The Battle of Algiers

Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo
Written by Franco Solinas and Gillo Pontecorvo
Produced by Fred Baker, Antonio Musu and Yacef Saadi
Released in 1966

The adage that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter is explored in this confronting film that acts as a visual diary of colonial power gone awry and the fight for Algerian independence in the 1950s. Tension is ramped up throughout the film as random acts of individual protest turn into stabbings, shootings, mass protest, a campaign of guerilla bombings and retaliation, where the French Army breaks as many ‘rules’ as the revolutionaries of the National Liberation Front (FLN) who are attempting to overthrow 130 years of French control of Algeria.

Remarkably, the film was shot in Algiers – Algeria’s glamorous coastal Mediterranean capital – just a few years after the events depicted. It features a literal cast of thousands of mostly untrained performers who lived through the carnage and faithfully re-enact the events of the revolution so well that much of the film could be mistaken for newsreel footage. This feeling is assisted by it being shot in bold, contrast-heavy black and white by experienced cinematographer Marcello Gatti. Large scale set pieces seamlessly intermingle with intimate ‘acted’ scenes, pointing to some seriously high-quality editing.

The story follows petty criminal Ali La Pointe (played by the superb Brahim Hadjadj) who is recruited to the ranks of the FLN by that group’s leader, Djafar (Yacef Saadi). Yacef Saadi, who is a co-producer of the film, actually led the FLN through the revolution in real life, so it’s fair to say he was playing to character. Assisting La Pointe is a boy named Petite Omar (Mohamed Ben Kassen) who acts as spotter, courier and messenger. In one rousing scene Omar steals a PA system microphone from the French and hides for long enough to give the news to the downtrodden locals that the FLN resistance is alive and well.

The French paratroopers are led by Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin) who declares the French troops had learned from their abject failure in the 1954 conflict at Dien Bien Phu in Indochina (now Vietnam) before making all the same mistakes all over again in Algeria. Who needs to win hearts and minds if the circumstances lend themselves to torture and dynamite?

The real feeling to the footage makes it feel like you’re part of the battle for Algiers and this, combined with the use of the real locations, marks this film as a pace setter in the war genre. How real does this film feel? Real enough to get it banned in France upon release, so you know the film makers hit close to the bone.

This is a politically charged war film that takes you deep into the heart of the action. Due to the date it was filmed the onscreen conflict is for the most part fairly free of blood and gore, but it wouldn’t look out of place as a snapshot of Iraq, Vietnam, Syria and even Ukraine. The filmmaker’s take on the genre suggests that wherever citizens want their freedom men like La Pointe will be there to lead the way.

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