“The Battle of Algiers” - Gillo Pontecorvo (1966)

The Battle of Algiers (La Battaglia di Algeri, 1966) is a historical film (it is sometimes referred to as a “docudrama”) that holds a special niche in the history of cinema.  This is due to its significant subject matter and the way it treats that subject matter.  The film covers the first three years of the Algerian War (1954-1962), when the newly formed Algerian National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale, or “FLN”) waged a violent struggle to secure Algerian independence from French colonial rule that had begun more than a century earlier, in 1830.  This extended struggle would come to serve as a prototypical example for Marxists and leftists in general worldwide in their “revolutionary” efforts to help indigenous people free themselves from colonial rule.  As such, this film, with its apparent documentary authenticity, unintentionally came to serve as something of a blueprint for how to carry out modern revolutionary insurrection.

The film The Battle of Algiers was directed by Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo, written by Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas, and it was based on the memoirs of FLN leader Saadi Yacef, whose participation in the film’s production helped certify the basic authenticity of what was shown.  Indeed, Yacef even plays the role of a key FLN figure in the film who is a fictionalized version of himself.  Other contributions to the film’s famed aesthetics include the cinematography by Marcello Gatti, the film editing by Mario Morra and Mario Serandrei, and the music by Ennio Morricone and Gillo Pontecorvo.

A key aspect of the film that colors some critics’ reactions to it is the extent to which the film reflects Italian Neorealist production values.  Pontecorvo became an aficionado of Italian Neorealism when he first saw an iconic instance of this genre – Roberto Rossellini's Paisà (Paisan, 1946) – and it can be loosely said that his The Battle of Algiers is an instance of this genre.  In fact the coverage was considered to be so realistic that the film was later reported to be used for training purposes by both those groups grooming terrorists and those seeking to thwart them [1].  Nevertheless, Italian Neorealism encompassed a wide range of cinematic techniques and approaches, and, as I have commented [2,3], there is disagreement as to what constitutes its essence.  Thus in this film’s case for example, Pontecorvo used almost entirely non-professional Algerians for his actors, and his grainy, black-and-white imagery evoked newsreel-like street footage (i.e. in the fashion of Neorealism).  But on the other hand, his extensive use of tight closeups and careful dynamic editing had the character of conventional narrative cinematics.  So the jury is still out on the degree to which The Battle of Algiersis a Neorealistic film.

In addition and given the ongoing conflict between Western and Islamic cultures (the indigenous Algerians were predominantly Muslim), many viewers of The Battle of Algiers tend to have their own preconceived notions about those two societies before they even see the film, and they are always searching for what they consider to be a fair-minded presentation.  In this respect it  is interesting to consider Pontecorvo’s own background.  Born in 1919, he grew up in a secular Italian Jewish family, and as he matured, he developed Marxist sympathies, even serving for awhile (1941-1956) as a member of the Italian Communist Party.  But over the long run, Pontecorvo settled into becoming a principled, but not dogmatic, secular leftist.  So we can assume that his sympathies tended to lie in the general direction of the FLN, but he also saw things from a more objective perspective, too.  And this wider view is what he apparently brought to the production of this film.  Thus most reviewers have accepted that Pontecorvo and his team presented a fairly balanced picture of the two conflicting sides [4].  This is perhaps a key to why the film has always been so popular with the critics, both upon its initial release [4,5] and later after a restored version was released in 2004 [1,5,6,7,8,9].  Indeed the film is now considered to be a classic, and it was voted to be the 26th greatest film of all time on the “British Film Institute’s 2012 Director’s Poll” [10] (which surveyed hundreds of international film directors), and it was voted to be the 48th greatest film of all time on the “British Film Institute’s 2012 Critic’s Poll” [11] (which surveyed hundreds of international film critics).

