Written by Wan Tyszkiewicz
This is, without question, one of the best war films that has ever been made. It’s a film which also features in my all-time top five. It’s not a feature film and it’s not a documentary; it’s a docu-drama, commissioned by the Algerian government to document the long struggle of the Algerian people and their fight to end the French occupation of Algeria in North Africa. Shot almost exclusively on location, ‘The Battle Of Algiers’ has been compared to Italian neo-realism in terms of film movement, due to the use of documentary style editing.
Under the highly skilled and fearless direction of Gillo Ponticorvo, this epic, black and white production focuses on the years between 1954-57 of a war which ended in 1962, when the French finally allowed the Algerian people to take their independence. The story here is a reconstruction of actual events that took place during the Algerian uprising, and although most of the names of the main characters have been changed, the acts of terrorism used by FLN (National Liberation Front) members are largely accurate and based on fact.
The story is shot from the perspective of Ali la Pointe (Brahim Hadjadj), a small-time crook who is radicalised whilst in prison and then recruited for the cause. Pontecorvo chose, in the main, to cast non-professional actors who looked right for the part, but perhaps didn’t speak a European language. Most of their lines were therefore dubbed – a highly controversial device in today’s world of filmmaking, but something which European countries often take for granted. The only professional actor cast in this production is Jean Martin, who plays the anti-hero French Colonel Mathieu. Martin had previously worked primarily in theatre, and was therefore relatively unknown to cinema audiences. Martin also had a military background, from the Indochina War and the French Resistance, meaning he was the perfect choice for this role. Nowhere is this better portrayed in the film than the scene where he walks through the Casbah, in full military fatigues, complete with dark sunglasses, looking relaxed and more like a sinister South American dictator who is letting everyone know that he and his army are completely in charge.
Pontecorvo does not glamourise or favour one particular side in this fight. We see incredibly detailed torture scenes carried out by the French, which do not for a second try to redeem the perpetrators with a backstory or reasons for clear barbarism. Equally, the Arab freedom fighters are shown bombing civilians, using women who forsake the veil for the cause and children with rifles murdering soldiers and civilians. Throughout the film, reference is made more often to Arab rather than Muslim insurgents. This is an altogether different perception to today’s take on Islamic international and socio-political affairs.
In August 2003, the Pentagon organised a screening of ‘The Battle Of Algiers’. This was initiated by the Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, to show military personnel involved in the Iraq war how the French had historically approached and lost a battle of guerilla warfare. In the film, the French actually win the Battle of Algiers, resulting in the death of la Pointe, but they underestimated the nationalistic feelings of the Algerian population and their desire for self governance, which ultimately m saw France bow out a few years later.
This was a film of its time, but remains very relevant today as the world navigates its way through religious and cultural binaries that define the twenty-first century. Technically, there are many things that are off about ‘The Battle Of Algiers’ – not least the terrible dubbing and, at times, the hand-held camera style. But I urge you to take some time to watch this incredible documentary film with all its faults. In 2010, it was voted number six in Empire Magazine’s list of 100 world cinema films, as well as being a Venice Film festival winner and recipient of three Academy Awards nominations in the sixties, this film is clearly an important part of cinematic history, and it is perhaps more relevant now than ever before.
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Starring: Brahim Hadjadj, Jean Martin, Yacef Saadi, Mohamed Ben Kassen