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The Battle of Algiers (film)

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Title: The Battle of Algiers (film)  
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Subject: Asian Dub Foundation, Empire (film magazine), Ululation, Gillo Pontecorvo, Anti-war film, Sarah Maldoror, Djamila Bouhired, Ali La Pointe, Hassiba Ben Bouali, Censorship in France
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The Battle of Algiers (film)

The Battle of Algiers
File:The Battle of Algiers poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo
Written by Gillo Pontecorvo
Franco Solinas
Starring Brahim Haggiag
Jean Martin
Saadi Yacef
Tommaso Neri
Fawzia El-Kader
Michele Kerbash
Music by Ennio Morricone
Gillo Pontecorvo
Cinematography Marcello Gatti
Editing by Mario Morra
Mario Serandrei
Distributed by Rizzoli, Rialto Pictures
Release date(s), redis. January 9, 2004 (USA)
Running time 120 minutes
Country Italy
Language Arabic
Budget $800,000

The Battle of Algiers (Italian: La battaglia di Algeri; Arabic: معركة الجزائر‎; French: La Bataille d'Alger) is a 1966 war film based on occurrences during the Algerian War (1954–62) against The French Government in North Africa, the most prominent being the titular Battle of Algiers. It was directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. The film has been critically celebrated and often taken, by insurgent groups and states alike, as an important commentary on urban guerilla warfare. It occupies the 120th place on Empire magazine′s list of the 500 greatest movies of all time.[1]

Algeria was eventually liberated from the French, but Pontecorvo relegates that to an epilogue. He concentrates instead on the years between 1954 and 1957 when the guerrilla fighters regrouped and expanded into the casbah, only to face a systematic attempt by French paratroopers to wipe them out. His highly dramatic film is about the organization of a guerrilla movement and the methods used to annihilate it by the colonial power.

The film was banned for five years in France, where it was released cut in 1974.[2]


The Battle of Algiers reconstructs the events that occurred in the capital city of French Algeria between November 1954 and December 1957, during the Algerian War of Independence. The narrative begins with the organization of revolutionary cells in the Casbah. Then partisan warfare between Moslems and Pied-Noir in which both sides exchange acts of increasing violence leads to the introduction of French army paratroopers to hunt the National Liberation Front (FLN). The paratroopers are depicted as winning the battle by neutralizing the whole of the FLN leadership either through assassination or through capture. However, the film ends with a coda depicting nationalist demonstrations and riots, suggesting that although France won the Battle of Algiers, it lost the Algerian War.

The tactics of the FLN guerrilla insurgency and the French counter insurgency, and the uglier incidents of the war, are depicted. Colonizer and colonized commit atrocities against civilians. The FLN commandeer the Casbah via summary execution of Algerian criminals and other suspected traitors, and applied terrorism to harass Europeans, including bombings. The security forces resort to lynch mobs and indiscriminate violence against the opposition. French paratroops are routinely depicted as applying torture, intimidation, and murder. Pontecorvo and Solinas have several protagonists, based on historical war figures. The story begins and ends from the perspective of Ali la Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), a petty criminal who is politically radicalized while in prison, and is then recruited by FLN commander El-hadi Jafar (Saadi Yacef, dramatizing a character based on himself[3]).

Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu, the paratroop commander, is the principal French character. Other characters are the boy Petit Omar, a street urchin who is an FLN messenger; Larbi Ben M'hidi, a top FLN leader, is the film’s political rationale for the insurgency; Djamila, Zohra, and Hassiba, three FLN women urban guerrillas who effect a revenge-attack. Moreover, The Battle of Algiers features thousands of Algerian extras; director Pontecorvo’s intended effect was the “Casbah-as-chorus”, communicating with chanting, wailing, and physical effect.

Production and style


The Battle of Algiers was inspired by Souvenirs de la Bataille d'Alger, by Saadi Yacef, the campaign account of an FLN military commander.[4] The book, written by Yacef, while a prisoner of the French, was FLN morale-boosting propaganda for militants. After independence, Yacef was released and became part of the new government. The Algerian government backed a film of Yacef’s memoir; exiled FLN man Salash Baazi approached the Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo and screenwriter Franco Solinas with the project.

