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THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Brahim Haggiag, Jean Martin, Saadi Yacef, Mohamed Ben Kassen
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Audio: French & Arabic
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Gillo Pontecorvo documentary, Making-of feature, Five Directors interviews, production gallery, trailers, Remembering History documentary, États d'armes documentary, Battle of Algiers: a Case Study, Gillo Pontecorvo's Return to Algiers documentary, booklet
Length: 121 minutes
Release Date: October 12, 2004

"There are 400,000 Arabs in Algiers.  Are they all our enemies?"

Film ****

Political filmmaking, by its very nature, constantly runs the risk of alienating any particular political or ethnic group at a given time.  Presented well, though, such films can deliver a balanced, objective recount of important events or conflicts.  Presented poorly, these films can devolve into one-sided soapbox tirades.  Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers is a prime example of an effective presentation of one such political conflict.  As a faithful and historically accurate recreation of a conflict between France and Algeria, Pontecorvo's film is generally acknowledged as one of the most influential political films ever made.

To fully appreciate The Battle of Algiers, one must first understand the nature of the long and often-rocky relationship between France and the nation of Algeria.  The roots of this conflict first emerged during the Franco-Prussian War of 1817, when France ceded the provinces of Alsace-Lorraine to Prussia.  The French refugees who fled from these regions subsequently settled in the African region of Algeria.  The pieds noirs, as they became known, were able to establish a strong French presence in the region, and France would consequently fight a long and difficult war of conquest from 1830-1871 to absorb Algeria into its empire.

Algeria's new place in the French empire was unique, however.  Unlike its African neighbors Morocco and Tunisia, which were French protectorates (or colonies), Algeria was actually integrated into France as a province.  Pieds noirs were given full rights as French citizens, although these rights were not extended to the native Muslim populace, despite Algeria's legal status as a French province.  This inequality would foster a foundation of native discontent that would manifest itself many times over the century, although these resistance movements were all eventually subdued by the French.

The situation after World War II, though, proved to be different.  A newly-formed United Nations was calling for an end to colonialism worldwide.  On May 8, 1945, when native Algerians in Setif and Guelma organized a demonstration for equal rights, they were infamously massacred.  Some estimated 45,000 demonstrators were killed or injured that day.  From that date onward, eventual armed rebellion against French rule proved inevitable.

On November 1, 1954, fighting finally erupted along the countryside region of Kabylia and the Aurès Mountains in eastern Algeria, harkening the official commencement of the French-Algerian War.  The revolt was organized by the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), whose founding leaders expressed a stated goal of the liberation of Algeria from French colonial rule.

Initially, the rebellion was limited to guerrilla tactics which generally spared the nearly one million pieds noirs living in Algeria at the time.  However, the FLN eventually inflicted several horrific massacres on French nationals in the countryside, with August 20, 1955 marking a transition to open warfare as an uprising of armed peasants in Constantine attempted to seize control of local settlements.

By 1956, the Algerian capital, Algiers, was likewise dragged into the conflict by two singular events.  Until then, the limited violence in Algiers had been directed primarily at French police forces and military personnel.  This restraint dissolved away with the execution in June 1956 of FLN guerillas Ahmed Zabane and Abdelkader Ferradj, followed by a bombing attack in the Casbah.  The resulting explosion, attributed to pieds noirs sympathizers, ripped through the rue de Thèbes in the Casbah, killing or injuring scores of Algerian Muslims.  This attack ultimately sparked an augmentation of  widespread violence throughout Algiers.

The FLN itself used terrorist bombing techniques for the first time in September 1956, attacking three cafés in the European quarters of Algiers in retaliation for the rue de Thèbes incident.  Increased escalation of this bombing campaign after September 1956 forced French Premier Guy Mollet to mobilize large numbers of French troops to Algiers to maintain civil order.  The 10th Paratrooper Division, under the command of General Jacques Massu, was sent to Algiers and, from January 1957 onwards, fought a ferocious campaign, called the battle of Algiers, to crush the FLN rebellion.

The turning point in the battle of Algiers arrived when the FLN called for a general city-wide strike in 1957 to demonstrate Algerian solidarity behind its cause.  The strike was carefully timed to coincide with an important U.N. debate over the Algerian issue.  The French paratroopers, under General Massu's command, took advantage of the strike to identity FLN supporters, arresting or torturing hundreds of Algerian Muslims in order to flush out the FLN militants and its leadership.  The Algiers conflict finally concluded with the arrest of FLN leader Saadi Yacef and the death of Ali La Pointe in September 1957.

