Cast & Crew
In October 1957, Ali la Pointe, a leader of the Algerian FLN (Front de Liberation Nationale), is trapped by the French in his house in the Casbah. He reflects back to the time 3 years earlier in 1954 when he became involved in the struggle for freedom: Ali, who had been a petty thief, joins the guerrilla movement after his release from prison. He soon becomes a leader in the struggle to rid the Casbah of its brothels and other vice. Under the leadership of Saari Kader, the Arabs undertake terrorist activities against the European community in Algiers, including the shooting of policemen to obtain weapons. Although the Governor attempts to squelch the uprising by sealing off the Casbah (where most of the FLN are in hiding), the attacks continue. Then a journalist belonging to a French extremist group which includes a number of police officials takes advantage of his press card to gain entry into the Casbah and plant a bomb which kills scores of Arabs. In retaliation, Kader has three Arab women leave the Casbah in European dress and plant time bombs in a crowded cafe, a dance bar, and an air terminal. By 1957 the French are desperate and bring in the 10th Paratroop Division headed by Colonel Mathieu. Quick to understand that the FLN is set up like a pyramid in which no one member knows the identity of more than three others, Mathieu uses torture to force captured terrorists to reveal the names of their comrades. When the FLN orders an 8-day general strike while the United Nations debates the crisis, Mathieu intensifies his efforts to break down the structure of the pyramid and capture Kader, Larbi Ben M'Hidi, and the other group leaders. By the time the United Nations has decided not to intervene, Mathieu has eliminated all but one of the FLN chiefs--Ali la Pointe. Eventually, the address of Ali's hideout is discovered, and he and three others, including a young boy, Omar, are trapped behind the wall of a bedroom. Mathieu delivers the ultimatum that unless they surrender, the house will be blown up . Ali and his comrades refuse to yield, and, as Arabs throughout the Casbah pray, the last four survivors of the FLN die. For over 3 years, until December 1960, there is relative quiet. Then, without warning, rioting erupts anew as thousands upon thousands of Algerians roar through the streets shouting their cry of freedom. The struggle continues until finally--on July 3, 1962--Algeria wins its independence.
Mohamed Ben Kassen
Nour Eddine Bhahimi
Best Foreign Language Film
Best Writing, Screenplay
The Battle of Algiers
We don't know who attended, or what impact upon Pentagon-think this legendary handmade-bomb of a movie might've had. Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, for one, remembered it without being reacquainted - at an October 2003 D.C. conference called New American Strategies for Security and Peace, he told the crowd of feds, politicos and op-ed-men that "[i]f you want to understand what is happening right now in Iraq, I suggest a movie that was quite well-known to a number of people some years ago...It's called The Battle of Algiers. It is a movie that deals with...[a] resistance which used urban violence, bombs, assassinations, and turned Algiers into a continuing battle that eventually wore down the French."
Obviously, this fierce piece of agitprop has seen its moment arrive for a second time. Before 9/11, where and by whom was the film ever remembered, respectfully if at all? Perhaps it's just the natural winds of history that are responsible for Pontecorvo's masterpiece suddenly being reborn via a nationwide revival theater run, a lavish Criterion Collection DVD, and now special cable TV appearances, just as it has been invoked and summoned as an anti-insurrectionary instruction manual in the corridors of federal power. But is it tragic irony, or merely the evolutionary nature of realpolitik, that such a passionate, righteous revolutionary document is now most famous as an ostensible training film for neo-con strategists?
It hardly matters; the movie exudes its own indefatigable legitimacy. Empathize with your enemy, as Robert McNamara says in The Fog of War (2003), and Pontecorvo's film has been long celebrated for its objectivity. Forget it: the harsh reality of Pontecorvo's film only serves to strip down imperialist rationales to their Napoleonic birthday suits. Did the Pentagonians even notice that the film, an Algerian project written and produced by one of the nation's liberation leaders and directed by an Italian ex-communist, sides squarely with the oppressed, bomb-planting Arabs? Has any movie ever made a more concise and reasonable argument for the "low-intensity," low-resource warfare referred to by powerful nations as terrorism? Famously, a reporter in the film asks an Algerian rebel how moral it is to use women's shopping baskets to hide bombs, to which the apprehended man answers, "we do not have planes with which to rain munitions on civilians' homes (which is implicitly, then and now, considered to be the far more moral action). If you'll give us your planes," he says, "we'll hand over our baskets."
