The Battle Of Algiers

Dir: Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966. Starring: Brahim Hadjadj, Jean Martin, Saadi Yacef. Imports/Foreign.
The Battle Of Algiers

Banned in France for five years, The Battle Of Algiers is the best pro-terrorism film ever made (yep, even better than V For Vendetta). Led by Ennio Morricone’s thrilling score, who wouldn’t root for those poor, but heroic Algerians in their struggle against the creepy militant imperialistic French? Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do to get all those pretentious cafes out of the Casbah. Told about ten years after the actual war, director Gillo Pontecorvo has crafted the definition of a "docu-drama," so well done it’s often mistaken for an actual documentary. Shot in grainy black & white in the actual locations of the real life events, Pontecorvo notes in the opening titles that not one foot of newsreel footage was used.

The Battle Of Algiers was released in the United States as the war in Vietnam was making many Americans sympathetic to the victims of colonialists. The film had a massive impact and scored awards all over the world. It would win the prestigious Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival and strangely, for technical reasons, it would be nominated in 1967 for the Best Foreign Film Oscar and two years later it would get nominated for Best Director and for Best Screenplay (I’m not sure if any other film has received three Oscar nominations in two different years, two years apart).

The film attempts to tell both sides of this dirty little war, the Algerian nationalists fighting for independence, known as the National Liberation Front (FLN) led by a petty criminal, Ali (Brahim Hadjadj). Ali gets radicalized in prison, joins up with the FLN and through his courage and cunning becomes a national symbol of resistance. The brutal French military are led by Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin) who, though he is strongly pro-French and pro-military, by the end shows strong admiration for the FLN. The Algerians in the film are mostly "non-actors" and are very believable. Interestingly, real life FLN leader Saadi Yacef plays himself, a substantial role - he’s the guy who recruits Ali. He probably could have continued working in films, he’s that good. He is also credited as a producer on the film.

The Battle of Algiers is not boring history class homework; it works as a thriller as well. Like most rebellions and guerrilla wars both sides use brutal tactics to get the job done. In one superbly suspenseful scene the FLN employ women, getting them dolled up to mesh with the Europeans, who then go into the French district to set off bombs. In one shocking scene they blow up a malt shop full of swinging French teenagers and an ice cream parlor full of families. In a sign that Pontecorvo is not looking to completely take the side of the Algerians, the aftermath of those bombings, the gathering of the victims, is shown while Morricone’s elegiac music plays. On the other hand the French military uses extreme torture and the racist French mobs attack Algerians indiscriminately.

The film has often been seen as a "How To Guide" for overthrowing an occupying force. You see the FLN lost the battle for Algiers, but inspired the people outside the city - the mountain and rural people of Algeria - to rise up, and with those numbers the French occupation was hopeless. Over the years the film has continued to stir controversies. In South Africa, Ireland, and Israel - obviously with the occupiers not wanted - their tightly-wound indigents were checking it out. It’s no secret that in 2003 before the Iraq invasion, Bush’s Defense Department made The Battle Of Algiers required viewing at the Pentagon. They were hoping to learn from the mistakes the French made by ignoring "hearts & minds."

Pontecorvo would follow The Battle Of Algiers with the underrated, ambitious epic Quemada (Burn). He and star Marlon Brando famously had fights on the set (interestingly it was usually over Pontecorvo's cruel treatment of the Bolivian extras employed by the film). That was the last Pontecorvo film to get an international release; it would be ten years before he would make another and he would mostly stick to political documentary shorts. But others would carry on the mantel of intelligent and challenging European docu-dramas, most notably Costa-Gavras with his two political masterpieces Z and State Of Siege (strangely still not available on DVD). Years later, Irishman Paul Greengrass would carry on Pontecorvo’s docu-style with the stunning Bloody Sunday (he would continue to use elements of the style in a different way directing the later two Bourne films).

In 2004 high-end DVD distributors Criterion would give The Battle Of Algiers the superstar treatment it deserved, with an extraordinary 3-DVD box set crammed with hours of documentaries about Pontecorvo and the film. Now more and more generations will be able to enjoy this film, whether it's to bask in Pontecorvo’s simple filmmaking beauty or as inspiration to fight the power.


The Battle Of Algiers was nominated for 3 Oscars: Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Foreign Language Film.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Oct 27, 2010 3:53pm
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