Thursday, May 5, 2011

Classic Throwback: The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)

The Battle of Algiers, from director Gillo Pontecorvo, is an important cinematic commentary on urban guerilla warfare and one of the most powerful political films ever made. The 1966 film is based on occurrences during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62) against French colonial occupation, with the most prominent being the Battle of Algiers. The film reconstructs the events that occurred in the capital city of French Algeria between November 1954 and December 1960, focusing predominantly on the harrowing events of 1957. Shot in the streets of Algiers in gritty, documentary-style handheld, the film vividly recreates the tumultuous Algerian uprising which eventually leads to the breakout of Civil War with the European settlers. Both sides exchange acts of increasing violence, including assassinations and bombings, leading to the introduction of French Army paratroopers to hunt down the party responsible for the resistance, the National Liberation Front (FLN).

Don Druker from The Chicago Reader puts it perfectly; stating that "Pontecorvo has nearly accomplished the impossible: to make an epic film that convinces the viewer that they are watching the real thing." This is as accurate a conclusion as you will formulate. The intense footage is shot in such a dynamic way that it feels like you are watching actual extended newsreel coverage. The grainy hand-held situates the viewer within the heart of the conflict and utilises the extreme-close up for emotional effect. The swift editing and throbbing percussion score also heighten the tension. At times the film reminded me of Sergei Eisenstein and his film Strike. While there were characters and individuals Pontecorvo focused on, it was a universal portrayal of the Algerian uprising. The influence of the montage-style editing, which depicts the Algerians and the French as violent oppositions, has minimal cause-effect. The images are made up of mostly disconnected events set within this political context.

For a film made in 1966, the violence depicted is quite horrific, and the atrocities as real as anything seen before in a feature film. How accurate the events are, I personally do not know, but the accompanying title captions, which link the images to a precise period in the war builds a strong case for its legitimacy. The sides are certainly never glorified either. The film predominantly adopts an Algerian sensibility, but it never portrays the French as the obvious enemy either. Actually, the paratroopers are depicted as winning the battle, however the film ends with a 'coda' revealing demonstrations and rioting for Independence by native Algerians, suggesting that although France won the Battle of Algiers, they ultimately lose the war as the Algerian people demonstrate that they will no longer be suppressed. As a compelling and harrowing historical recount and political thriller, The Battle of Algiers knocks you flat. The documentary-feel of the film masks the incredible work that has gone into the reconstruction of these horrific events. It's a masterpiece of epic proportions.

My Rating: 5 Stars (A)


  1. This was an amazing film. Well worthy of a full 5 stars!

    I would rank it near the top of my favourites list, it's really one of the only films that managed to show both sides in as equal light as possible while still remaining passionate about the subject.

    Terrific review Andy!

  2. When I first watched this a while back I half-mocked about how 'times have changed' - Battle of Algiers is a perfect example of how things don't improve unless we're willing to try and understand one another as people.