The Algerian War (1954-1962), of which The Battle of Algiers was a key part, was a violent struggle that likely took more than 700,000, overwhelmingly Muslim, lives [12].  Because the French colonialists had gained possession of Algeria more than a century earlier, there was a sizable number of Europeans (more than 10 percent of the total population of about 10 million people at that time) living in Algeria for multiple generations and known as “Pieds-Noirs”.  In the city of Algiers, itself, nearly half the population of around 750,000 were Pieds-Noirs at that time.  But despite their longtime cohabitation, the two populations were separated by class and prejudice.

The story of the film begins with a focus on the Muslim sector of Algiers and, in particular, on a young, illiterate man, Ali La Pointe (played by Brahim Haggiag) who gets imprisoned for a minor  offence.  From his prison cell Ali observes a fellow-prisoner and  FLN member get tortured and guillotined, and this outrage inspires Ali to join the FLN.  

A few months later Ali is given instructions to kill a policeman.  But the gun he is given has only blanks in it, and the whole caper, from which Ali managed to escape, was merely designed to test Ali’s loyalty.  This is all later explained to Ali by a senior FLN operator, El-Hadi Jaffar (played by real FLN agent Yacef Saadi).

As the film proceeds, we are shown a series of tit-for-tat atrocities in public venues, both in the “European Quarter” and in the Casbah (the poor Arab/Berber quarter) carried out by the FLN and the French authorities, respectively.  There seems to be no point to these murderous acts of violence which only involve the annihilation of innocent people, other than to invoke feelings of terror among both populations.  This can only lead to a downward spiralling war of attrition.

Things get worse, so the French decide to fence off the entire Casbah and setup a checkpoint that will only allow approved people from the Casbah out into the European Quarter.  In response, the FLN arrange for three comely Muslim women volunteers to remove their chadors and dress up as European ladies so that they can get through the checkpoint and plant bombs in three separate locations in the middle-class European sector.  This is one of the most interesting and well-crafted sequences in the film.

Eventually, in 1957, the French authorities send in armed paratroopers to reestablish their control over the FLN.  The paratroop contingent is under the command of Colonel Philippe Mathieu (Jean Martin, the only professional actor in the film), and from now on the film moves to a compelling parallel narrative tracking, shifting back and forth between the various activities and outcomes of two opposing protagonists, Ali La Pointe and Colonel Mathieu.  Both men are rational individuals, yet each of them is capable of the cruel extermination of innocent civilians.

Over time, the French come to learn that the FLN are organized into a secretive pyramidal cellular structure, so that any captured FLN member would only know the identities of three other FLN people – one above him (the FLN member who commands him) and two below him (the identities of the two FLN members he commands).  This served to impede the cruel French strategy of capturing a FLN member and torturing him until he revealed the identities and contact information of a large number of their group.  Still, the French under Mathieu persisted, and they gradually eliminated FLN members one-by-one.  

Finally, it came down to just La Pointe and his close associates.  Mathieu and his men find out (through torture) that these fugitives are hiding behind a building wall, and then they ruthlessly blow up the whole  building in which they are hiding,, killing La Pointe along with several innocent people in the process.  

So in the end, by 1960, it looked like the FLN were completely destroyed.  But then, almost as a coda to this grim ending, Pontecorvo informs the viewer that the revolution erupted anew, and on July 2, 1962, Algeria succeeded in achieving its independence.  How could this possibly have happened?

It seems that over time the FLN eventually managed to capture the hearts of all the Algerian people by appealing to universal values of virtue and compassion.  Hints of this appeal to global feelings are provided by Pontecorvo at various stages in the film when he shows masses of Algerian women engaged in passionate ululation chants in support of their Algerian brother activists.  Thus a growing crowd of ordinary people came to be seen in support of this movement, and the police could not suppress this form of innocent expression.  So the ululation only intensified, and indeed The Battle of Algiers helped make political ululation popular on a global scale.

