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The Battle of Algiers ( ) is a war film released in 1966. It is based on occurrences during the Algerian War (1954–62) against French colonial rule in North Africa. It was directed by Gillo Pontecorvo.

Subject matter

The Battle of Algiers depicts an episode of the war, occurred in Algiersmarker, capital city of French Algeria, that reconstructs events occurred in the city between November 1954 and December 1960, during the Algerian War of Independence.

The narrative begins with the organization of revolutionary cells in the Casbahmarker. Then civil war between native Algeriansmarker and European settlers (pied-noirs) in which the sides exchange acts of increasing violence, leading to the introduction of French army paratroopers to hunt the National Liberation Front (FLN). The paratroopers are depicted as winning the battle by neutralizing the whole of the FLN leadership either through assassination or through capture, however, the film ends with a coda depicting demonstrations and rioting for independence by native Algerians, suggesting that in France having won the Battle of Algiers, She has lost the Algerian War.

The ruthless tactics of the FLN guerrilla insurgency and the French counter insurgency, and the uglier incidents of the war, are shown. Colonizer and colonized commit atrocities against civilians. The FLN commandeer the Casbah via summary execution of native Algerian criminals and other (considered) traitors, and applied terrorism to harass the civilian French colonials. The French colonialists resort to lynch mobs and indiscriminate, racist violence against the natives to hand. Paratroops routinely torture, intimidate, and murder in combating the FLN insurgents.

Pontecorvo and Solinas have several protagonists, based on historical war figures. The story begins and ends from the perspective of Ali la Pointe (Brahim Hagiag), a petty criminal who is politically radicalized while in prison, and is then recruited to the FLN, by the (fictional) military commander El-hadi Jafar, (Saadi Yacef), also corresponding to the eponymous historic personage.

Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu, the paratroop commander, is the principal French character. Other characters are the boy Petit Omar, a street urchin who is an FLN messenger; Larbi Ben M'hidi, a top FLN leader, is the film’s political rationale for the insurgency; Djamila, Zohra, and Hassiba, three FLN women urban guerrillas who effect a revenge-attack. Moreover, The Battle of Algiers features thousands of Algerian extras; director Pontecorvo’s intended effect was the “Casbah-as-chorus”, communicating with chanting, wailing, and physical effect.

Production and style


The Battle of Algiers was inspired by Souvenirs de la Bataille d'Alger, by Saadi Yacef, the campaign account of an FLN military commander. The book, written by Yacef, while a prisoner of the French, was FLN morale-boosting propaganda for militants. After independence, Yacef was released and became part of the new government. The Algerian government backed a film of Yacef’s memoir; exiled FLN man Salash Baazi approached the Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo and screenwriter Franco Solinas with the project.

Solinas’s first draft screenplay, titled Parà, is the story told from the perspective of a disenchanted French paratrooper. The filmmakers initially developed their project with Paul Newman in mind. Baazi rejected that idea, because it relegates Algerian suffering to the backdrop. Moreover, Yacef wrote his own screenplay, which the Italians producers rejected as too-biased towards the Algerians. Although sympathetic to Algerian nationalism, the Italian businessmen insisted on dealing with events from a neutral perspective. The final screenplay of Battle of Algiers has an Algerian protagonist, and depicts the cruelty and suffering of French and Algerian. Apocryphally, Solinas began the script with jotted-down “flashes of ideas” on a blackboard, which became scenes, thus, the episodic feel.

Despite its base in true events, The Battle of Algiers uses composite characters, and changes the names of certain persons, e.g. “Colonel Mathieu” is a composite of several French counterinsurgency officers, especially Jacques Massu. Accused of portraying him too-elegant and -noble, screenplay writer Solinas denied it is intentional; the Colonel is “elegant and cultured, because Western civilization is neither inelegant nor uncultured”.

Visual style

The film has been hailed for its stunning realism, especially in its scenes of Algerian city life and large-scale public protest and rioting. The handling of the crowd scenes is masterly, capturing the raw passion of the actual events. This reflects the influence of newsreel footage upon Pontecorvo's style, already evident in his Academy Award-nominated film Kapò (1959) which established his reputation. For Battle of Algiers, Pontecorvo and cinematographer Marcello Gatti filmed in black and white and experimented with various techniques to give the film the look of newsreel and documentary film. The effect was convincing enough that American reels carried a disclaimer that "not one foot" of newsreel was used.