Solinas’s first draft screenplay, titled Parà, is the story told from the perspective of a disenchanted French paratrooper. The filmmakers initially developed their project with Paul Newman in mind. Baazi rejected that idea, because it relegates Algerian suffering to the backdrop. Moreover, Yacef wrote his own screenplay, which the Italian producers rejected as too-biased towards the Algerians. Although sympathetic to Algerian nationalism, the Italian businessmen insisted on dealing with events from a neutral perspective. The final screenplay of Battle of Algiers has an Algerian protagonist, and depicts the cruelty and suffering of French and Algerians.[5]

Despite its basis in true events, The Battle of Algiers uses composite characters, and changes the names of certain persons, e.g. “Colonel Mathieu” is a composite of several French counterinsurgency officers, especially Jacques Massu.[6] Saadi Yacef has stated that Mathieu was actually more based on Marcel Bigeard, although the character is also reminiscent of Roger Trinquier.[7] Accused of portraying him as too elegant and noble, screenplay writer Solinas denied that this was his intention; the Colonel is “elegant and cultured, because Western civilization is neither inelegant nor uncultured”.[8] Actor Jean Martin later explained that the character had been conceived from the start as a decent man doing his job, and that he himself had done his best to make him as sympathetic as possible.[9]

Visual style

For Battle of Algiers, Pontecorvo and cinematographer Marcello Gatti filmed in black and white and experimented with various techniques to give the film the look of newsreel and documentary film. The effect was convincing enough that American releases carried a disclaimer that "not one foot" of newsreel was used.[10] Although Battle of Algiers is considered to be realistic in style, one might consider the film to not completely follow traditional documentary aesthetics. The film is quite heavily processed in some sequences, with image contrast being brought up for key dramatic moments, such as assassination sequences. The film is also mostly shot with a locked-off camera, meaning no dolly movements or complicated set-ups, but also no hand-held shots which would be more typical for the appearance of a modern documentary.


Pontecorvo chose to cast from non-professional Algerians he met, picking them mainly on appearance and emotional effect (as a consequence, many of their lines were dubbed).[11] The sole professional actor of the movie was Jean Martin who played Col. Mathieu; Martin was a French actor who had worked primarily in theatre. Pontecorvo wanted a professional actor, but one with whom audiences wouldn't be too familiar, which could have interfered with the movie's intended realism. Martin had been dismissed several years earlier from the Théâtre National Populaire for signing the manifesto of the 121 against the Algerian War. Martin had also served in a paratroop regiment during the Indochina War as well as the French Resistance, thus giving his character an autobiographical element. The working relationship between Martin and Pontecorvo was not always easy, as the director, unsure that Martin's professional acting style wouldn't contrast too much with that of the non-professionals, kept arguing with his acting choices.[9]

Sound and music

Sound—both music and effects—performs important functions in the movie. Indigenous Algerian drumming, rather than dialogue, is heard during a scene in which female FLN militants prepare for a bombing. In addition, Pontecorvo used the sounds of gunfire, helicopters and truck engines to symbolize the French methods of battle, while bomb blasts, ululation, wailing and chanting symbolize the Algerian methods. Gillo Pontecorvo had written the music for "The Battle of Algiers", but because he was classed as a "melodist-composer" in Italy, it required him to work with another composer which was undertaken by his good friend Ennio Morricone. [12]