In fact, historian Yuval Noah Harari has argued that the “Third World” movements toward emancipation only managed to succeed in the last century when they were able to appeal to global, universal values [13]:
“Only in the twentieth century did non-European cultures adopt a truly global vision. This was one of the crucial factors that led to the collapse of European hegemony. Thus in the Algerian War of Independence (1954–62), Algerian guerrillas defeated a French army with an overwhelming numerical, technological and economic advantage. The Algerians prevailed because they were supported by a global anti-colonial network, and because they worked out how to harness the world’s media to their cause – as well as public opinion in France itself.  The defeat that little North Vietnam inflicted on the American colossus was based on a similar strategy.”
Pontecorvo doesn’t look at such higher-level issues concerning values and strategic resources.  Instead, his eye is on the street, looking at people in new and extreme situations trying to make their way.  Harari’s insights are valuable, but Pontecorvo’s ground-level perspective is also crucial.  Pontecorvo doesn’t really take sides; his relatively even-handed account simply opens the eye of the viewer and shows what The Battle of Algiers was like on the gritty, human level.  I recommend you watch this film.
★★★★
 
Notes:
  1. Roger Ebert , ”The Battle of Algiers”, RogerEbert.Com, (30 May 1968).   
  2. The Film Sufi, “Aesthetics of Two Neorealist Films: ‘Open City’ and ‘Paisan’", The Film Sufi, (18 November 2008).    
  3. The Film Sufi, “Subjective Realism in the Italian Film”, The Film Sufi, (13 January 2009).
  4. Andrew Sarris, “films”, The Village Voice, (5 October 1967).  
  5. Roger Ebert, “The cinematic fortunes of war”, Great Movies, RogerEbert.Com, (10 October 2004).    
  6. Peter Matthews, “The Battle of Algiers: Bombs and Boomerangs”, The Criterion Collection, (9 August 2011).   
  7. Omar Odeh, “Punishment Parks: The Battle of Algiers on DVD”, “Bright Lights Film Journal”, (31 October 2004).
  8. Peter Rainer, “Prescient Tense”, New York Magazine, (31 Decembeer 2004).  
  9. Alan O'Leary, “The Battle of Algiers at Fifty:: End of Empire Cinema and the First Banlieue Film”, Film Quarterly, Winter 2016, Volume 70, Number 2, (10 January 2017).   
  10. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).   
  11. “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).  
  12. “Algerian War”, Wikipedia, (3 June 2021).       
  13. Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, (London: Harvill Secker, 2014).

Gillo Pontecorvo

Films of Gillo Pontecorvo:

“The Crowd” - King Vidor (1928)

The Crowd (1928) is not only one of the greatest silent movies, it quite simply stands, in my view, as one of the greatest of all films ever made, period.  Conceived and directed by famous filmmaker King Vidor, the film covers the joys and woes of an ordinary young couple trying to make a go of it in a teaming metropolis full of similar people all seeking to stand out from “the crowd”.  This may sound like a fairly simplistic narrative scheme for a film, and in fact some people, like the early reviewer in Variety found the film boring [1].  And even today, The Crowd does not usually come first to the minds of most people thinking of great silent films.  But Vidor and his production team took this basic idea and fashioned a truly noteworthy work.  And over the years, reviewers who have had a chance to see The Crowd have consistently heaped praise on this masterpiece [2,3,4,5,6,7,8].

Vidor had recently made his famous antiwar hit, The Big Parade (1925), which was concerned with the more spectacular theme of the devastating impact of The Great War (World War 1), the horrors of which still reverberated in the world’s consciousness; and so his producers at MGM Studios were hoping for another blockbuster like that from Vidor.  The outline for The Crowd seemed very tame by comparison, and they were not so enthusiastic about the new project.  But given Vidor’s track record at the box office, they went ahead with it anyway and provided relatively big-budget funding.  And when we watch the film, we can see that the screenplay by King Vidor and John V. A. Weaver, the cinematography (which features some remarkable moving-camera shots) by Henry Sharp, the film editing by Hugh Wynn, along with Vidor’s direction, are all first-rate.