Aiding the sense of realism, Pontecorvo and Solinas spent two years in Algiers scouting locations, especially those areas where the events to be depicted in the film took place. With Saadi Yacef as a guide, he learned about the culture and customs of the residents. Pontecorvo chose to cast from the non-professional Algerian Arabs or Kabyles he met, picking them mainly on appearance and emotional effect (as a consequence, many of their lines were dubbed). The sole professional actor in the film was Jean Martin who played Col. Mathieu; Martin was a French actor who had worked primarily in theatre. Ironically, Martin subsequently lost several jobs because he condemned his government's actions in Algeria. Martin had also served in a paratroop regiment during the Indochina War as well as the French Resistance, thus giving his character an autobiographical element.

Sound and music

Sound — both music and effects — performs important functions in the film. Pontecorvo stated in several interviews that he spent much of his time during editing thinking of leitmotifs for the score. These motifs were eventually incorporated into the orchestral score by Ennio Morricone to heighten the emotional impact — and to evoke parallels between events: scenes of French and Algerians civilians being slaughtered are both underscored by the same deeply elegiac music. Indigenous Algerian drumming, rather than dialogue, is heard during a scene in which female FLN militants prepare for a bombing. In addition, Pontecorvo used the sounds of gunfire, helicopters and truck engines to symbolize the French approach to the battle, while bomb blasts, ululation, wailing and chanting symbolize the Algerian approach.

Post-release history

Critical acclaim

Critics have commended the Battle of Algiers for its technical merits and relatively even-handed portrayal of both sides. Pontecorvo resisted any temptation to romanticise the protagonists. The atrocities committed by the FLN and the French are both portrayed. The film does not demonise anyone and the main French character, Col Mathieu, comes over in a notably sympathetic way as a charismatic and correct soldier. The film's essential fair-mindedness is perhaps its most striking and skilfull feature. It won the Venice Film Festival Grand Prize and was nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Screenplay (Gillo Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas), Best Director (Gillo Pontecorvo) and Best Foreign Language Film. Other awards include The City of Venice Cinema Prize (1966); the International Critics Award (1966); the City of Imola Prize (1966); the Italian Silver Ribbon Prize (director, photography, producer); Ajace Prize of the Cinema d'Essai (1967); the Italian Golden Asphodel (1966); Diosa de Plata at the Acapulco Film Festival (1966); the Golden Grolla (1966); the Riccione Prize (1966); voted "Best Film of 1967" by Cuban critics in a poll sponsored by Cuban magazine Cine, and the United Churches of America Prize for 1967.

Political controversies in the 1960s

The film produced considerable political controversy in France and was banned there for five years. Scenes of torture were cut from the original American and British releases as they were seen as incendiary toward the French. The popularity and sympathetic treatment of the FLN in The Battle of Algiers often dismayed former French colonists of Algiers (the pieds-noirs) and French army troops. The film was condemned by Gen. Paul Aussaresses (a commander of the French counterinsurgency, who wrote The Battle of the Casbah, challenging the film's portrayal of events) and Jean-Marie Le Pen, far-right politician in France and former paratrooper in Algeria.

The Battle of Algiers and guerilla movements

The release of The Battle of Algiers coincided with the decolonization period and national liberation wars, as well as a rising tide of left-wing radicalism in Western nations in which a large minority showed interest in armed struggle. Beginning in the late 1960s, The Battle of Algiers gained a reputation for inspiring political violence; in particular the tactics of urban guerrilla warfare and terrorism in the film were supposedly copied by the Black Panthers and the Provisional Irish Republican Army. The Battle of Algiers was apparently also Andreas Baader's favourite movie.

Screenings worldwide

1960s screening in Argentina

Antonio Caggiano, archbishop of Buenos Aires from 1959 to 1975, inaugurated with President Arturo Frondizi (Radical Civic Union, UCR) the first course on counter-revolutionary warfare in the Higher Military College (Frondizi was eventually overthrown for being "tolerant of Communism"). By 1963, cadets at the (then infamously well-known) Navy Mechanics School (ESMA) started receiving counter-insurgency classes. In one of their courses, they were shown the film The Battle of Algiers. Caggiano, the military chaplain at the time, introduced the film approvingly and added a religiously oriented commentary to it. Anibal Acosta, one of the ESMA cadet interviewed 35 years later by French journalist Marie-Monique Robin described the session:

They showed us that film to prepare us for a kind of war very different from the regular war we had entered the Navy School for.
They were preparing us for police missions against the civilian population, who became our new enemy.

