The Battle of Algiers is a war film based on the Algerian War of national liberation (1954–62) against French colonial rule.
Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, a star of the Italian neorealist cinema, in 1966, it is shot using newsreel-style footage mainly with amateur actors. One of the central characters, Ali la Pointe, was spotted in an Algiers market. Many of the French soldiers were played by Europeans who were on holiday in North Africa.
Some of the most powerful scenes in the film, such as when a French tank charges into a crowd of demonstrators, are crafted to show the ultimate futility of suppressing a mass uprising — the crowd envelope the tank.
The core of the plot is an attempt by the Algerian FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) to set up revolutionary cells in the Casbah, the poor Arab quarters of the capital Algiers, and the merciless methods used by the colonial power to crush it.
Pontecorvo does not shy away from the brutality of the war; the torture is graphic and grim, as are the scenes depicting the aftermath of the FLN bombs on French settlers.
But its context was very significant. With a few exceptions, the French left, headed by the Communist Party, was hostile to the Algerian struggle for liberation and supported the French occupation.
Any opposition to French colonialism at the time was harshly dealt with. In October 1961 French police murdered more than 100 Algerians during a protest in Paris (under the orders of Maurice Papon, the man who, fewer than 20 years earlier had been tasked with rounding up French Jews during the Holocaust).
In this context making an overt pro-independence film took courage. The film was banned in France until 1971 — it was, however, shown at many illegal screenings.
The French troops ultimately win the battle of Algiers and crush the FLN cells. However, the film ends with events several years after the defeat of the Casbah with the mass uprisings that finally sapped the will of France and its colonial settlers.
The Battle of Algiers is without a doubt one of the best films ever made. More importantly it is a “how-to” in organising an underground movement, as well as the methods needed to defeat them.
It is popular among revolutionaries (it is full of useful tips) — and it was shown to US officers during the 2003 occupation of Iraq so that they could “understand the enemy”.
But the film is more than a simple historical re-enactment. It is a masterpiece of cinema, with a sublime musical score by Ennio Morricone. The dual edition DVD/Blu-ray is great news. The film has been restored and there are lots of extras, including interviews with the director and Saadi Yacef, head of the FLN, who appears in the film.
This film should be top of the list for any revolutionary. And remember, as the French general points out, “resistance fighter, always have their [ID] papers in order”. Great advice.