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The Battle of Algiers

The Battle of Algiers
1965 / B&W / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 117 min. / La Battaglia di Algeri / Street Date October 12, 2004 / 49.95
Starring Brahim Haggiag, Jean Martin, Yacef Saadi, Samia Kerbash, Ugo Paletti, Fusia El Kader
Cinematography Marcello Gatti
Production Designer Sergio Canevari
Film Editor Mario Morra, Mario Serandrei
Original Music Ennio Morricone, Gillo Pontecorvo
Written by Gillo Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas
Produced by Antonio Musu, Yacef Saadi
Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Battle of Algiers is a key film in understanding what's really happening in many parts of the world. As a government security specialist says in one of the extras on this three-disc set, it's nothing different than has been happening for 3,000 years.

Gillo Pontecorvo's prizewinner is an eye-opener, a sprawling epic that looks like an authentic documentary, right down to the grainy filmstock and the huge crowds of extras. Although obviously partial to the Algerian underdogs, the filmmakers recount what is basically a gradual Algerian defeat at the hands of the colonial military. But the Algerians won their independence less than five years later, pulling political victory from a tactical failure. The reaction in France to Algeria's 1962 liberation was for the right-wing OAS to use bombs, bank robberies and assassination to try to bring down De Gaulle's government (as dramatized in the excellent thriller The Day of the Jackal). France lost Algeria because they wanted to hold it as a French enclave where non-Europeans had permanent second-class status. The film shows a prime example of 20th (and 21st) century warfare: a militarily superior force imposing its will in a foreign country that wants its independence.

We're shown the absolute ruthlessness of patriots set on a certain political outcome, where civilized men use torture to get what they want. The film also sets forth the credo of third world defiance that will resort to equal barbarity when no other options are open. Mass murder becomes a political tool to polarize opinion and weaken the resolve of the enemy. The unnecessary slaying of innocents on both sides adds to the burden of history. Criterion's extras include serious long-form documentaries that authoritatively address the movie's issues from viewpoints both cinematic and historical.


1957: Aided by a ruthless campaign of torture, Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin) succeeds in cornering the final representatives of the FLN (a Nationalist liberation organization) in the Casbah. Flashback to 1954: The struggle for independence begins as FLN commanders organize resistance to French rule and impose strict guidelines on the Algerian populace. When escalating 'terrorist' crimes fail to get official attention from Paris, the French police chief of Algiers jump-starts the rebellion by bombing an apartment block in the Casbah. Open warfare commences on the streets and the French finally respond by sending in decorated ex-resistance fighter and military hero Mathieu to clean things up. He instigates an brutal policy to identify, isolate and neutralize the FLN leaders. With the Casbah quarantined, the FLN counters in the only way it can, with a terror campaign of bombs aimed at ordinary French civilians in the European sector.

In The Battle of Algiers' most famous scene three Algerian women cut their hair and change from strict Islamic costumes into modern European dresses. They carry timed bombs through the roadblocks, enter the European sector of Algiers and calmly plant them in a bar, a disco and a street café. Dozens of civilians are blown to bits in each location. There's a wicked irony at the disco - when the bar down the street is dynamited, the dancers walk out to see what the commotion is all about. After a couple of seconds of non-interest, they go back inside to dance to Colombian cumbias, then the rage. They end up perfectly positioned when their bomb goes off. In the café the female bomber notes the innocent faces of people who will possibly all be killed, including an adorable French tot licking an ice cream cone.

Our reactions would be all one-sided if it were not for the fact that we've already seen the French dynamite an entire apartment building, killing at least as many innocent Algerians in their beds. In the ensuing rage, the FLN leaps from murders of individual gendarmes to the random machine-gunning of Europeans on the sidewalks. Each escalation is searching for the outrage that will break the spirit of the other side, to show them that resistance is futile. That horror equation was finally expressed in Apocalypse Now when Marlon Brando talks about the 'brilliance' of the Viet Cong hacking off the limbs of every village child they found with an inoculation from American medics. The will to resist ends when one's heart is broken and one no longer cares who wins. Atrocities are central to human conflict.

The Battle of Algiers would be a waste of time if it were a simple adventure story (The Lost Command) or if it were Soviet-style propaganda extolling the FLN. On the contrary, the FLN is shown as a dictatorial faction demanding strict adherence from Algerians. Our 'hero' Ali La Pointe is basically a Casbah street criminal enlisted as an FLN enforcer, carrying out executions of shameful Algerian criminals as well as harassing the French. The FLN did its best to eliminate other anti-French political parties with similar, at times executing its own members. The FLN leaders are ideologues bent on ending a 130-year occupation by France, and they're willing to spend an indeterminate number of Algerian lives to get their way.