Although most of the actual French-Algerian War was fought in skirmishes among the Aurès Mountains of eastern Algeria, the resistance in Algiers, the heart of Algeria, was instrumental in persuading the French people of Algeria's desire for independence.  The events of 1957 eradicated all organized FLN resistance in the city of Algiers, but while the FLN may have lost the battle of Algiers, it won the greater support of Algerian Muslims.  By 1960, to French dismay, demonstrations for independence had resumed in Algiers.  Within two years, the French government under Charles de Gaulle became convinced of the futility of further incessant fighting and re-opened negotiations with the FLN to grant Algeria its long-desired independence.

Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers focuses almost exclusively upon the confrontation in Algiers (rather than the French-Algerian War at large).  Covering a period between 1954-57, The Battle of Algiers examines the anti-colonial efforts of the FLN in its terrorist and guerilla warfare to end 130 years of colonial rule by France.  Some important historic figures, such as FLN leaders Ben M'Hidi and Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) are represented in the film.  Others, such as El-Hadi Jaffar, are fictionalized versions of real people (in this case, Saadi Yacef, who also portrays the character in the film).  The film introduces Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin) as the commander of the 10th Paratrooper Division.  A composite of key French officers in the real battle (Colonels Marcel Bigeard and Yves Godard and especially General Jacques Massu), Colonel is portrayed as an intelligent but complex soldier, one who lends a compassionate ear to the FLN's requests yet is not above resorting to tough prisoner interrogations, designed to "ensure an answer" for the greater cause of saving innocent lives against further bombing attacks.

While fairly authentic, Pontecorvo's film does leave out certain unsavory details about the FLN.  For one, the FLN favored a one-party political system and was willing to massacre supporters of other revolutionary groups, which advocated a multi-party system, to ensure its own political supremacy in the post-war environment.  The May 28, 1957 massacre of Messali supporters in the village of Melouza was just one example of the FLN's orchestrated efforts to this end.

The original concept of the film was also significantly different from the final version.  An early treatment for the film, then entitled Parà, was envisioned as a star vehicle for Paul Newman.  He was to be a former paratrooper now covering the crisis in Algiers as a journalist; his inner turmoil and path of self-discovery during the course of the film would individualize the Algiers conflict through a Western perspective.  Another early treatment for the film took the opposite extreme, entirely portraying the FLN terrorist rebels in a positive light, but was rejected outright as being "sickeningly propagandistic" (perhaps the filmmakers did not want to recreate another Exodus, a Paul Newman film about, coincidentally enough, terrorism and independence).

Fortunately, the decision was made to fashion the film into a fusion of Italian neorealism with the political, pseudo-documentary style of early silent film masters Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein.  Pontecorvo utilized a cast largely comprised of non-professionals, literally thousands sometimes for the film's numerous crowd scenes.  Grainy, black & white film stock was selected for its similarity to newsreel footage.  As a result, the finished film, despite containing no newsreel or documentary footage, feels entirely authentic and quite genuine.

The Battle of Algiers was premiered in 1966 at the Venice Film Festival.  Even in face of initial worries over how the film would be received, it readily won the prestigious Golden Lion Award and then proceeded upon a highly successful theatrical run.  Unfortunately, fire-bombings disrupted plans to screen the film in France, and as a result the film was essentially banned in France for many years due to its incendiary and sensitive subject matter.  In fact, even years afterward the conclusion of the conflict, French President Charles de Gaulle had to endure much criticism over his handling of the Algerian conflict.  He also had to live under the constant threat of assassination from irate extremists and ex-military leaders of the Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS) who believed that de Gaulle had betrayed the nation (the excellent thriller film Day of the Jackal presents a fictional account of one such OAS assassination attempt on de Gaulle's life).

As far as political films go, The Battle of Algiers is one of the finest ever made.  It illustrates the immense difficulty facing an occupying force trying to combat an invisible enemy, one which can strike without warning and then blend seamlessly back into a gathering crowd.  After all, how can a soldier differentiate an innocent civilian from a guerilla fighter when even young women or children are potential threats?  The Algiers crisis proved that even strict curfews and police checkpoints were insufficient deterrents against determined rebel fighters.  Such situations can only breed fear.  Fear begets distrust, and distrust begets prejudice.  In one illustrative scene from the film, this fear manifests itself when an innocent Arabic man is besieged by angry French civilians and policemen alike simply because of his ethnicity.

"It's hard to start a revolution, harder to sustain it, and hardest of all to win it."

