The Battle of Algiers
June 9, 2005
Shot with unflinching detail and in a realistic, documentary style, The Battle of Algiers (1966) documents the Algerian struggle for independence from the occupying French from the years 1954-1957. The Criterion Collection has assembled an impressive collection of extras and a stunning new transfer for one of the most important and influential political films ever made.
Algiers tells the struggle of Ali La Pointe (Haggiag), a street hustler and unemployed draft dodger with a history of run-ins with the law. All he knows is hatred from the occupying French because he is Algerian and Islamic. It is this hatred that plants the seeds to his personal revolution. He is tripped up and beaten by a group of Frenchmen on the street while on the run from the authorities and sent to prison. While there, he sees his countrymen executed for crimes against the French.
His people live in slums and absolute poverty and squalor. No wonder they are eager to revolt—they have nothing left to lose. Once Ali gets out of prison, he is instructed by local insurgents to kill a policeman in broad daylight to show his loyalty to the cause. He’s set up. The gun has no bullets but it proves that he has the will to do it. Ali is committed to the cause of independence and becomes a member of the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN). He is educated in their techniques and philosophies. The FLN plans to either convert or eliminate all the weak elements of their population: prostitutes, junkies and traitors. It is stunning to see their zero tolerance to these perceived weaknesses. In one scene, a group of little kids swarm a drunk and drag him down stone stairs to, one presumes, his death.
The film depicts the FLN’s bold tactics of terror: a policeman is stabbed and killed on the street, two others are ambushed and shot, and there are drive-by shootings of French people on the street. The French respond in kind, machine gunning fleeing insurgents in the back and brutally torturing suspects for information. However, they find fighting in the streets to be tough because the FLN could be anyone: a woman buying food or an innocent-looking child. In response, they seal off the Arab sections of the city but this does little to stop the attacks, which escalate on both sides. The leader of the FLN points out that “Terrorism is useful as a start. But then, the people themselves must act.”
The Battle of Algiers is a fascinating study of the hit and run tactics of guerilla warfare—ones that the insurgents in Iraq are currently using against U.S. soldiers. The terrorist attacks work so well because there no where is safe. They are so well planned and their effects devastatingly shocking, both physically and psychologically. And yet, as the FLN leader says to Ali at one point during the film, “It’s hard enough to start a revolution, even harder to sustain it, and hardest of all to win it. But it’s only afterwards, once we’ve won, that the real difficulties begin.” This is perhaps one of the greatest observations from the movie. It is not enough to want to rebel and change things, one also needs to have a plan for the future, for what to do next after oppressive power has been usurped.
Criterion has spread the substantial extras over three DVDs. The first disc features a nice collection of behind-the-scenes stills and posters from all over the world, including a good one from the U.S. with the enticing tagline, “J. Edgar Hoover has seen it have you? Blueprint for revolution.” Also included are two trailers, the original theatrical one and a 2004 re-release.
The second DVD starts off with a profile of the film’s director, “Gillo Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth,” a 1992 documentary on the life, politics and his approach to filmmaking. It also examines why, after the early success of The Battle of Algiers, he failed to make a movie for 20 years. Was he too political? The doc traces is early life and does an excellent job of showing how he came to become such a political filmmaker.
“Marxist Poetry: The Making of The Battle of Algiers” is a new 52-minute documentary made specifically for the DVD. It is an in-depth look, from its genesis through filming to its enduring legacy. Saadi Yacef, who helped lead the real revolution, not only produced but acted in the movie, figuring he would make sure that Pontecorvo wouldn’t romanticize his struggle.
“Five Directors” features interview soundbites with Spike Lee, Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh and Oliver Stone as they talk about the importance of Algiers and how it influenced them. Stone points out that “to make history live is an art,” while Soderbergh freely admits that he stole from it and incorporated elements in Traffic (2000). Schnabel points out how it looks almost like B&W footage from Iraq today. It is quite interesting to listen to these filmmakers talk about the movie and offer their observations.
The third disc begins with “Remembering History,” a new documentary that provides insight into the Algerian side of their struggle for independence. Historians are interviewed and trace the origins of the struggle, provide context and point out that the film only shows a small part of it. Saadi Yacef and several key figures in the Algerian resistance are interviewed and recount some of their experiences during that time.
“Etats d’armes” explores the French side of the conflict. When the police could no longer handle the insurgents the army took over and occupied the city, sealing off the Casbah which had the majority of the Muslim population. Several participants are interviewed and talk about how Algerians were tortured to get information that avoided future terrorist acts. In their opinion the urgency of the situation justified the use of torture.
“A Case Study” features a conversation between Christopher Isham of ABC News, Richard A. Clarke, former National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism, and Michael A. Sheehan, former State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism. They discuss the use of terrorism in the film to provoke a response from the French and from the Algerian people. Clarke believes that the film says that terrorism works and the conversation shifts to the current situation in Iraq.
Finally, “Return to Algiers” sees Pontecorvo and his son return to Algeria 27 years after his film was released to document how it has changed politically and socially. There was a rise in oil prices that led to a severe drop in the economy and significant unrest in the country in 1988. Out of the ashes a religious fundamentalism (Islam) has risen.
Criterion has come through again with another stunning release with this fantastic 3-DVD set of The Battle of Algiers. The transfer looks flawless and the extras offer an excellent perspective on the movie and the events surrounding it for both the newcomer and the history buff.