Criterion Project #8: THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (1966)

The Battle of Algiers

Year: 1966

Director: Gillo Pontecorvo

When you read a title like The Battle of Algiers you’re no doubt picturing a war film along the lines of Paths of Glory or The Thin Red Line. You might think of once-peaceful fields, beaches, and forests setting the stage for the theater of war and battlefields strewn with the unlucky soldiers manning the frontlines. But The Battle of Algiers isn’t fought on a typical battleground between great armies – it’s fought by Algerian rebels taking on the might of the French military, and this battle is being waged in the same streets they’re trying to reclaim.

I’ve ranked this film in my All-Time Top 10 since the first time I saw it, and I’d even dare to say it could be the greatest war film ever made. The IMDB plot summary is the best:

In the 1950s, fear and violence escalate as the people of Algiers fight for independence from the French government.

A sentence so simple yet containing such power, much like the film, itself.

I can’t get into the politics of the tension and hostility because I’m certainly not as up on my French-Algerian history as I’d like to be. What we’re presented with here is an anti-colonialist perspective of an oppressed people. A people whose capital city is literally sectioned into Arab and European quarters due to 130 years of French colonial control.

While sympathy is most assuredly with the plight of the Algerians, the FNL (Front de Liberation Nationale), and our hero, Ali La Pointe, director Gillo Pontecorvo does not eschew the horrors of terrorist warfare on both sides. Each one methodically carrying out public assassinations and bombings with no remorse, only focusing on the big picture.

Being an anti-colonialism film, the French look especially distasteful as a people. But that has to be a purpose of the film as a whole. The Algerians are the first to resort to terrorists acts of war, sure, but this is due to their oppression under the French regime. The French take this as an act of barbarism and it’s not treated seriously, until several of their police and military officers are gunned down in broad daylight.

But the French surely are a dignified people, are they not? This type of attack is how animals behave!

The turning point occurs when the French decide to take this threat seriously and they call in Col. Mathieu, a French Paratrooper. Col. Matthieu is not above bombing and torturing innocent civilians to achieve his goal. If it’s good enough for the enemy, it’s good enough for him.

All’s fair in love and war?

From this point on it’s clear this film wants you to know one side (Algeria) did what they had to do in a desperate struggle to regain their freedom, and the other side did what they had to do to maintain control of a country that wasn’t theirs in the first place.

And the visual style of the film illuminates and de-romanticizes the grotesque reality of the events unfolding. Pontecorvo employed a hyper-real, documentary-esque filmmaking style, amplifying the drama and horrors of war through its frank portrayal of real events. This and other aspects of the film feel descendant from Italian neo-realism, which itself is a style that emerged from the bombed out remains of WWII. That authenticity is a necessary aspect because this feels like the most organic war portrayal I’ve ever seen

The Battle of Algiers remains a completely engrossing masterpiece and after this watch, it shall retain its rank in my Top 10. One of the greatest films ever made.

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