The Battle of Algiers: a modern masterpiece

Gillo Pontecovo's 1965 film is out on Blu-ray tomorrow. We explain its importance and its continuing relevance to conflicts around the world.

Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 urban insurgency film The Battle of Algiers is out tomorrow on Blu-ray. Alex Ritman explains its importance

On August 27, 2003, the lights were dimmed in an auditorium of the Pentagon for a film screening. This wasn't a weekly movie night to entertain tired military personnel, but important research.

As the flyer from the Pentagon's Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict department stated: "How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds up to a mad fervour. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film."

Writing in The Washington Post at the time, David Ignatius said the screening was "one hopeful sign the military is thinking creatively and unconventionally about Iraq".

Long before its Pentagon screening, The Battle of Algiers - Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 tale of urban warfare and French counter-insurgency efforts in 1950s colonial Algeria, released this week on Blu-ray for the first time - was already considered among the most influential films ever made, and not just within the sphere of filmmaking.

Banned in France for five years after it was released, it became part of counter-revolutionary lessons at Argentina's notorious Navy Mechanics School in the 1970s. It was shown in Tel Aviv during the first intifada and used by left-wing commentators in Israel to argue against the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It became the blueprint for training manuals by the Black Panthers and the IRA. One of the original promotional posters for the film asked: "J Edgar Hoover has seen it, have you?"

But almost 50 years after it was filmed, what makes The Battle of Algiers so important? Simply put, it is widely regarded as the most accurate portrayal of urban insurgency, and thus has become the case study for those who want either to enact it or to quash it. In one of the interviews that accompanies the new release, the late Palestinian rights activist Edward Said called it "unmatched and unexcelled since it was made in the 60s".

The film began life as Souvenirs de la Bataille d'Alger, the campaign account of Saadi Yacef, a military commander of Algeria's National Liberation Front (FLN), in the fight against French colonial rule between 1954 and 1957. After Algerian independence in 1962, the new government invited Pontecorvo and the screenwriter Franco Solinas to adapt the book. Yacef had written a screenplay himself, but believing it to be too propagandistic, the filmmakers took their own direction.

The result is a work of fiction - based on real events and real characters - that keeps a relatively neutral tone, unashamedly showcasing the atrocities committed by both sides. From the tight-knit alleyways of Algiers' kasbah, the FLN sends out bombers to exact destruction in busy cafes and dancehalls and arm children to shoot French policemen on the street. Led by the unwaveringly ruthless General Mathieu (partially based on the real-life Jacques Massu), the French counter-insurgency efforts utilise large-scale torture and summary executions in an attempt to crush them.

A central character is Ali la Pointe, a real-life petty criminal who became radicalised while in prison and rose to become one of the FLN's most trusted lieutenants. Although la Pointe's story gives the story its flow, the film chooses the unusual route of avoiding a main protagonist, rather "a collective chorus", as described by Pontecorvo. To get around what was an unusual method of storytelling in 1965, the director says he had to import a "dictatorship of truth". "That is, to give the impression of a documentary, a newsreel, despite the fact that it was a work of fiction." Grainy photography was used to great effect to achieve this realism.

A powerful tactic by Pontecorvo, and one he adopted for other productions, was his insistence on using non-professional actors. With the exception of Jean Martin, who played Mathieu, the cast was made up of Algerians whom the director chose on the basis of appearance and emotional effect, plus thousands of Algerian extras. Yacef himself was given a part. The original screenplay had seen Paul Newman lined up to take the lead role, a move that would have resulted in an entirely different film.

"Pontecorvo told the story not only of a group of individuals whom one could recognise and identify with," according to Said, "but he also told the story of what he called a choral personage, an emerging popular identity of a people coming out of colonial servitude after 130 years."

While the years depicted in The Battle of Algiers see the victory go to France (it eventually destroys the FLN), the final scenes show what Pontecorvo called a "choral personage" take to the streets to see the eventual departure of the colonising forces just a few years later. This powerful message, that winning the fight against insurgency doesn't mean you'll win the overall war, is something that can be transplanted to conflict zones across the world. It was undoubtedly on the minds of several in the Pentagon during the screening.

Pontecorvo, who died in 2006, left behind a disappointingly small library of work. The majority of his other film ideas - including one on the Palestinian intifada, which would have been a perfect contemporary extension of Algeria - sadly never took shape. But with The Battle of Algiers he's given us one of the masterpieces of our time, one that looks likely to remain relevant long into the future.

Published: August 8, 2011 04:00 AM

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