CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (1966)
Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo
Written by Franco Solinas
Story by Franco Solinas and Gillo Pontecorvo – Based on Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger by Saadi Yacef
Produced by Antonio Musu and Saadi Yacef
Main Cast: Jean Martin, Saadi Yacef, Brahim Haggiag, Tommaso Neri and ensemble.
Cinematography by Marcello Gatti
Edited by Mario Morra and Mario Serandrei
Music by Ennio Morricone and Gillo Pontecorvo
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
The Battle of Algiers (1966) was one of the greatest films I had NEVER seen. Now, The Battle of Algiers (1966) is one of the greatest films I have EVER seen. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had, for some unknown reason, not found the time to watch it. But wow, the “best films of all time” lists it appears on are NOT wrong. For sure, I don’t always get on with the critics’ list released by respected publications such as Sight and Sound, nevertheless with this incendiary work of cinema I am in total agreement of its deserved high ranking. In fact it could be higher.
The Battle of Algiers (1966) is set during a particularly brutal period of the Algerian War of Independence which occurred between 1954 and 1962. It is not a conflict I am too familiar with historically, nonetheless, I am aware of the desire by the Algerian National Liberation Front to decolonize themselves from French rule. Their demands were rejected by French leaders, thus the Algerian people took to the streets to wage a guerrilla campaign against both civilian and military targets.
Like many a bloody conflict lives, families, businesses, homes, properties and animals were savagely hurt and left irreparably damaged. As the prolonged fighting ensued in Algiers both sides resorted to more extreme combat measures. But with Algiers becoming a politically adverse battlefield, France’s external allies, such as the USA, moved their support away and eventually the Algerian people would overcome the hostile landlords. For the French, the Algerian rebels were terrorists. But remember, one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.
A short review on a humble film blog cannot pretend to imagine the currency of horror, grief and pain encapsulated within this brutal conflict. Yet, incredibly, Gillo Pontercorvo, as well as producing a searing indictment against the barbarity of war, has in The Battle of Algiers (1966) made palpable such horror, grief and pain through sheer formal cinematic ingenuity. In two hours, Pontercorvo and his production team, employ a stark black-and-white-film-documentary-style, non-professional actors, chopping episodic narrative, percussive and beating sounds, handheld cameras, vérité production design and dynamic, dialectic montage to spectacularly bring the psychological power of war to the screen. Not to mention the iconic Morricone and Pontercorvo composition which pulsates throughout the soundtrack.
Intrinsically focussed on events in the Casbah, Algiers between 1954 and 1957, as the story is bookended from the perspective of Ali la Pointe (Brahim Haggiag). La Pointe is a petty criminal who is politically radicalized while in prison, but becomes a formidable force in the fight. The narrative events display a variety of bombings he organizes against the French and his attacks lead the French to bringing in experienced soldier, Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu (the sole professional actor, Jean Martin). The paratrooper commander is tasked with bringing down the Algerian Liberation Front and his methods of torturing prisoners soon begin to turn the bloody tide.
I cannot overstate how moved I was emotionally and intellectually by The Battle of Algiers (1966). It is momentous filmmaking and made me feel both a fraud and horribly depressed at how evil human beings can behave. I am a fraud because I am safely able to live out my privileged life thankfully free of the horror I have witnessed in the film. Moreover, it is so depressing that we never learn as conflict continues to blight this poisoned planet we exist on. Lastly, Pontercorvo, redefines for me the job a what a director does. The Battle of Algiers (1966) is a pinnacle of how filmmaking style and form can match the heartfelt agony of the narrative themes on show. It is not only one of the greatest anti-war films of all time, but simply one of the most complete films ever made.