This week I re-watched an unforgettable film that I discovered in 2013 while writing a paper on Algeria. La Bataille d’Alger, released in 1966 and banned in France for more than 5 years, is a remarkable movie, by Italian journalist and filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo. The screenplay, written by Yacef Saâdi, a former Algerian rebel, dramatizes true events that took place in the Casbah of Algiers between 1954 and 1957. More than a groundbreaking production, filmed without professional actors, The Battle of Algiers continues to have an international influence. Military and militant organizations alike, still use the film to gain insights into how to combat or wage a sustained insurgency.
For a bit of background, the action unfolds toward the end of France’s colonial rule over what is now Algeria. Close to one million inhabitants of the region were of European origin, mostly living in metropolitan areas like the city of Algiers. 1954 marks the beginning of the Algerian War of Independence that officially ended on July 2, 1962. The actual Battle of Algiers, depicted in this highly acclaimed motion-picture, was a horrifically brutal and bloody conflict between members of Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN) and French government forces.
A Docudrama Ahead of its Time
I’m not particularly fond of old, black-and-white movies, especially those in the warfare category. So, when I stumbled upon this film on Youtube, I wasn’t expecting it to hold my attention for 121 minutes. Surprisingly, the film quickly drew me in, gluing me to my laptop. Gillo Pontecorvo was a ground-breaking filmmaker whose body of work continues to influence the world’s great directors. In the 1960s, most war dramas presented a sterilized depiction of warfare. Pontecorvo was devoted to reality, daring to depict scenes of terrorism and torture. (The movie contains mild levels of violence compared to today’s entertainment standards). American war films almost always glorified one side of the conflict while demonizing the other. Rather than vilifying either French forces or FLN rebels, Pontecorvo exposes the rationals that both sides used to justify various acts of brutality
Perhaps even more trailblazing is Pontecorvo’s use of female characters. The women who play revolutionaries in the film are calm, committed, and courageous. Nearly all dramatic films from this era contain portrayals of women that make me wince and leave me wondering how, growing up in the 60s and 70s, I ever managed to retain a backbone. Not so in The Battle of Algiers. Here, female resisters, while not leaders, still play a significant role in the FLN’s effort to break France’s stranglehold over Algeria.
Nearly all of the actors in the movie were unknown amateurs or people that Pontecorvo pulled from the streets of Algiers. Their performances, however, are genuine and natural, in contrast with the melodramatic heroes and heroines found in American films. The crowd scenes of revolt and/or military domination are expansive and realistic. The viewer gets the impression that Pontecorvo has sprinkled actual news footage throughout the film, but all of the scenes were staged. This isn’t at all what I was expecting from an Italo-Algerian collaboration, filmed on location more than 50 years ago, in a country that was relatively unstable.
As I watched, I was regularly stunned by the realism. When bombs go off in the film, there are no special effects at play. Pontecorvo used actual explosives in many scenes. I can well imagine that the fear on the actors’ faces is often genuine. Scenes of the narrow stairways and passages of the Casbah add to the intrigue. The authenticity is striking. Cameramen carried shoulder-mounted equipment to easily follow the action in and out of tight surroundings.
In searching for background information, I learned that The Battle of Algiers is the only film to be nominated for an Oscar in two non-consecutive years. In 1967, it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. (Both French and Arabic are spoken throughout the movie, again underscoring Pontecorvo’s dedication to realism.) In 1969, the film was nominated for Best Director and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay.
Having enjoyed the soundtrack, I was also pleased to discover that Pontecorvo worked with the venerable Ennio Morricone, who died in July, to create much of the music for the film. The score also includes St. Mathew’s Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach’s sacred oratorio adds gravity to scenes of destruction following two deadly attacks. In the first scene, Algerians triage the dead and wounded after French bombs land in the Casbah. In the second scene, white citizens perform a similarly gruesome chore in the aftermath of an FLN terrorist bombing.
A Controversial Debut
Despite the accolades that followed, The Battle of Algiers got off to a rocky start. The film was first presented at the International Festival of Venice where it received the highest honor, the Golden Lion. However, the French delegation refused to attend the screening. While Pontecorvo strived for neutrality, most viewers will take the side of the Algerians. After all, there’s no way to deny the prevalence of colonial oppression. The native population was living under an occupying force that failed to grant them the same rights as whites.
Many in France decried the film, however, even before seeing it. Particularly critical were French and Algerian war veterans who had fought on the side of France. Sharing their contempt for the film were the pieds noirs, French citizens living in Algeria who were forced to resettle in France after the war. Many in this latter category were 2nd, 3rd, even 4th-generation descendants of Europeans who had colonized the region in the 19th century and had never before taken a step in mainland France. Forced to leave their homes and motherland, these white Algerians felt abandoned and betrayed by French President Charles DeGaulle, believing that a peaceful solution had been possible.
The heated controversy kept the film outside of France until 1970. When a handful of theaters finally presented it, a hateful campaign of right-wing protests and violent threats ensued, ending with the film being pulled from distribution. Finally, in October 1971, more than five years after the film’s Italian debut, screenings were held throughout the country. By contrast, the film was an immediate hit in Algeria and retains cult status to this day.
An Ongoing Influence
Indicative of the film’s realism is the fact that it has become a relevant educational tool for training both government forces and insurgents throughout the world. In 1971, during a trial for members of the Black Panthers, jurors were asked to watch the film. The prosecution claimed that the Panthers used the movie to train themselves on the tactics of urban guerilla warfare. Similar claims have been made about the film’s use by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Irish Republican Army, and other rebel groups. Threatened by its potential to incite insurrection, countries including South Africa, Iran, and Mexico have at one time or another banned the movie.
In 2003, the pentagon presented The Battle of Algers to an audience of 40 officers and civilian experts. A spokesperson explained, ”showing the film offers historical insight into the conduct of French operations in Algeria, and was intended to prompt informative discussion.” Evidently, the question of how to combat armed insurgents that employ terrorist tactics, then retreat into the shadows, remains largely unanswered.
A Lesson Not Yet Learned
It is clear The Battle of Algiers is not a propaganda film. Pontecorvo, who was a communist, undoubtedly sympathized with the Algerians. Nonetheless, his film unequivocally shows that members of the FLN were responsible for the loss of scores of innocent lives. If anything, the overarching message of The Battle of Algiers is that the price of war is hard to justify no matter what side you’re on.
In the middle of the film, one of the FLN’s chief commanders explains to the film’s leading combatant, “It’s hard enough to start a revolution, even harder to sustain it, and hardest of all to win it,” prophetically adding, “but, it’s only after we win that the real difficulties begin.” Since independence, Algeria has seen more cruelty and bloodshed than any people or country should have to withstand. Despite provocative films, made by farsighted humanitarians, man’s penchant for violence endures, and history sadly repeats. Still, I’m grateful for work like this. One day, the message of peaceful resolution might actually sink in.
The Battle of Algiers is available on Amazon Prime or you can watch it for free, as I did, on Youtube. For those that choose the Youtube option, embedded below, a brief warning: the subtitles in the beginning are delayed but eventually line up with the action of the movie.
- Le Monde, La Bataille d’Alger
- Le Monde, Le président américain, l’historien britannique et la guerre d’Algérie
- Dernières Infos D’Algérie, 50 ans après, le film « La bataille d’Alger » restauré en format numérique
- New York Times, ‘Battle of Algiers’ Is Presented At Black Panthers’ Trial Here
- New York Times, The World: Film Studies; What Does the Pentagon See in ‘Battle of Algiers’?
- History and Film, La Bataille d’Alger
- Vulture, The 50 Greatest War Movies Ever Made
- France Culture, Episode 4, “La Bataille d’Alger: La guerre d’Algérie
- Lumni, La bataille d’Alger, film de Gillo Pontecorvo, censuré
- Youtube, Costa-Gavras à propos de “La Bataille d’Alger” de Gillo Pontecorvo
- Youtube, Five Directors on The Battle of Algiers