Post-release history

Critical acclaim

Pontecorvo resisted temptation to romanticise the protagonists. The atrocities committed by the French and the attacks of the FLN are both portrayed. The movie's essential fair-mindedness is perhaps its most striking and skillful feature. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and was nominated for three Academy Awards (in non-consecutive years) including Best Screenplay (Gillo Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas) and Best Director (Gillo Pontecorvo) during 1969 and Best Foreign Language Film in 1967.[13] Other awards include The City of Venice Cinema Prize (1966); the International Critics Award (1966); the City of Imola Prize (1966); the Italian Silver Ribbon Prize (director, photography, producer); Ajace Prize of the Cinema d'Essai (1967); the Italian Golden Asphodel (1966); Diosa de Plata at the Acapulco Film Festival (1966); the Golden Grolla (1966); the Riccione Prize (1966); voted "Best Film of 1967" by Cuban critics in a poll sponsored by Cuban magazine Cine, and the United Churches of America Prize for 1967. During 2010, the movie was ranked #6 in Empire magazine's "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema".[14]

Political controversies in the 1960s

The movie produced considerable political controversy in France and was banned there for five years.[15] The sympathetic treatment of the FLN in The Battle of Algiers often dismayed former French colonists of Algiers and French army troops.

The Battle of Algiers and guerrilla movements

The release of The Battle of Algiers coincided with the decolonization period and national liberation wars, as well as a rising tide of left-wing radicalism in Western nations in which a large minority showed interest in armed struggle. Beginning during the late 1960s, The Battle of Algiers gained a reputation for inspiring political violence; in particular the tactics of urban guerrilla warfare and terrorism in the movie were supposedly copied by the Black Panthers, Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front.[16] The Battle of Algiers was apparently also Andreas Baader's favourite movie.[17]

Screenings worldwide

1960s screening in Argentina

Antonio Caggiano, archbishop of Buenos Aires from 1959 to 1975, inaugurated with President Arturo Frondizi (Radical Civic Union, UCR) the first course on counter-revolutionary warfare in the Higher Military College (Frondizi was eventually overthrown for being "tolerant of Communism"). By 1963, cadets at the (then infamously well-known) Navy Mechanics School (ESMA) started receiving counter-insurgency classes. In one of their courses, they were shown the movie The Battle of Algiers. Caggiano, the military chaplain at the time, introduced the movie approvingly and added a religiously oriented commentary to it.[18] Anibal Acosta, one of the ESMA cadet interviewed 35 years later by French journalist Marie-Monique Robin described the session:

They showed us that film to prepare us for a kind of war very different from the regular war we had entered the Navy School for. They were preparing us for police missions against the civilian population, who became our new enemy.[18]

2003 Pentagon screening

During 2003, the film again made the news after the Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict at The Pentagon offered a screening of the movie on August 27, regarding it as a useful illustration of the problems faced in Iraq.[19] A flyer for the screening read:

"How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film."[20]

According to the Defense Department official (Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict) in charge of the screening, "Showing the film offers historical insight into the conduct of French operations in Algeria, and was intended to prompt informative discussion of the challenges faced by the French."[20]

2003–2004 theatrical re-release

At the time of the 2003 Pentagon screening, legal and "pirate" VHS and DVD versions of the movie were available in the United States and elsewhere, but the image quality was degraded. An Italian film restoration had been done during 1999. The restored print allowed Rialto Pictures to acquire the distribution rights for a December 1, 2003, theatrical re-release in the United Kingdom, a January 9, 2004, theatrical re-release in the United States and May 19, 2004, in France. The film was shown in the Espace Accattone rue Cujas in Paris from 15 November 2006 to 6 March 2007.[21]

2004 Criterion edition

On October 12, 2004, The Criterion Collection released the movie, transferred from a restored print, in a 3-disc DVD set. The extras include former United States counter-terrorism advisors Richard A. Clarke and Michael A. Sheehan discussing The Battle of Algiers's depiction of terrorism and guerrilla warfare and directors Spike Lee, Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh and Oliver Stone discussing its influence on film. Another documentary includes interviews with FLN members Saadi Yacef and Zohra Drif.

See also

Further reading

  • Aussaresses, General Paul. The Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in Algeria, 1955-1957 (New York, Enigma Books, 2010). ISBN 978-1-929631-30-8.


External links

  • Internet Movie Database
  • Rotten Tomatoes
  • Metacritic
  • AllRovi
  • Official website at Rialto Pictures
  • Criterion Collection essay by Peter Matthews

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