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The Battle of Algiers

Directed by Gillo Pontevorco with Brahim Haggiag and Jean Martin, black and white, 120 minutes, 1965

Barrle of Algiers blue-ray cover

Cover of Blu-ray edition of Battle of Algiers

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. Incendiary 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 performance.

"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 unforgettable 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 and planning.

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 a newsreel."

Mr. Pontecorvo was an excellent tennis player and then was active in the Communist Party and only made one more feature film after "The Battle of Algiers."

This film is ranked 5 in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

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