Although our allegiance to the underdogs is encouraged, the French are more than fairly treated. The professional Colonel Mathieu at least knows what his goals are and is following the code of his calling to perfection. It is assumed that he is the kind of French patriot who will later turn renegade when De Gaulle gives the Algerians their independence. The movie is partisan enough to skirt the uglier extremes of the FLN; the Algerians used torture as well and there were several large massacres of Europeans in the rural part of the war not pictured in the movie.

The Battle of Algiers' convincing recreations are so well choreographed that they look like documentary footage. When paratroops roust the residents of Ali La Pointe's hideout, our blood runs cold when a woman accidentally drops a baby that gets trampled on by an actor portraying a soldier. Cameraman Marcello Gatti keeps things credible with a shrewd use of lenses - everything is staged, but photographed as if it were captured by a very lucky docu cameraman. The entire Algerian capital and its population seem to have turned out for crowd scenes, and the recreation of the European sector is done without criticizing individual French characters. Criterion's original French-titled copy of the film is missing a title card added to the American release, stating proudly that NOT ONE FOOT of documentary stock footage was used in the movie. 2

Of course, all this received predictable reactions in 1966. The Black Panthers took it as a 'handbook' film about setting up a resistance organization. To conservatives it was all the work of the devil, more historical lies made up by the same godless Communists responsible for every instance of 'non-compliance' to First-World demands. Algeria stood-in for Greece in the 1970 anti-oppression thriller "Z", which was twisted into justifying Greek dictatorship as a necessary stop-gap to keep the poison of what happened in Algeria from spreading. When you don't want to face reality, lumping one's foes into the meaningless category of terrorism is an easy way to sell lies as public policy.

Director Gillo Pontecorvo was actually the leader of the anti-Nazi anti-Fascist resistance in Northern Italy in the last year of the war, so he knows more than a little about the reality of fighting as an underdog. It's ironic that he was inspired to become a filmmaker by Roberto Rossellini's Paisà, a movie with a chapter basically about his wartime activities in the Po valley. Twenty years later, Pontecorvo directs this movie about the Algerian war, starring and produced by one of the FLN's leaders.

Proof that The Battle of Algiers isn't propaganda comes when ordinary audiences see it. It's a great thriller with unusual characters and a lot of action presented far more excitingly than in typical war movies. Today the public seems incapable of processing complex events and breaks from its complacency only to attack those who dissent against the prevailing tide of political oppression. Interestingly, one of the interviewees giving testimony in the docu extras is a French writer tortured by his own government for supporting the FLN in print. So far in America, the preferred method of silencing dissent is to ridicule and marginalize it.  1

Criterion's pricey special edition box of The Battle of Algiers isn't going to be picked up by the crowd who expects DVDs to be dirt cheap, but it will be treasured for its unique and valuable content. Producers Kim Hendrickson and Abbey Lustgarten have added two discs, a second about the expected filmmaking concerns and a third a collection of historical documents about the context of the film and how closely it hews to the known facts of the era. Even neo-cons will be intrigued by this one, as they're well-represented by a section with offical U.S. Government Counterterrorism executives. Incidentally, their brilliant solution to fighting 'terrorism' is to win over the hearts and minds of local populations to our superior ideas. The Battle of Algiers was reportedly shown at the Pentagon and the State Department to stimulate creative thinking on how to defeat terrorist organizations. Now Al Qaida is always described in Battle of Algiers terms, with similar 'terror cell' organizational charts.

As is usual at Criterion's high level of editorial care and scrutiny, none of the extras are frivolous or ill-considered, and the educational value of the set will be prized by any school or library daring enough to buy a product with the Algerian Moon-and-Star graphic on the cover. It's not a Communist emblem, and the struggle for Algerian independence was not a Communist revolution.

