Over four decades ago, Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers was considered one of the most provocative, politically incendiary movies of its time. The Black Panther Party used it as a training film, the French government banned it, and lovers of cinema revered it as a masterpiece. In 2003, the Pentagon hosted a special screening of the film, in hopes it would shed valuable light on how to deal with rebel forces in Iraq. The following year The Battle of Algiers was released in a beautifully packaged addition to the Criterion Collection, where it could be studied, appreciated and, no doubt, argued about.
Chronicling the 1954-1962 revolution that would eventually lead to the end of French colonial rule in Algeria, The Battle of Algiers is a bleak, uncompromising portrait of terrorist warfare and a war on terror.The film starts with French soldiers interrogating a captured Algerian prisoner. The man’s will has been broken, and his weary, tear-streaked face alludes to the torture he has endured. The French soldiers, led by the charismatic Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin), assure their prisoner he has done the right thing. But the emotionally dead gaze in the man’s eyes says something to the contrary. As Mathieu leads his men on a raid to find rebel leader Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), the magnitude of the betrayal that occurred moments before the camera entered the interrogation room becomes painfully clear.
Hiding behind a false wall in Algiers’ Muslim Casbah, Ali and his three companions in the Algerian National Liberation Front, or FLN, await their fate. As Mathieu and his men rampage through the apartment concealing them, Ali and his fellow rebels—which include a woman and a young boy—pray for an escape that will never come. As the moment of their impending capture—or death—comes ever closer, Ali reflects on the course of his life leading up to this point.
A communist who fought against the fascists during World War II and a student of Italian neo-realism, Pontecorvo brought both an artistic aesthetic and a political ideology to The Battle of Algiers. Shot in stark black-and-white, Pontecorvo’s film bears an uncanny resemblance to a documentary. During its initial release in 1965, the film’s distributor added a disclaimer: “Not one foot of newsreel or documentary film has been used.”
Such a statement might seem merely a hyperbolic marketing stunt, until you see the gritty reality Pontecorvo portrays. From the frenzied panic that follows a series of terrorist bombings to the throngs of Muslim dissidents who take to the streets to oppose French rule, much of The Battle of Algiers appears composed of actual riot footage captured just as the shit was hitting the fan.
Pontecorvo made a film of historical propaganda by working closely with the newly liberated Algerian government, as well as Saadi Yacef, the former leader of the FLN, who basically plays himself in the movie. But his roots in neorealism kept the director from crafting a film that paints its characters in absolutes. Instead, Pontecorvo and co-writer Franco Solinas create a world of moral ambiguity, in which the heroes are terrorists who resort to killing innocent civilians to advance their cause, and the villains are French soldiers who also resort to killing innocents to achieve their goals. No one is entirely good or bad, both sides are right and wrong. And while the film and the filmmaker clearly take the side of the FLN, Pontecorvo is careful to give the The Battle of Algiers enough sense of balance that it endures more like a historical document, and less like biased propaganda.
With the current situation in Iraq, and the Pentagon’s screening of The Battle of Algiers, much has been made of the film’s relevance to current events. Perhaps the most significant theme in that discussion is why the French refused to support military action in Iraq. What they learned during the Algerian conflict, and what is so brilliantly conveyed in this film, is that winning battles is not the same as winning a war.
To that end, The Battle of Algiers does not serve either as a great training film for political revolutionaries or as a helpful tool for understanding how to combat terrorists. Instead, it is a brilliant piece of cinema that offers a cautionary tale about the high cost of violence as a means to an end.