One measure of the breadth and polish of The Crowd's production team is the fact the film is considered to feature both Expressionist and Neorealist elements to it (it is even said that Italian Neorealist master Vittorio de Sica was inspired in his own work by The Crowd)  [2,7,8] – these are two contrasting aesthetic approaches that seem almost at odds with each other.  Neorealism suggests the raw,  objective reality of the street [9,10], while Expressionism “seeks to represent the external world as a reflection of the inner feelings of the author” [11].  Somehow Vidor managed his production to effectively invoke both of these evocative perspectives to great effect at various points along the way.

Mention should also be made of the key acting performances of the dramatis personae in the film.  While most of the secondary performers display the exaggerated countenances and theatrics common to the silent era, the two main actors gave remarkably nuanced performances.   James Murray, a relatively unknown actor, played the role of John Sims, the film’s principal protagonist, and Murray’s sensitive, natural portrayal of that character is a key ingredient to the film’s success.  Murray’s expressive and moving performance in this film should have shot him to stardom, but unfortunately that is not how it played out for him.  Murray’s persistent alcoholism ruined his career and led him downhill to vagrancy.  In 1936 his body was found in the Hudson River, a possible suicide.  

Eleanor Boardman played the part of the female protagonist, Mary Sims, and her performance was also outstanding.  Boardman, who was King Vidor’s wife at the time, was a well-known actress used to playing glamorous roles.  But here in The Crowd she plays an ordinary, plain housewife, and in the process gives the greatest screen performance of her career.  I particularly liked her meaningful looks of anticipation, which subtly conveyed more about her mental state than any dialogue subtitles could do.  

The story of The Crowd, as I mentioned, concerns what happens to an ordinary American couple in pursuit of success.  In fact the male protagonist, who was born on the 4th of July, is an exemplar of one who chases after the “American Dream”.  In this regard, most young American children are told that, however ordinary their circumstances may be, any of them could grow up someday to be U.S. President – like Abraham Lincoln.  So the film resonates particularly with American audiences.  As we follow John Sims’s pursuit of his dream, the film passes through approximately three stages.

1.  Formative Years
When John Sims is born on the 4th of July, 1900 (making him a “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and a symbolic representative of the “American Century”), his father expresses the conviction that his newborn son will amount to something.  And John carries that hope with him throughout his boyhood.  At the age of 21, John goes to seek his fortune in New York City and gets a routine desk job working for an insurance company.  The moving camera shots showing the huge, faceless skyscraper, on one of the floors of which is the insurance company’s vast open-plan office is justly famous for its expressionistic feeling.  It is here that we first see the grownup John Sims (played by James Murray) as one of a countless number of white-collar robots, which evokes, for me, imaginative images of Herman Melville’s story "Bartleby, the Scrivener”.

Bert (Bert Roach), a colleague of John’s in the huge open-plan office, sets up a blind double-date for the two of them to take two young women to the Coney Island amusement park.  On the bus on the way to the park, John spots a juggling sandwichman on the street and, turning to his date Mary (Eleanor Boardman), derisively dismisses the man as a poor sap.  

Very soon John and Mary fall in love and get married.  On their honeymoon to Niagara Falls, they take a sleeper-car train  and have their first conjugal bed experience, a scene that is deftly and amusingly handled by Vidor and his crew.  

2.  Scenes from a Marriage
In the second phase of the film, the niggling frustrations of the young married couple are brought to the fore.  John is ambitious, but he is just another nameless cog in a vast office machine.  On Christmas Eve he comes home late and drunk, standing up Mary’s family, who had come over for a visit.  Mary is always forgiving, but her husband’s constant complaining at home begins to take its toll.  She contemplates leaving him, but just then she becomes aware that she is pregnant, and that brings them back to matrimonial bliss.       

A son is born to Mary, and a few years later they are blessed with a daughter.  However, John’s low job status and failure to gain a promotion continue to be a source of frustration.  When John wins a $500 prize for an ad slogan competition, it seems that things might be finally looking up, but that only leads to an unfortunate accident that kills their young daughter.  