The full list of extras is below. I was especially taken with Criterion's self-produced documentaries. They've previously stuck with interview extras and other prime-source material, and now the same qualities are being applied to long-form original work. The main pieces on the film's production and the history of the Algerian rebellion are impeccable. Surprisingly, a piece where contemporary directors comment on the film and director Pontecorvo is also excellent, and contains some good plain-sense opinions about the film's relevance from Spike Lee, Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh and even Oliver Stone.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Battle of Algiers rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Disc One: Theatrical and re-release trailers, Production Gallery. Disc Two: Pontecorvo and the Film: Gillo Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth: a 37 minute documentary, The Making of The Battle of Algiers, Directors' comments from Spike Lee, Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh, and Oliver Stone. Disc Three: The Film and HistoryRemembering History (2004); Etats d'armes, a 30-minute excerpt from Patrick Rotman's 3-part documentary, L'ennemi intime, A Case Study, a conversation with former National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism, Richard A. Clarke, former State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Michael A. Sheehan, and Chief of Investigative Projects for ABC News, Christopher E. Isham; Gillo Pontecorvo's Return to Algiers (1992, 55 minutes). Also a booklet featuring an essay by Peter Matthews, a reprinted interview with writer Franco Solinas, and brief biographies on the key figures in the French-Algerian War.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 9, 2004


1. Soon after 9/11, I posted a list of films that I thought people might want to watch while contemplating their reactions in emotionally charged times. I posted the following on September 23, 2001, before any reaction at all to the WTC attack. I'm still proud of what it says.

"It's not like Savant has a large following, but I care about it a lot. I attracted some heat last week from a few readers who took strong exception to my remarks about our current national crisis. On the very first day of the attack, I stated that "we should try to think of WHY there are people who would hate America enough to do such a thing." I still feel the remarks were appropriate.

Savant reviews DVDs not because he likes surround sound, but because of the ideas in the movies. I've had rewarding and educational (to me!) correspondence with several readers whose views are more conservative than my own. Movies often have potent political content: I see a theme of militarizing outer space that I talk a lot about, in 'reviews' of Destination Moon, Invaders from Mars, and others. And I get very 'political' when talking about Westerns that I think have political content.

As we all do, I don't think of myself as liberal but as fair-minded. I made special note in The Tailor of Panama to point out its stupid cartoonish characterization of the American military, for instance. I don't want to lose my conservative readers ... you know who you are ... as I think the dialogue we have is healthy for both of us.

Want to see some topical, 'political' movies? I have three recommendations for viewing, two of which unfortunately might be tough to find.

There's the 1954 THE RAID by Hugo Fregonese, which has startling parallels to our present situation. It's a true story about a Confederate guerilla raid in Vermont during the Civil War, which is definitely a 'terrorist' act as far as the Northerners are concerned. It has a scene where a Northern churchman preaches hate, demonizing rebellion as akin to witchcraft. At its wrenching ending, a Southern guerilla leader (Van Heflin) asks a Northern war widow (Anne Bancroft) if she can understand why his raiders have burnt her town to the ground. THE RAID is infrequently shown on cable movie channels.

There's the 1966 BATTLE OF ALGIERS, a documentary account of Islamic revolutionaries using 'terrorist' tactics against the colonial French. It has scenes of the slaying of innocent civilians by harmless-looking women carrying bombs in handbaskets. At one point a captured rebel tells the press that if the French give him airplanes and missiles, he'd gladly stop using women with baskets. The movie comes off as pro-Marxist propaganda, but it quite fairly shows both sides of the issue, making a good case for the French paratroops who must use torture to fight the rebels.

Finally, and most strangely, there's the misguided but potent STARSHIP TROOPERS. If you'll think past writer Ed Neumeier's purposefully satirical (but commercially miscalculated) Archie comix veneer, you'll find a political gauntlet of a movie. Buenos Aires is wiped out by a blast from space which the one-government world claims is caused by a race of alien insect monsters ... while all along, evidence mounts that the 'terrorist' strike against Earth is only a reaction to Earth's covert campaign to wipe out the insects and colonize (steal) their planets. Besides reacting dumbly to the Nazi-like uniforms, most viewers never got this subversive angle. It's the blind, military-oriented stance of STARSHIP TROOPERS' 'media breaks' that most reminds me of what (the news media implies) we're going through now ... a nation mobilizing to fight undefined, fill-in-the-blank 'Enemies of Freedom'.

I prefer to hope that the media blitz we're undergoing is just the standard hype ... and hope that our leaders are making sound and sane decisions to detect those responsible and apprehend them, whoever they turn out to be. Thanks as always for reading! Glenn Erickson"


2. This is a real tangent, but I'm waiting for the first American picture proud to say that NOT ONE FOOT OF THIS MOVIE WAS CREATED OR ALTERED IN A COMPUTER ....

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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