Battle of Algiers starts with Ali La Pointe’s arrest in 1957, before a flashback cuts to 1954 when Ali was still a small-time thug. Radicalised in jail, he joins the National Liberation Front (FNL), becoming a key player in the battle for Algerian independence. Using Ali as a way to connect different events, the film chronicles the organisation of the FNL, as it becomes engaged in an increasingly violent urban guerrilla war with the French army, which brings in Colonel Mathieu to dismantle the FNL. While the French are successful in the short run, the film ends with its long-term inefficiency and the resurgence of disturbances in 1960, anticipating Algeria’s independence in 1962.
Battle of Algiers came out of the fortuitous encounter between Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo and Algerian former FNL-leader-turned-film-producer Saadi Yacef. Chronicling and restaging a particular part of the Algerian war of independence, the film famously portrays both sides of the conflict, becoming the key film for urban guerrilla warfare, acquiring new significance in the context of twentyfirst century’s preoccupation with terrorism.
Battle of Algiers would be difficult to understand without a sense of its production history. After Algerian independence in 1962, Saadi Yacef, who plays himself in the film under the name of El-hadi Jaffar, founded Casbah Films and was looking for a director to transpose his story to the screen. At the same time, Gillo Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas were working on a script about a French paratrooper in the Algerian war (apparently thinking of Paul Newman as its potential star). After encountering Yacef, they entirely changed the script, working from Yacef’s account of the battle, which he had written during his imprisonment, and they filmed on location with non-professional actors (except for the actor playing Colonel Mathieu), chronicling the birth of a nation, as Pontecorvo himself said (see Forgacs 2007: 356).
An Italian-Algerian co-production, Battle of Algiers is a surprisingly balanced film, representing more than one point of view. Early on, the film aligns us with Ali, whose face becomes the symbol for the casbah (see Mellen 1973: 40). But very quickly, the film ‘attempts to distribute the emotional energy we have been encouraged to invest in Ali across the entire people of Algiers, all those figures we see in documentary-style shots, which form the visual fabric of the film’ (Smith 1997: 113). Even as the FLN begins to engage in terrorist acts, the film withholds close-ups of French victims, includes shots of FLN ceremonies recognisable to a Western audience (such as the wedding scene), and above all shows Algerian victims (for instance, the worker caught in the French quarter and wrongly identified as a murderer). Smith therefore argues that the film not only produces a collective hero, but quite firmly puts our sympathies on the side of the Algerians, not on the side of an Algerian individual but of the Algerian masses.
However, the French are much more than simple opponents. Especially Colonel Mathieu, apparently a composite of several French commanders, has often been understood as being rather positively portrayed. Deeply knowledgeable and governed by a profound rationality, he may be most memorable for two scenes: once he evokes Jean-Paul Sartre (who was an outspoken opponent of the war), indirectly articulating his respect for the writer and philosopher, whom he says he would prefer not to have as his enemy; another time, he simply explains that if the French want to stay in Algeria, torture is inevitable, which has been read as shedding irony over the French colonial enterprise (Matthews 2004: 8). In addition, the milk bar sequence shows the horror of Algerian bombings in close-up: while we are in the bomber’s shoes, the scene’s empathy for the French is exceptional. Yacef first objected to the inclusion of the boy licking an ice cream, but Pontecorvo apparently insisted on keeping this image of an innocent French victim.
The film thus chronicles the inevitable violence in a war of liberation. In doing so, it evokes the work of Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born writer, activist and psychiatrist, who worked at a hospital in Algeria from 1953 to 1957, and who would publish A Dying Colonialism, an account of the Algerian war, in 1959, and a more generalised theory of decolonisation in The Wretched of the Earth in 1961:
“The violence which governed the ordering of the colonial world, which tirelessly punctuated the destruction of the indigenous social fabric, and demolished unchecked the systems of reference of the country’s economy, lifestyles, and modes of dress, this same violence will be vindicated and appropriated when, taking history in their own hands, the colonized swarm into the forbidden cities. Challenging the colonial world is not a rational confrontation of viewpoints. It is not a discourse on the universal, but the impassioned claim by the colonized that their world is fundamentally different.” (Fanon 2004: 5–6)
We know that Pontecorvo had read The Wretched of the Earth (see, for instance, Criterion DVD booklet). There are certainly interesting and subtle differences between Fanon and the film, though both are works that are based on a very specific situation (the Algerian war of liberation) that has much wider application.
It is precisely this wider application that accounts for much of the film’s fascination. Pontecorvo’s staging of urban guerrilla warfare was informed by his own experience in the French Resistance during the Second World War. Organisations such as the Black Panthers and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) screened the film as a way of training members. Maybe most famously, in the wake of 11 September 2001, the Pentagon organised a screening for special-operations chiefs in 2003: