“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.
  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).

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