Sound familiar? If any movie squeezes you into the shoes of grassroots combatants fighting monstrous colonialist power for the right to their own neighborhoods, this is it. It's also the first film to be seen internationally that portrayed North Africans as people and not just scenery, and in the process it got itself nominated for three Oscars®. Using the genuine locations just as Eisenstein did in October (1928) and Rossellini did in Open City (1945), Pontecorvo shoots, edits and scores his film with a Gatling-gun urgency, mixing and matching faux-doc textures, and cuing martialized action to machine-shop electronica. (His partners in crime were cinematographer Marcello Gatti, composer Ennio Morricone, a handful of Italian crew members and an army of inexperienced Algerians.) There is no subplotting or comedy relief. A prototype of news-footage realism, The Battle of Algiers makes shrewd use of handheld sloppiness, misjudged focus, overexposure and you-are-there camera upset; the payoff is the scent of authentic panic. We follow both sides of the combat - the uprising Casbah natives and the merciless if disconcerted French army - from 1954's initiation of the rebellion to the official French victory, in 1957, over the National Liberation Front. It was a Pyrrhic victory, as the harrowing, riot-mad coda makes clear - the terrorist organization may have been rooted out, but the Algerian people still resisted occupation. Hard-edged he may be, but Pontecorvo cannot be called unromantic: starting with the grifter-turned-assassin-turned-movement leader Ali la Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), the actors playing the Arab seditionists were all chosen for their soulful beauty. (Not, it's safe to say, for their chops; nearly all of their dialogue is postdubbed, another factor in the movie's on-the-fly affect.) Lizard-eyed ramrod Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin, the only professional actor in the cast) is sympathetic insofar as he affects admiration for his antagonists (which include screenwriter/co-producer Saadi Yacef, essentially playing his FLN-leader self) as civilian neighborhoods are obliterated into rubble and a barbed-wire wall with armed checkpoints is erected between Algiers's Muslim and French quarters.
The French government complained that the film's politics are anything but "fair and balanced," and they weren't wrong - it's a revolt anthem, mature enough to document violative extremes on the Algerian side but never surrendering its moral rectitude. The ethical questions implicit in the chaos are maddening, just as they are today - is one side right and the other wrong if they both slaughter civilians? Is it ever justified? If it ever is, then how could anyone condemn the "terrorists" for acting out the same scenario as their oppressors, but on a smaller scale?
The Pentagon boys should, at least, have been daunted by the apparent inevitability of failure in the face of independence. American occupation-quagmires are always more complicated than the European post-colonial conflicts, and The Battle of Algiers is only a movie, of course. But Pontecorvo's film still smells dangerous, particularly as we head toward the war's fifth birthday (if you date from the May 2002 bombings) and toward a new election year.
Producer: Antonio Musu, Yacef Saadi
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Screenplay: Gillo Pontecorvo, Franco Solinas
Cinematography: Marcello Gatti
Film Editing: Mario Morra, Mario Serandrei
Art Direction: Sergio Canevari
Music: Ennio Morricone, Gillo Pontecorvo
Cast: Brahim Hadjadj (Ali La Pointe), Jean Martin (Col. Mathieu), Yacef Saadi (Djafar), Ugo Paletti (Captain), Fusia El Kader (Halima).