Israeli screening during the First Intifada

The film was shown for several months at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque in 1988, shortly after the outbreak of the First Intifada and aroused considerable interest and public attention. In general, Left-wing commentators used the film to bolster their argument that attempts to subdue the Palestinians by brute force were futile and that Israel had to end its occupation of the West Bankmarker and Gaza Stripmarker, while right-wingers asserted that Israel's situation vis-a-vis these territories, forming a territorial continuity with pre-1967 Israel, was not comparable to France and Algeria which are separated by the Mediterranean. The comparison of Israel's situation with the Algerian War continued to crop up in the Israeli political debate also after the film ceased to be shown, and remains a recurrent topic up to the present.

2003 Pentagon screening

In 2003, the film again made the news after the Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict at The Pentagonmarker offered a screening of the film on August 27, regarding it as a useful illustration of the problems faced in Iraq. A flyer for the screening read:

"How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film."

According to the Defense Department official (Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict) in charge of the screening, "Showing the film offers historical insight into the conduct of French operations in Algeria, and was intended to prompt informative discussion of the challenges faced by the French."

The 2003 screening lent new currency to the film, coming only months after U.S. President George W. Bush's May 1, 2003 "Mission Accomplished" speech proclaiming the end of "major hostilities" in Iraq. Opponents of President Bush cited the Pentagon screening as proof of a growing concern within the Defense Department about the growth of an Iraqi insurgency belying Bush's triumphalism.

2003-2004 theatrical re-release

At the time of the 2003 Pentagon screening, legal and "pirate" VHS and DVD versions of the film were available in the United States and elsewhere, but the image quality was degraded. An Italian film restoration had been done in 1999. The restored print allowed Rialto Pictures to acquire the distribution rights for a December 1, 2003 theatrical re-release in the United Kingdom, a January 9, 2004 theatrical re-release in the United States and May 19, 2004 in France. The film was shown in the Espace Accattone rue Cujas in Paris from 15 November 2006 to 6 March 2007. This made the rounds of art house theaters and the festival circuit and was generally thought a "victory lap" for the film and its makers . A small number of festival showings in the United Kingdom were accompanied by a live soundtrack performed by electronica group Asian Dub Foundation. In the United States, the re-release was accompanied by a number of discussions of the film's influence by political and film commentators.

2004 Criterion edition

On October 12, 2004, The Criterion Collection released the film, transferred from a restored print, in a 3-disc DVD set. The extras include former United States counter-terrorism advisors Richard A. Clarke and Michael A. Sheehan discussing The Battle of Algiers's depiction of terrorism and guerrilla warfare and directors Spike Lee, Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh and Oliver Stone discussing its influence on film. Another documentary includes interviews with FLN members Saadi Yacef and Zohra Drif.

See also


  1. 'The Source.' The Battle of Algiers booklet accompanying the Criterion Collection DVD release, p.14.
  2. Peter Matthews, "The Battle of Algiers: Bombs and Boomerangs", in The Battle of Algiers booklet accompanying the Criterion Collection DVD release, p.7.
  3. Arun Kapil, "Selected Biographies of Participants in the French-Algerian War", in The Battle of Algiers booklet accompanying the Criterion Collection DVD release, p.50.
  4. PierNico Solinas, "An Interview with Franco Solinas", in The Battle of Algiers booklet accompanying the Criterion Collection DVD release, p.32.
  5. J. David Slocum, Terrorism, Media, Liberation. Rutgers University Press, 2005, p. 25.
  6. Matthews, p. 8.
  7. PierNico Solinas, "An Interview with Franco Solinas", in The Battle of Algiers booklet accompanying the Criterion Collection DVD release, p. 37.
  8. Peter Matthews, "The Battle of Algiers: Bombs and Boomerangs", in The Battle of Algiers booklet accompanying the Criterion Collection DVD release, p. 9.
  9. Klaus Stern & Jörg Herrmann, "Andreas Baaders, Das Leben eines Staatsfeindes", p. 104.
  10. Breaking the silence: the Catholic Church and the "dirty war", Horacio Verbitsky, 28 July 2005, extract from El Silencio transl. in English by Open Democracy
  11. "Re-release of The Battle of Algiers Diplomatic License, CNN, January 1, 2004.
  12. Michael T. Kaufman's "Film Studies", The New York Times, 7 September 2003.
  13. See La Bataille d'Alger: Horaires à Paris, accessed on 6 March 2007

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