"The Battle of Algiers" Movie Review (1966)

12/02/2009 Posted by Admin

Movie, DVD Review

"The Battle of the Algiers"

Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, written by Pontecorvo and Franco Salinas, 121 minutes.

By our guest blogger, Jon Walton

In a recent interview about the Iraq conflict, Saadi Yacef, the former head of the Algerian resistance stated, “Even if you muster all the armies of the world … you will never, ever defeat a country which wants to be master of its own destiny.” Yacef was talking from personal experience, having led the Algerian FLN (National Liberation Front) against the occupying French, in a conflict that pitted military force against guerrilla terrorism.

The striking comparisons between Gillo Pontecorvo's "The Battle of Algiers" and the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan ensure that the film retains a relevance and importance that cannot be ignored by modern audiences. The film focuses on the eight-year period between 1954 and 1962 when the conflict between the French colonial authorities and the Algerian resistance was at its height. The initial focus of the narrative is Ali la Pointe, a young illiterate street rogue in trouble for running card scams in the European quarter of Algiers. As the habitual offender is lead off by the police, he’s surrounded by a baying mob of French nationals who abuse and spit at him, giving us our first indication of the tension between the Algerians and the French. It’s experiences like this that fill Ali and his fellow Algerians with indignation, fueling their hatred of the French colonial rulers. During a spell in prison, Ali becomes politicized after witnessing the execution of an Algerian inmate, and upon his release becomes a key member of the FLN.

As the leaders of the FLN call for their brothers to take up arms against their oppressors, the violence in the Casbah escalates. Police shootings are quickly followed by bombings, as both sides carry out retaliatory strikes in a never-ending cycle of attack and counter-attack. With both the FLN and the French Army determined to win the war by any means necessary, the scenes of violence become more and more shocking as the conflict intensifies. We see bodies being carried from the rubble in the aftermath of bombings. Police officers and soldiers are gunned down in the streets they patrol, and Algerian prisoners are subjected to barbaric torture including waterboarding, blow torches and electric-shock treatment. Algerian women do their bit for the cause by delivering terrorist bombs to their target destinations. Neither side here is portrayed as the hero nor the villain--both are perpetrators of despicable acts in their quest for victory.

The impact of all these events is given an added poignancy due to the uncomfortable parallels with events in the Middle East, which play out on our TV screens in daily news bulletins. Pontecorvo employed a documentary shooting style, using hand-held cameras and shooting on grainy black and white film stock more commonly associated with newsreel reportage. It’s this devotion to a realist aesthetic that gives the film an authenticity and veracity that makes us feel as if we’re witnessing events as they happen. The FLN bombing of a racetrack, which results in many French deaths, is presented so realistically that we could be watching a contemporary news report on roadside bomb in Baghdad. In his search for realism, Pontecorvo filmed on location in Algiers, in the very streets where the real conflict took place. He also employed a cast of non-professional actors, including Saadi Yacef, the former leader of the FLN, as the head of the Algerian resistance.

It’s this basis in reality that gives "The Battle of Algiers" its enduring strength. It truly feels as if we’re watching a record of events rather than a cinematic re-enactment. The fact that some 40 years after its release the film still draws parallels with modern conflicts speaks volumes about the authenticity of Pontecorvo’s vision, and ensures the film’s relevance amongst contemporary audiences for years to come.

View the trailer for "The Battle of Algiers" below. Thoughts?

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  1. Peter said...

    Fabulous review. I saw this when it was first released. Excellent job.