Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 war film tells the turbulent story of the Algerian campaign for independence from France between the years of 1954 and 1962. It remains an incredibly powerful and engrossing depiction of insurgency, guerrilla warfare and hard-line retaliatory tactics used by a dominant colonial army.
In the nation’s capital Algiers, the fight of Algerian independence was led by the National Liberation Front (FLN) who resorted to increasingly devastating and shocking tactics to achieve their aims. They regularly assassinated policemen, officials and civilians, and spread fear throughout the city’s European populous with a string of deadly bombings. After their attacks, the FLN would then retreat back into the crowded Arabic area of the city called the Casbah and thus proved incredibly difficult to root out.
The French government’s reaction to the wave of violence was to severely clamp down on the Arab Algerians’ movements to and from the city’s European quarter by establishing checkpoints around the entire Casbah. They then sent in well-armed Paratroopers to carry out a counter-insurgency in the city. The French army under Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu recognised that conventional tactics would not work against the FLN and a policy of torture and even murder was utilised to seek out the FLN’s hierarchy.
In Pontecorvo’s movie, in order to provide the viewer with a balanced argument, he focuses the story on both sides of the conflict. On the Algerian side we see the experiences of radical terrorists like Ali La Pointe and El-Hadi Jafar (played by Saadi Yacef, a real life FLN military commander whose memoirs of the war were used as the basis for the screenplay), and for the French perspective we have Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu played by Jean Martin, one of the few professional actors used. The atrocities committed by both sides are shown in graphic detail.
One haunting sequence sees the FLN sending three female members, who are dressed up to look like westernized women, into the European quarter each loaded with a bomb to leave at a crowded public area. The tension Pontecorvo injects into these scenes is incredible as we see the bombers calmly making their way to their targets and then mixing with the unsuspecting civilians, all dancing, drinking and socialising completely unaware of what is about to occur. Equally difficult to watch is a montage of the French army torturing FLN members for information with waterboarding and electrocution shown in a deliberately matter of fact style.
Pontecorvo made the film just a few short years after the war itself had ended and the impact of the atrocities it produced would still therefore be passionately felt in both Algeria and France. It is therefore unsurprising to note that France banned the film for five years upon release.
It is noticeable that unlike in most war films, the director was careful to give an objective account of events and show no strong affiliation to either side. Pontecorvo’a sympathies were clearly ultimately on the side of the Algerian people (not necessarily the FLN per se), but he shows horrific acts being carried out by both sides with neither the FLN or the French army being built up as overly heroic or demonized simply as villains. The FLN’s shocking attacks are shown for what they are, and the French army’s repressive regime and brutal retaliatory methods likewise. By doing this, Pontecorvo forces the viewer to question their own feelings on the matter and let their own emotional response be their guide.
The fact that the director shot the film in such an unflinchingly realistic manner, with some scenes looking like genuine documentary footage, only heightens the film’s immense impact. Such was the movie’s authenticity; he was even driven to put a disclaimer after the opening credits stating that no newsreel footage had been used. Throughout the film Pontecorvo thrusts us into the noticeably cramped and crowded streets of the Casbah which sit in stark contrast to the spacious and opulent surroundings of the European areas. The great socio-political divide that existed in Algiers between these two distinct districts is captured perfectly. As the conflict swiftly escalates, the tense and combustible atmosphere which exists in the Casbah promptly leaks out and permeates throughout the city.
Released as it was at the height of anti-war feeling during the Vietnam conflict, it’s no surprise that the movie really struck a chord with an international audience. It’s worth remembering that back in 1966, little was known amongst the public about this kind of guerrilla warfare and so the film would be all the more shocking for it.
The movie has since been utilised by terrorist groups ranging from the IRA to the Black Panthers to show the effectiveness of guerrilla campaigns. More recently however it has been reported that in 2003 the Pentagon screened the film for American military commanders in order to emphasise both the type of tactics utilised by a guerrilla force and also the brutal effectiveness of counter-insurgency tactics (ie:/ torture).
It’s a film which is at times difficult to watch but is nevertheless one which makes a deep and profound impact on the viewer. The Battle of Algiers can undoubtedly be held up as one of the most important political films of all time and the issues it raises and the subjects it depicts are still just as relevant today. It’s truly a remarkable piece of filmmaking which resists the urge to overly pledge allegiance to either side and instead delivers a truly mesmerising insight into the deadly cycle of violence which befell the city of Algiers.
There are plenty of interesting special features to check out too including insightful interviews with both the director and Saadi Yacef himself. A prominent pair of directors, Ken Loach and Paul Greengrass also provide their own insights into what makes the movies so compelling in a couple of interesting interviews. There are also the original trailers and some fascinating photo galleries involving the real life protagonists.