By Carter B. Horsley
This haunting, cinematic recreation of part
of the struggle of Algerians for independence from French rule
is the finest film about revolution in film history.
For many viewers, the film appears to be a
true documentary so convincing are the street scenes and the unfamiliarity
of the faces, many of which are extraordinarily memorable.
The film's fervor, which is incredibly intense,
is surprisingly moderated by its cool and intelligent representation
of the opposition, in this case the French military and its commander,
Colonel Mathieu, played with indelibly powerful intensity by Jean
Martin. The film clearly takes the side of the revolutionaries
but its balanced overview escalated the import of the film and
gave it an historical perspective that added greatly to its stature.
The film is directed and acted and filmed with
such realism that viewers are swept up into the action with an
impact that is fantastically dramatic. One comes away with an
abhorrence for the short film-clips of television news and the
realization that the world's strifes are a lot more important
than sports and weather coverage.
The film was, and is, very controversial for
it is a virtual textbook for revolutionaries. Incindeary as it
was, surprisingly its impact was relatively limited, probably
because many Americans had not yet begun to protest the Vietnam
War. Interestingly, four years later, Costas-Gravas's film, "Z,"
starring Yves Montand, had a broader impact in part because it
was in color and employed major international movie stars, and
in part because Americans had begun to protest the Vietnam War
and question government policies supporting dictatorial regimes
in other countries. European movies in the 1960s were quite ahead
of their American counterparts in confronting governmental corruption
and revolutionary efforts.
Surprisingly, one American film, "The
Ugly American," directed by George Englund and starring Marlon
Brando as a new American ambassador, had addressed such issues
quite early. Released in 1963, it unequivocably attacked American
policies in Southeast Asian and represented revolutionary and
insurgent figures sympathetically. Based a best-selling book by
Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer, the film, nevertheless
had a lukewarm reception and its political message was distracted
a bit perhaps by Brando's interestingly arrogant and affected
"The Battle of Algiers" won numerous
international awards and Pontevorco was nominated for an Oscar
as best director.
As Ali La Pointe, the leader of a small cadre
of Algerian insurgents, Brahim Haggiag is unforgetable and wonderful.
In the summer of 2003 there was a rebirth
of interest in the movie after it was shown at the Pentagon because
it was considered important in understanding terrorists' motivations
In a January 4, 2003 article entitled "Lessons
of the Pentagon's Favorite Training Film" in the Arts &
Leisure section of The New York Times, Stuart Klawans,
the film critic for The Nation provided the following commentary:
"Mr. Pontecorvo and [Gilio] Solinas
[the film's screenwriter] visited Algeria shortly before independence,
to plan a movie dramatizing the war through the eyes of a French
paratrooper. That project fell through; but in 1964 Mr. Pontecorvo
received an unexpected visit from the F.L.N.'s former military
chief in Algiers, Saadi Yacef, who had come to Italy to recruit
a filmmaker. Mr. Yacef had some money - half from private sources,
half from the new Algerian government - and a script that Mr.
Pontecorvo later described as 'awful, and with a sickeningly propagandistic
intention.' But Mr. Yacef also had something more: the power to
grand access to Algiers....Six months later, after extensive interviews
in Algiers, similar fact-finding in Paris and many hours of digging
through documents, Mr. Pontecorvo and Solinas were ready to begin
writing. Their script was not at all the triumphalist pageant that
Mr. Yacef had expected. But when Mr. Pontecorvo agreed to let
Mr. Yacef appear in the fim - essentially playing himself as a
leader of the insurrection - and raised more than half the budget
on his own, 'The Battle of Algiers' went into production. Even
today it's easy to see why the results outraged French officials
(who banned the film until 1971) and astonished everyone else.
No other fiction filmmaker had so accurately replaced a recent
world-shaking conflict. No one else had pursued the truth by creating
a big film with so few trained performers....And apart from Orson
welles, no one before had so imaginatively imitated the look of