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  The world is a different place now than it was in the 1950's.  Yet, in looking over the current international sociopolitical arena, one develops the impression that, in essence, nothing has really changed significantly.  Ideally, a film like The Battle of Algiers should be nothing more than a footnote, an exceptional one perhaps but still only a footnote in cinematic history.  That it remains as shockingly relevant in this contemporary world as it was nearly a half-century ago is a pointed commentary on human affairs.

Pontecorvo's film ends with an epilogue demonstrating a key lesson of warfare - that it is possible to win all the battles but still lose the war.  Several years after the FLN's fall in Algiers, Algeria did indeed win.  On July 1962, following the Evian Accords in March of the same year, Algeria was granted full independence from France.

Video ** ½

"Acts of violence don't win wars.  Neither wars nor revolutions.  Terrorism is useful as a start.  But then, the people themselves must act."

The Battle of Algiers is presented in its original black & white, 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio.  Granted, the film looks old, with occasional scratches and debris marks, but it is virtually impossible to distinguish how much of this was intentional (to resemble old newsreel footage) and how much can actually be attributed to normal wear and tear over the years.  The image quality, understandably, is quite variable, alternating between contrasty black & white footage upon grainy film stock and fine-grain film stock.  All these imperfections, however, ultimately serve to enhance the strongly authentic feel of this film.

Audio **

"They set off bombs.  We set off bombs.  That's the price of war and violence."

The monaural soundtrack has an occasional buzz to it that slurs some of the dialogue.  As an Italian production, this dialogue was apparently post-dubbed, too, so the sound frequently does not match lip movement very well.  The audio is par for these older Italian movies.

I want to point out the fine score by Ennio Morricone (best known for his Sergio Leone collaborations), too.  Co-written by Pontecorvo, this alternately tense and exciting or mellow and poignant music emphasizes some of the tragedies on both sides in this conflict while not being so intrusive as to shatter the illusion of the film as a pseudo-documentary.

Features ****

"You can be good at counter-insurgency, and you can be good at counter-terrorism, but you'll lose the war if you're bad at the political strategy or the battle of ideas and values."

This Criterion release is comprised of three discs.  Disc one holds the film itself as well as a few sparse extras.  There is a production gallery with stills (45) of the cast and crew in Algeria and the Casbah, along with posters and lobby cards for the film's various international releases.  There are also two trailers, a vintage 1960's version and one for the 2004 Rialto re-release.

There are a wealth of documentary features for this Criterion release, and disc two contains three such documentaries which focus primarily on director Pontecorvo and his revolutionary film.  First is Gillo Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth (1992), a 37-minute featurette narrated by literary critic Edward Said.  This featurette looks at the background and political upbringing of the director and how they influenced him during the making of his film.  Pontecorvo explains his "dictatorship of truth," by which he implied that a film's sincerity or authenticity could only be achieved with the right faces for each role, even if that entailed using non-professionals.  Among the more unusual revelations are that Pontecorvo was briefly a tennis pro, and his travels re-shaped his own beliefs and personal philosophies, leading him to become a photojournalist and later an actor and eventually director.

Pontecorvo himself appears in various interview clips to explain the influence of socialism and Italian neorealism upon his films and his long-time association with screenplay writer Franco Solinas.  Clips are shown from his directorial debut Kapò (1959), one of the first films to depict life within German concentration camps.  Kapò also demonstrated Pontecorvo's flair for handling large crowd scenes, a skill which would become crucial in The Battle of Algiers.  Clips also appear from Burn!, a difficult 1969 film about a Caribbean revolt, starring Marlon Brando, and Ogro (1979), another politically-charged film about terrorist bombings.

Marxist Poetry: the Making of The Battle of Algiers (51 min.) is a new documentary created exclusively for this release.  It features interviews with director Pontecorvo, composer Morricone, cinematographer Marcello Gatti, actor Jean Martin, and numerous film historians and critics who have supported the film over the years.  This documentary traces the film's origins from its early script treatments through production and financing problems confronting the film.  Saadi Yacef also appears and speaks about his memoirs and his own experiences within the FLN.  The documentary concludes with a discussion of the film's positive reception at the Venice Film Festival and the consequent ban in France (The Battle of Algiers was not shown in France until 1971 thanks in large part to the efforts of supportive French director Louis Malle).

Five Directors (17 min.) offers interview excerpts with several top directors as they discuss the film's influence and importance.  The directors who appear are Spike Lee, Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh, and Oliver Stone.  Soderbergh cites The Battle of Algiers as a blueprint for his directorial style in Traffic.

