- Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
- Writers: Gillo Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas
- Starring: Jean Martin, Saadi Yacef, Brahim Hagglag, Tommaso Neri, and Mohamed Ben Kassen
- Accolades: 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#48), 1966 Venice International Film Festival – Golden Lion, 3 Oscar Nominations (Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director – Gillo Pontecorvo, Best Original Screenplay)
- Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library app), stream with subscription on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video, or YouTube
We return for a break where I spent a couple weeks watching the Olympics (per personal tradition) for a movie with a decidedly less peaceful take on international relations. There are not a lot of movies that are intensively studied by people in seemingly unrelated real-world fields for training purposes, but that is exactly what has happened to The Battle of Algiers. It is the only movie I know of that is regularly screened at the Pentagon, but it also has a reputation for being used for training by actual guerrilla groups. For better or worse, it feels so realistic that American versions opened with a disclaimer stating that it contained “not one foot of newsreel footage.” In The Battle of Algiers, director Gillo Pontecorvo took his Italian Neorealist influences and made the next step into handheld semi-documentarianism, becoming a major influence on later filmmakers, consciously or not, from Steven Soderbergh to Paul Greengrass.
As the title might suggest, The Battle of Algiers depicts the War of Algerian Independence over several years in the 1950s, as Algerian guerrillas, led by the “FLN” (National Liberation Front, in English), fight against the French colonial forces. Pontecorvo cast mostly non-professional actors, many of whom had actually been involved with the FLN in various capacities. The only professional actor in the movie is Jean Martin, who plays the head of the occupying French forces, Colonel Mathieu.
The film was banned in France for the next several years, which the filmmakers insisted was strange, as they had taken pains to portray events from a “neutral” perspective. But they had people in their movie who the French still considered actual terrorists, even after Algeria had been granted independence. Plus, I would say watching the thing that it’s extremely clear that Pontecorvo’s sympathies reside with the rebels. He was an Italian Jew and, as McCarthy might say, a card-carrying member of the Communist party, and in fact had two brothers who defected to the Soviet Union. Guerrillas fighting against the big colonialist military was sort of in his wheelhouse. But the movie doesn’t pull any punches about the brutality on both sides, including a couple of graphic and surprisingly realistic bombing scenes filmed without modern special effects. Which is to say, these are actual explosions and actual humans getting thrown around, so I’m not sure how nobody died filming it.
Anyway, this is probably the oldest movie you’ll find with a waterboarding scene in it. I will give it that the general feel seems more from about 2006 than 1966, and that I’m sure that when it came out it felt like something from another planet. But for me it feels more like a series of great moments and scenes than a great movie I’ll revisit. The score (composed by the legendary Ennio Morricone) pounds underneath scenes, again feeling much more modern, while others are scored with just the ululation of Algerian women. But along the way, the only real character I found it creating was the French Colonel, sharp-chinned and shouting about international relations. We watch the Algerian freedom fighters conspire, but I at least never really found myself getting a sense of how they individually got pushed this far. Yes, colonialism is bad and all, I get that, but I’m talking about getting a sense of these people as individuals. As is, it feels more like an exercise to me than a movie.
Pontecorvo has had something of a weird career since, only making a handful of movies (and none with several years of each other) until Operación Ogro in 1979, after which he didn’t make any. His explanation for this was that he could only make a movie with which he was “totally in love.” Others speculate that he couldn’t get financing because his movies about government tyranny and post-colonial struggles couldn’t get financing. Probably his next most famous movie is Queimada (Burn!), about a slave-revolt in a fictional Caribbean country in the 1840s, mostly because it very randomly has Marlon Brando playing a British government agent.
Since its release, The Battle of Algiers has remained extremely popular in its native Algeria, where it represents a popular memory of a specific moment in the national history. Even worldwide, it stands as perhaps the definitive record of a specific moment in history, one of mid-century European decolonization, one that for the most part passed by the United States but not most of the rest of the world. Perhaps because of this, it has since garnered something of a reputation of inspiring violence in its own right, as a favorite movie of the Black Panthers, the IRA, the PLO, etc. Perhaps in that sense it’s helpful that it for the most part lacks individual, inspiring characters and stories. While it might show realistic tactics employed by guerrillas and those that fight them, it is not a story about heroes of any kind. It is not going to “inspire” anyone to do anything. If it had, it might have had a larger impact on world history writ large. Instead it has had to settle for its impact on movie history.