The Battle of Algiers is perhaps the timeliest film about terrorism ever produced – from half a century ago.
When it was first released back in 1966, Gillo Pontecorvo’s depiction of the eponymous conflict was both praised and condemned for its scrupulously balanced presentation of terrorist and government atrocities during the French occupation of Algiers.
While the Academy Award saw fit to nominate the film on two separate occasions – in two different, non-consecutive years – Battle of Algiers found no fans amid the pages of Cahiers du cinema; then cultural authority. Ironically these critics were the very iconoclasts whose New Wave had allowed for the fluidity and spontaneity that so contributed to Battle of Algiers‘ sense of authenticity.
After all, vérité means truth, and, by merging the vérité style with characteristics of Italian neo-realism – the non-professional actors, the b&w newsreel-style footage – Pontecorvo created a work that seems less like simple dramatisation and more like objective reportage.
What elevates Battle of Algiers to the level of a masterpiece, and what makes it so deeply relevant today, is the very reason behind the controversy: its refusal to judge those it depicts.
The film opens in the aftermath of torture – a pigeon-chested man slumped in a chair in a grotty room, surrounded by now-compassionate soldiers – which leads to the locating of Ali la Pointe (the brutally handsome Brahim Haggiag); now leader of the smashed National Liberation Front (FLN for short). Even in darkness, his face is lit; beatific, like Joan of Arc. This man is clearly a fanatic, but what then is his cause?
Having opened in media res – indeed almost in terminus – Pontecorvo then methodically lays out the escalation that has led to this point. Ali initially seems all set to become our protagonist: a petty criminal who finds a cause in helping to free his homeland; the perfect antihero. In this, Battle of Algiers can be seen as having set the template for the modern political antihero, such as in Steven Soderbergh’s Che or Olivier Assayas’ Carlos. The film itself, however, is a remarkably subtle polemic and Ali is but one small part of its elegant multi-narrative.
The film’s power lies in its refusal to pick a side. Its sympathies clearly lie with the indigenous Arab population – over one thousand extras populate the winding streets of the film’s Casbah – who live and work in dignified poverty; as opposed to the indolent Europeans, shown only as soldiers or police officer, or else enjoying themselves in bars or at dinner parties.
Even so, the occupying force, personified in the form of the Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin; the only professional actor in the cast), are acting out of necessity; even in their use of torture. They are not, he reminds the assembled press, Nazis – indeed many of the French troops stationed there fought in the Resistance.
In this Battle of Algiers seems almost like a dark sequel to Casablanca, far from the studio lot, where idealistic freedom fighter Victor Laszlo has become instead the pragmatic occupier.
Equally, the film refuses to condemn the FLN’s killing of uniformed police officers, who successively shot or stabbed in broad daylight out on the streets of Algiers. In this, the film, scripted by Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas, seems almost apolitical, amoral even; even as it recounts the FLN’s bombing campaign against French civilians.
It’s these scenes that seem most likely to resonate with modern audiences. The camera pans over the faces of men, women, and children out enjoying themselves, oblivious to the danger. The tension is almost Hitchcockian, though by no means entertaining for it. Then the blast, a cloud of smoke and debris. The bloodied forms who stagger out or else are removed from the wreckage by those less wounded – or still living.
The photo-journalistic quality of Marcello Gatti’s high-contrast, long-lens, cinematography is enlivened by Ennio Morricone’s striking, magnificently varied score – for which Pontecorvo also received a credit. The sequence in which three Arabic women prepare to plant bombs in a café, a bar, and an airport makes use of Middle Eastern percussion. The effect is that of a train rattling over the points.
A scene involving an ambulance and two armed hijackers feels almost prophetic in its topicality. Ali’s background as a petty criminal who discovers a violent, if (in this case) honourable cause is very much the story of ISIS. To represent and not to condemn is not to condone, however. Battle of Algiers merely contextualises these events; suggests that acts of terrorism can be acts of political necessity, performed by a disenfranchised group who have no other means of action.
As the FLN’s captured leader, Ben M’hidi, says to the assembled press, “Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets.”
If these are monsters, as their crimes imply, then they are reasonable ones. For all their colonial sins, both in Algiers and, as the previous quote implies, in Vietnam, Mathieu understands the war he must fight and its ultimate futility. When the Pentagon screened Battle of Algiers to its staff in 2003, the invite read “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas…” – a lesson self-administered too late.
The Black Panthers, too, reportedly used the film as an instructional guide to setting up clandestine cells. While we’re sure they and the US intelligence services may have taken away different messages – the invite to the Pentagon screening suggests the film as essentially pro-colonialist – it would have made for a fascinating film club.
Against a majority indigenous population that fundamentally does not want you there, revolution, insurrection and eventual defeat are a historical inevitability. Even if you defeat one movement, overcome their organisation, another will rise. Before that there can be only escalation.
However fatalistic that may sound, the film was nevertheless one of the first, if not the first, to focus on Arabic characters and to gift them with agency. Just as the future threat of contemporary terrorism and the rise of ISIS loom large in earlier moments, Battle Of Algiers‘ final shot, that of a young Arabic woman whirling beneath a banner, seems to our modern eyes to foreshadow the far-off Arab Spring.
A stylistic and ideological meeting point between old and new, east and west, Battle of Algiers contains moments and scenes of astonishment that are beyond count. A document of its times whose relevance is arguably greater now than ever, it may not be the perfect analogue in today’s more globalised world – these are “freedom fighters” waging a war within national borders as opposed to Islamic fundamentalists mounting attacks across the globe. Even so, the film serves to illustrate the complex and difficult issues that lie at the crux of all terrorist crises.
I encourage you wholeheartedly to see it.
Battle Of Algiers was shown in 35mm as part of the BFI’s Christopher Nolan season; specifically films that inspired his latest film, Dunkirk. Pontecorvo’s film is a nigh impossible act to follow, but, as perhaps the premiere director of smart, ambitious blockbusters, it’ll be a pleasure finding out how films as diverse as this, Stroheim’s Greed, and ’90s thriller Speed feature into it.
Dunkirk is due for UK release on July 21st. Tickets for Christopher Nolan Presents are available for purchase here.