by Michael Atkinson
The Battle of Algiers
The Battle of Algiers on DVD
Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1966) stands out among political films for its direct impact: it has been studied equally by revolutionary groups and governments throughout the world, including the Pentagon in the lead-up to the Iraq war. A meticulous reconstruction of recent history--the film was shot in Algiers only a few years after the events took place--it provides an unprecedented view inside the operations of an actual insurgent organization. Leading FLN member Saadi Yacef plays a close counterpart of himself and served as a producer and consultant on the film, lending it a rare degree of authenticity. While it is evident that the film ultimately sides with the Algerians, it is nonetheless remarkable for its careful balance; Pontecorvo clearly explains the rationales behind the actions of both sides, and he doesn't shy away from depicting the brutality of both sides, either. Still, the decision at the 1966 Venice Film Festival to award the Golden Lion to the film scandalized the French, for whom the recently ended Algerian war was still very much a contentious subject. The film would not be distributed in France for another four years. Ultimately, the Algerians as a people become the true protagonist in the film rather than, say, El-Hadi Jaffar or Colonel Matthieu; indeed, one of the most interesting things the film accomplishes is a very concrete depiction of how historical events shape the development of an Algerian national identity.
However, The Battle of Algiers is not just a political document; as filmmaking it is tremendously accomplished, and its pseudo-documentary style has influenced many directors seeking to create an aura of authenticity and immediacy when depicting recent historical events. The heightened contrast and grain in the black-and-white film stock and the hand-held camerawork are indeed supposed to suggest documentary newsreel footage, but Marcello Gatti's cinematography is in no way crude or slapdash. Many shots are beautifully composed, and the camera movements are precisely executed. One example of this is how Gatti uses telephoto and zoom lenses to pick faces out of a crowd. The way he lingers on the visages of ordinary people to create brief but expressive, visually memorable portraits is akin to those in the films of Pasolini or Visconti. Ennio Morricone's music is a striking combination of elements from the Western classical tradition and indigenous Algerian music; in the opening scene, he even quotes from the first movement of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. His oft-noted choice to accompany the aftermath of two separate bombings in the Casbah and the French section with the same, deeply moving chorale-like music is a masterstroke of simplicity and directness. Another notable feature of the soundtrack is the voiceover readings of government reports and FLN communiqués, a device which cements the overall impression of historical concreteness and accuracy.
With the notable exception of French actor Jean Martin, who plays Colonel Mathieu, the cast is mostly non-professional. It is a mark of Pontecorvo's skill as a director that he is able to elicit convincing performances from all involved. The film also works as a strong example of storytelling. Many political films, following the lead of Costa-Gavras' Z (1969), try to couch their political message within an entertaining fictional story, often in the thriller genre, or they give real-life events the dramatic shape of a fiction film. While that approach has its merits, The Battle of Algiers succeeds on its own terms, without compromises or concessions to a mass audience. It is every bit as gripping as a fictional thriller thanks to its compelling story and controlled pacing. This is a film which not only holds up under repeat viewings, it gets better each time you see it.
For many years The Battle of Algiers has been available on home video in various editions, ranging in quality from not bad to downright miserable. Criterion's new high-definition transfer, not surprisingly, makes all earlier editions irrelevant. The black-and-white image is clean, displaying minimal damage, and has excellent contrast considering the source material. Viewing the DVD on a good quality television monitor or video projector, it is heartening to see how the artistry behind the film's cinematography shines through, something that was also evident in the recent theatrical tour of a new 35mm print. The mono sound is clear and without undue distortion.
The supplements on this three-disc box set are outstanding, perhaps the most thoughtfully organized of any Criterion title to date. Disc 2 ("Pontecorvo and the Film") includes Gillo Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth, a fine 1992 overview of Pontecorvo's filmmaking career narrated by Edward Said and containing clips from his films and interviews with various individuals, including Pontecorvo himself. Here as elsewhere, Pontecorvo comes across as an individual of tremendous erudition and insight. My one gripe is that the film spends too much time speculating about the reasons behind Pontecorvo's silence. Criterion's new documentary on the making of the film is excellent, seamlessly weaving together recollections by the producer and actor Saadi Yacef, Pontecorvo, Gatti, Morricone, the editor Mario Morra and the actor Jean Martin into a coherent and engaging narrative. Ordinarily I don't care much for tributes by contemporary directors of the kind shown in the segment entitled Five Directors--unless it's someone like Martin Scorsese, who has genuinely interesting insights into film history and aesthetics. However, in this case the directors-- Spike Lee, Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh and Oliver Stone--are thoughtfully chosen.