John is now so frustrated and depressed that he loses interest in his boring office work, and finally, in a fit of temper, he angrily resigns from his job.  

3.  Getting Desperate
Our suddenly unemployed protagonist is now constantly looking for work. But the low-paying jobs that John does find are either too boring or ones from which he quickly gets sacked.  So his jobless status goes on and on.  And he is still constantly complaining.  Mary, who takes on some home sewing work to help make ends meet, is losing her patience, and she chides her husband with the query:
“Are you sure it’s always somebody else . . . . and not you?”
Although John is essentially an innocent and well-meaning guy, he becomes more and more depressed about who he really is.  It’s not surprising then to see that when Mary’s two pompous brothers come around to grudgingly offer John a job, he angrily rejects such an offer of “charity”.  Finally fed up with her husband’s deadbeat stagnation, Mary throws him out of the house.

Now outside and at his wit’s end, John contemplates suicide.  But when he is just about to throw himself off a bridge, he encounters his cheerful five-year-old son, who loyally assures  him that he wants to grow up to be just like his dad.  This loving gesture raises John’s spirits, and he vows to keep on going towards his goal.

John gets a street job as a juggling advertising sandwich man – the very same job he had mockingly ridiculed when he had seen it from the bus on his early trip to Coney Island.  Only now, John embraces the job with enthusiasm.  He heads back home to tell Mary about his new job  in the hopes that she will forgive him.

But when John arrives home, he sees that Mary is packing up to go live with her family (her mother and two brothers).  Mary is adamant about leaving, but John manages to convince her to at least accept his invitation to take their young son and go with him to a vaudeville show for which he has purchased three tickets.  

The final shots of the film show John and Mary sitting in the vaudeville show audience and joining them all in uproarious laughter as they watch the slapstick antics being performed onstage.

This somewhat enigmatic ending is a key to The Crowd’s greatness.  We don’t know what the future will bring to John and Mary, but we do know that John is a member of “the crowd” of humanity and he seems to have finally embraced that fact.  The film implicitly urges the viewer to embrace that fact, too.  Indeed, underlying the American Dream is the idea that we are all members of “the crowd”.  The studio was worried about the ambiguity of this ending and ordered seven alternative happy-ending finales to be filmed and tested on preview audiences.  But none of them could have matched Vidor’s original ending, the one that was finally released and what we see today.                               
 
Overall, The Crowd is not to be seen only as a historical relic.  It continues to this day to be a great cinematic narrative and a moving viewing experience.  
★★★★
 
Notes:
  1. “The Crowd”, Variety, (22 February 1928).   
  2. Mordaunt Hall, “THE SCREEN; Don Juans of the Deep”, The New York Times, (20 February 1928). 
  3. Margarita Landazuri, “The Crowd”, San Francisco Silent Film Festival, (2003).   
  4. Fernando F. Croce. “Film Review: The Crowd”, Slant, (25 February 2007).   
  5. Dennis Schwartz, “CROWD, THE”, Dennis Schwartz Movie Reviews, (23 May 2007).   
  6. Mick LaSalle, “FILM REVIEW -- Vidor's Silent `Crowd' Still an Urban Masterpiece”, SFGATE, (8 November 1995, updated: 4 February 2012).   
  7. Tim Dirks, “The Crowd (1928)”, filmsite, (n.d.).   
  8. Bruce Hodsdon, “The Crowd”, Senses of Cinema, (August 2013).   
  9. The Film Sufi, “Aesthetics of Two Neorealist Films: 'Open City" and "Paisan'”, The Film Sufi, (18 November 2008).
  10. The Film Sufi, “Subjective Realism in the Italian Film”, The Film Sufi, (13 January 2009).
  11. The Film Sufi, “Expressionism in Film”, The Film Sufi, (28 June 2008).   

King Vidor

 Films of King Vidor: