THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS
Review by Ed Nguyen
Brahim Haggiag, Jean Martin, Saadi Yacef, Mohamed Ben Kassen
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Audio: French & Arabic
Video: Black & white, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
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
are 400,000 Arabs in Algiers. Are
they all our enemies?"
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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).
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.
hard to start a revolution, harder to sustain it, and hardest of all to win it."
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.
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.
of violence don't win wars. Neither
wars nor revolutions. Terrorism is
useful as a start. But then, the
people themselves must act."
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.
set off bombs. We set off bombs. That's the price of war and violence."
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.
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.
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."
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
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
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.
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).
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
the booklet ends with DVD credits and acknowledgements and technical information
about the transfer itself.