Published on September 8th, 1966 | by Padraic Coffey0
The Battle of Algiers (1966)
Few political films have been as influential as Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. Produced in 1966, remarkably, only four years after Algeria seceded from France, its crackling sound and slightly tarnished black-and-white cinematography afford the film even more of a documentary-style realism than it may have possessed upon its initial release. It charts, with a dispassionate gaze, the campaign by militant Arab separatists against the constabulary in Algeria’s capital city, Algiers. This leads to the violent reprisal by officers of the law, civilian bombings and the introduction of an experienced French army to police the area.
The film does not have a hero in a traditional sense, though centres on Ali la Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), showing his rise from petty street hustler to revolutionary. The film begins with la Pointe, along with three comrades, barricaded inside the wall of a building in the Arab-dominated Casbah. This location has been pinpointed by the French army through the use of brutal interrogation techniques, and he remains the last of the FLN (National Liberation Front) leaders to evade custody. We then flashback to La Pointe’s induction into the ranks of the FLN, and his eventual rise to the top of the organisation.
Those unfamiliar with the history of the relationship between Algeria and France may find the film makes little concessions by way of exposition. Nonetheless, parallels can be drawn between the situation and many other radical independence movements throughout the world. Leaving aside any moral quandaries, Neil Jordan’s assassination montages in Michael Collins owe as much to Pontecorvo as they do to any other filmmaker. Thaddeus O’Sullivan, too, cited the film explicitly as an influence when he dedicated his 1995 Belfast-set film, Nothing Personal, to Pontecorvo. It is no surprise that The Pentagon screened the film for many of its top advisors in preparation for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
One of the most thought-provoking questions posed by The Battle of Algiers is how the morality of the French army should be viewed. We are treated to scenes of torture, but are also reminded that there are men in the ranks of this army – including the Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin) – who fought against the Nazis. Therefore, sweeping damnations of their behaviour do a disservice to the complexity of the situation.
Though the extremity of the French treatment of FLN detainees is not spared, The Battle of Algiers is far from propagandistic for either side. Perhaps the most famous extended sequence – the synchronised bombing of civilian cafés, with cherub-faced children oblivious to the upcoming carnage – shows the ruthlessness with which the FLN carried out their acts. These scenes are scored by the great Ennio Morricone’s music, later reused by Quentin Tarantino in his WWII film Inglorious Basterds.
If the film is lacking in one area, it is in information about the legacy of the FLN’s campaign and the birth of Algeria as an independent state. Its economic stagnation and the mass exodus of Algerians to France could serve as an interesting footnote for any contemporary viewer. This, however, is inevitable with any film detailing a factual event so soon after its occurrence.
The Battle of Algiers remains an extremely pertinent depiction of guerrilla warfare, and a high-ranking entry in the docudrama genre.