Few fictional films look more like documentary than Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, and very few indeed which have this kind of socio-political structure and recount old, half-forgotten conflicts have achieved such lasting fame. Pontecorvo never managed to repeat the trick, though Queimada!, for which he hired Marlon Brando to play a British agent sent to the Caribbean to stir up rebellion against the Portuguese, was at least a partial success three years later.
The Battle of Algiers, however, remains the basis of Pontecorvo’s fame – a model of how, without prejudice or compromise, a film-maker can illuminate history and tell us how we repeat the same mistakes. In fact, this study of the Algerian guerrilla struggle against the French colonialists in the 50s ought to be looked at not just as pure cinema but as a warning to those who seek by force to crush independence movements.
We know, of course, that Algeria was eventually liberated from the French, but Pontecorvo relegates that to an epilogue. He concentrates instead on the years between 1954 and 1957 when the freedom fighters regrouped and expanded into the casbah, only to face a systematic attempt by French paratroopers to wipe them out. His highly dramatic film is about the organisation of a guerrilla movement and the methods used to decimate it by the colonial power.
Its stance is as fair as any such film could be, despite the fact that Pontecorvo was a member of the Italian communist party at the time and thus was implicitly on the side of the independence movement. There is, though, no caricature and no glamorisation of either side – just a feeling of palpable horror evoked by urgent images and Ennio Morricone’s dramatic but never melodramatic score. Pontecorvo sees the colonialists as victims of their own system, and the rebels as taking on some of the excesses used against them.
In one scene, a group of ordinary people, French and Algerian, are enjoying coffee and conversation near the casbah when a rebel bomb explodes among them. The shock of this sequence is even worse than the scenes of the French using torture.
The film is preceded by a message from the film-maker stating that “not one foot” of newsreel footage was used, but Marcello Gatti’s grainy, black-and-white camera work in the actual locations of the struggle, and the pioneering use of a hand-held camera for the crowd scenes, makes it seem as if events are being recorded as they occur. The mixture of amateurs and professionals in the cast works admirably too.
In a way this is all cheating, and Pontecorvo once received as much criticism as praise. The left wanted more commitment to the rebel cause; the right complained that there was too much objectivity. Now, however, The Battle of Algiers is regarded as the precursor of films such as Francesco Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano and Costa-Gavras’s Z – a film that allows its viewers to re-examine their own attitudes towards their times while making it clear that no one can prevent the march of history.
The film, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Festival, was banned in France for some time and the torture scenes were cut from versions distributed in Britain and America. It can now be seen whole and is often shown as a model to those who wish to make either fiction or docudrama.