1940) and The Little Foxes (1941)
For Gone With The Wind fans: There’s a lovely scene in L’armée des ombres/ Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969) where two heads of the French resistance — Phillipe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) and Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse) — are in London for a meeting and they end up at the pictures watching Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, USA, 1939). As they come out of the cinema and onto the street, in probably the most brightly lit moment in the film, with the GWTW billboard shown in what looks like a brilliant Technicolour palette, Jardie says, ‘For the French the war will be over when they can read Le Canard enchaîné and see this marvellous film’. Once again entertainment, bright light and brilliant colour signifying the utopian hopes of a grey, war-torn London in a film about shadows, armies and resistance to existing realities.