Disc 3 ("The Film and History") starts with Remembering History, a new 69-minute documentary reconstructing the context for the Algerian war of independence through interviews with historians and surviving key players on both sides, among them Saadi Yacef, fellow FLN member Zohra Drif-Bitat, and General Massu. This documentary admirably conveys the historical and moral complexities behind the Algerian insurrection and the French military response. For me the most thought-provoking part was where Yacef and Drif-Bitat discuss the rationale behind their decision to bomb French civilians. As this documentary and Pontecorvo's film makes clear, the first indiscriminate civilian bombings were actually carried out by the French; the FLN-sponsored bombings were done subsequently in retaliation. Whether or not one personally views such bombings as justified in wartime, that sort of contextualization is necessary. Because of its relevance to contemporary events, everyone should see this documentary regardless of their interest in Pontecorvo's film. The same is true of Etat d'armes, an excerpt from a longer 2002 documentary in which French military officers discuss the use of torture and summary executions in Algeria during that era.
In view of the wrenching complexities of what has come before both in terms of the film itself and the supplements on this disc, it is a bit incongruous to see former government counterterrorism coordinators Richard Clark and Michael Sheehan and ABC news executive Christopher Isham glibly characterizing the FLN as "terrorists" in Battle of Algiers: A Case Study, a segment which examines the film in terms of global terrorism today. Calling the FLN and other similar organizations "terrorists" versus, say, "insurgents," begs the question of how terrorism is defined and who has the power to apply the label to whom. Tellingly, the debate in this segment is focused mainly on political strategies to win over local populations in the "war of ideas." Clark, Sheehan and Isham sidestep deeper and more difficult questions such as the moral legitimacy of colonial occupation and the problems of self-determination. Still, it's a fascinating document and I'm glad Criterion decided to include it.
Lastly, Gillo Pontecorvo's Return to Algiers combines documentary footage shot by Pontecorvo and his son Marco during a 1992 visit to Algiers with an interview Pontecorvo made for Italian television the same year, shortly after President Mohammed Boudiaf's assassination. In it they examine the economic problems Algeria is facing, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and the Algerian government's controversial decision to cancel the second round of elections in 1992 after the Islamic Salvation Front made an unexpectedly strong showing in the polls. Pontecorvo proves to be a gifted reporter, unafraid to ask difficult questions and to examine more than one side to the story, at the same time not avoiding critical judgment under the pretext of "objectivity." His uncommon intelligence makes it all the more regrettable that Pontecorvo has not made any new feature films since Ogre in 1979. The 55-page booklet accompanying the set is also full of invaluable information, though sometimes the text is a little difficult to read because of the use of colored backgrounds.
The Battle of Algiers surely counts among the most important films in the history of cinema--not only for its striking aesthetic innovations and its penetrating insights, but also for its sheer force as a political statement. Thankfully, Criterion has risen to the film's challenge with a package of outstanding quality, one that is of value both to the casual film buff and the history scholar. This set is a must-buy for anyone who wants to better understand the world we live in today.
For more information about The Battle of Algiers, visit Criterion Collection. To order The Battle of Algiers, go to TCM Shopping.
by James Steffen
The Battle of Algiers on DVD
The Battle of Algiers - Restored 35mm Print
Algiers, 1957: French paratroopers inch their way through the labyrinthine byways of the Casbah to zero in on the hideout of revolutionary stalwart Ali la Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), the last rebel still free in the city. Flashback three years earlier to the beginning of the conflict, as the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) decides on urban warfare. Thus begin the provocations, assassinations, hair-breadth escapes, and reprisals; Algerian women - disguised as chic Europeans - depositing bombs at a sidewalk cafes, a teenagers' hang-out and an Air France office; and massive, surging crowd scenes unfolding with such gripping realism that the original U.S. distributor had to insert the disclaimer, "Not one foot of newsreel or documentary film has been used."
Having clandestinely written the film treatment on an envelope while in French prison, FLN boss turned producer Saadi Yacef (who also plays rebel leader El-hadi Jaffar, based on himself) interviewed several European filmmakers before settling on Italians Pontecorvo and screenwriter Franco Solinas, who then spent six months in research, interviewing many actual participants in the less-than-a-decade-old events, and six months writing; then filmed on the actual locations. Marcello Gatti's telephoto lenses jam us into the crowd scenes, with their movements orchestrated by Pontecorvo via chalk marks drawn on the pavement; with many sequences shot and edited to the driving pre-recorded score by Pontecorvo and the legendary Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly).
