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Classics, but still topical

Some foreign misadventure films can give insight into the events of today.

June 04, 2004|Michael Sragow | The Baltimore Sun

In the U.S. Defense Department, Pentagon instructors recently have been screening "The Battle of Algiers" to demonstrate the dangers of urban warfare, the roots and strategies of terrorism, and the ugliness of interrogative torture.

But when it came to putting clear-cut messages in films, "Lawrence of Arabia" screenwriter Robert Bolt expressed disdain, explaining, "It's when you start truckling to this or that expectation that you give offense." That noted, here's a short guide to classic foreign misadventure films and how they really stack up against today's events:

"Lawrence of Arabia" (1962). Yes, there are memorable scenes of T.E. Lawrence berating battling tribal Arab partners for being silly, barbarous and cruel. Yet the movie remains a towering achievement not as a vision of failed Arab unity but as a study of an Englishman's hoisting Rudyard Kipling's "white man's burden" into the 20th century.

"The Four Feathers" (1939). Zoltan Korda, who made this enduring Sudan-set adventure, conveyed the headiness of imperial conquest -- perhaps its driving force. His Anglo hero's masquerade as a Sangali outcast underlines the indignities the British rained down on native populations better than any "noble savage" character.

"Apocalypse Now" (1979). Marlon Brando's Kurtz, the mad king of the Cambodian jungle during the Vietnam War, talks of embracing horror in order to win the conflict. This movie is overdue as a reference to the lawlessness that held sway in American-run Iraqi prisons.

"The Battle of Algiers" (1965) has become a Pentagon must-see because it wrenchingly re-creates torture and house-to-house fighting between French paratroops and National Liberation Front terrorists. But a popular revolution throwing off colonial oppression bears only a skewed relationship to the welter of insurgents in Iraq battling forces who were recently regarded as liberators.


Michael Sragow is film critic at the Baltimore Sun, a Tribune company.

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