Disc three contains the remaining four documentaries, which focus especially on the history of the actual war itself.  The most significant of these documentaries is Remembering History (69 min., 2004), made exclusively for this DVD release.  This outstanding documentary reconstructs the events surrounding the actual conflict in Algiers.  It offers interviews with many of the major figures of the conflict, including Saadi Yacef, head of the FLN in the Casbah during the battle of Algiers, and General Jacques Massu, commander of the 10th Paratrooper Division.  It further traces the history between France and Algeria back to the early 1800's to provide greater context for the foundation of resentment that existed in Algeria for many decades before culminating in the French-Algerian War.  The documentary concludes on an epilogue that briefly outlines the first few years of Algerian independence as well as the fate of some of the conflict's surviving participants.

États d'armes (28 min.) examines the necessary use of torture and execution during the Algiers crisis.  This featurette is actually part three of a longer 2002 documentary, L'ennemi intime, which focused on the various tragedies of the French-Algerian War.  A lot of archival footage is shown, interspersed with interviews of senior French military and political officials recalling the crisis in Algiers.  Some of their revelations are disturbing and serve to show that in war, there are truly no innocents, but sometimes, the ends must justify the means.  Again, this is not an easy documentary to watch, and viewers who are squeamish about the subject of torture may elect to skip over this documentary.

Battle of Algiers: a Case Study (25 min.) presents a talk session between Richard Clarke, former national counter-terrorism coordinator, and Michael Sheehan, former State Department coordinator for counter-terrorism, as moderated by Christopher Isham, chief of investigative projects for ABC News.  The topic is the relevance of the film The Battle of Algiers in today's contemporary sociopolitical environment.  Clarke and Sheehan both offer very level-headed and intelligent critiques of the French techniques and political strategy in handling the Algiers situation.  The points they raise are extremely well thought-out and quite valid, not merely sound bits.  This documentary is definitely worth a look and is a solid rebuttal to the arguments offered in États d'armes.

The DVD bonus features conclude with Gillo Pontecorvo's Return to Algiers (58 min.), a look at Pontecorvo's return to Algiers twenty-seven years after the release of his landmark film.  The director, serving as a special correspondent for the Italian TV program Mixer, examines the socioeconomic and political growth in Algeria since its independence in 1962.  At times sensationalist and certainly very fast-paced, this documentary examines Algeria during a critical transition period between the FLN's dictatorial one-party system and a new multi-party democracy.  This documentary also covers the assassination of Algerian President Mohamed Boudiaf (a founding member of the FLN) just three days prior to the broadcast, presumably over a fundamentalist crisis in the country.

Next, as is generally the case for important Criterion releases, there is a handsome booklet included with this three-DVD set.  The 56-booklet contains numerous articles as well as many remarkably authentic-looking stills from the film itself.  In "The Battle of Algiers: Bombs and Boomerangs," Peter Matthews, a regular contributor to Sight & Sound, discusses early concepts for the film, its cinéma vérité approach, and its influence on such groups as the Black Panthers and the IRA.

The next article is Saadi Yacef's account of his actual arrest, as originally published in his memoirs Souvenirs de la bataille d'Alger.  Yacef wrote his memoirs while in prison awaiting the execution of his death sentence (he was later pardoned and set free after Algeria earned its independence).  This excerpt can be compared to an excerpt from the original screenplay by Gillo Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas, which were closely based upon Yacef's accounts.

Screenwriter Franco Solinas has established his career writing predominantly political films, among them Pontecorvo's three most important films (Kapò, The Battle of Algiers, and Burn!) as well as Francesco Rosi's Salvatore Giuliano.  In 1972, Solinas' scenario for The Battle of Algiers was published, and Solinas provided an interview transcript as an introduction for that publication.  That transcript is included within this Criterion booklet.  In the interview, Solinas describes his writing technique and how the script for The Battle of Algiers was created.  He also elaborates upon elements of the actual conflict which were only briefly mentioned or not included in the film.  The concept of colonialism, torture (used by both sides in the conflict), and the role of the United Nations during this time are also discussed.

The next section of the booklet will appeal highly to history buffs.  Political science professor Arun Kapil has compiled a selected biographies of prominent figures in the actual French-Algerian War, including many not mentioned in the film.  This section provides a superb reference for one of the most important conflicts in recent French history.  Anyone interested in more details than provided herein can refer to a list of recommended reading at the end of this biography section.

Lastly, the booklet ends with DVD credits and acknowledgements and technical information about the transfer itself.

Summary:

A virtual textbook in the art of political filmmaking, The Battle of Algiers is a brilliant recreation of Algiers' struggle against France for independence.  A gripping film that is as frighteningly relevant today as forty years ago, Pontecorvo's masterpiece is not to be missed.  Top recommendation!

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