Seen by some as a textbook for 60s revolutionaries (but with a surprising even-handedness), ALGIER now feels like it's been ripped from today's headlines, from its random bombings to the French commander's chilling press conference pronouncement that to combat terrorism "you must accept all the consequences";the Pentagon screened it last August to wise up potential Baghdad occupiers. As paratroop leader Colonel Mathieu (based on the actual granite-jawed General Jacques Massu), Jean Martin dominates with a biting, unashamedly in-your-face evisceration of bleeding-heart cant; with equally striking performances by non-pros Haggiag and Yacef. The opening night film of the fourth New York Film Festival, THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Film, Best Screenplay and Best Director and took the Golden Lion (Grand Prize) at the Venice Film Festival. This new 35mm print features new subtitles that convey the French and Arabic dialogue accurately for the very first time.
If you want to understand what's happening right now in Iraq, I recommend THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS.
- former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski
PROBABLY THE MOST STIRRING REVOLUTIONARY EPIC SINCE POTEMKIN!"
- Pauline Kael
The Battle of Algiers - Restored 35mm Print
There are 80,000 Arabs in the Kasbah. Are they all against us? We know they're not. In reality, it's only a small minority that dominates with terror and violence. This minority is our adversary and we must isolate and destroy it.- Col. Mathieu
To know them means to eliminate them. Consequently, the military aspect is secondary to the police method.- Col. Mathieu
Interrogation becomes a method when conducted in a manner so as always to obtain a result, or rather an answer. In practice, demonstrating a false humanitarianism only leads to ridiculousness and impotence. I'm certain that all units will understand and react accordingly.- Col. Mathieu
We need to have the Kasbah at our disposal. We have to sift through it and interrogate everyone. And that's where we find ourselves hindered by a conspiracy of laws and regulations that continue to operate as if Algiers were a holiday resort and not a battleground. We've requested a carte blanche, but that's very difficult to obtain. Therefore, it's necessary to find an excuse to legitimize our intervention and make it possible. It's necessary to create this for ourselves, this excuse. Unless our adversaries think of it themselves, which seems to be what they're doing.- Col. Mathieu
What were they saying in Paris yesterday?- Col. Mathieu
Filmed in Algiers in 1965 as Maarakat Alger. Released in Italy in 1966 as La battaglia di Algeri; running time: 135 min. The production was subsidized by the Algerian government; the people of Algiers served as its cast. Samia Kerbash is also known as Michèle Kerbash. Associate director credit is unconfirmed.
Shown at New York Film Festival September 20, 1967.
Shown at Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York City December 9, 1988.
Shown at Cairo International Film Festival December 3-16, 1990.
Shot in 1965.
Released in United States Fall September 21, 1967
Re-released in United States January 9, 2004 (New York City and Los Angeles)
Re-released in United States October 7, 2016
Released in United States on Video February 1988
Released in United States 1966 (Shown at 1966 Venice Film Festival.)
Released in United States November 1966 (Shown at London Film Festival November 1966.)
Released in United States Fall September 21, 1967
Re-released in United States January 9, 2004
Re-released in United States October 7, 2016
Released in United States on Video February 1988
Released in United States 1966
Released in United States November 1966
Released in United States September 20, 1967
Released in United States 1983
Released in United States December 9, 1988
Released in United States December 1990
Shown at 1966 Venice Film Festival.
Shown at London Film Festival November 1966.
Released in United States September 20, 1967 (Shown at New York Film Festival September 20, 1967.)
Released in United States 1983 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (Banned Films: A Film Essay) April 13 - May 1, 1983.)
Released in United States December 9, 1988 (Shown at Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York City December 9, 1988.)
Winner of the Golden Lion for Best Picture at the 1966 Venice Film Festival.
Released in United States December 1990 (Shown at Cairo International Film Festival December 3-16, 1990.)