Legend has it that an American moneyman agreed to finance Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves with one stipulation—that the role of the common laborer whose meager capital is stolen be played by Cary Grant. Apocryphal or not, that stroke of casting would have utterly—even chemically—transformed the film. De Sica chose instead to hire a metalworker off the street, because anonymity was of the very essence in describing a world where ordinary people are casually ground down by a machinery beyond their knowledge or control. An equally aberrant proposal sowed the seed for one of the great incendiary epics in film history, Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 The Battle of Algiers. The director and his coscreenwriter, Franco Solinas, wanted to commemorate the popular uprising that had succeeded in ousting the French from Algeria in July 1962. That event triggered a seismic wave of anticolonial movements across the Third World, serving both as a millennial image of freedom and a more practical lesson in the violent means deemed necessary to win it. The Battle of Algiers would itself help to galvanize those struggles by uniting the revolutionary prerequisites of a cool head and a blazing heart. No other political movie of the past fifty years bears the same power to lift you from your seat with the incandescent fervor of its commitment. And none before or since has anchored that passion in so lucid a diagnosis of the fault lines separating exploiter and exploited. Pontecorvo’s work can now be recognized as an absolute pinnacle of countercinema—the ne plus ultra of a mode that seeks to intervene strategically in the war for social change. Still, the filmmakers initially developed their project with Paul Newman in mind.
He would portray a handsome bon vivant, once a paratrooper in Indochina, now a magazine reporter assigned to cover France’s latest imperial adventure in the Casbah. We can purely speculate on the rest—how our hero’s journalistic sangfroid might have crumbled before the worst Gaullist outrages, his vanity and complacency challenged by self-scrutiny, doubt, and progressive awareness of guilt. Then he would, perhaps, have experienced the birth of consciousness and a final, ardent dedication to the rebel cause. Whether Pontecorvo and Solinas held these or other cards up their sleeves, the resulting movie would almost certainly have been a compromise. You can understand the logic. A “difficult” subject demands the warranty of a box-office name to pacify backers and entice a wide audience, who will hopefully learn a thing or two. But the fact remains that Parà (the title of Solinas’s original treatment) is a story about Newman’s inner turmoil and only secondarily relates the far more ponderable misery of the Algerian people. That was the trenchant critique posed by Salah Baazi, a representative of the exiled Front de Libération Nationale, when he arrived in Italy to discuss the script. FLN military chief Saadi Yacef had envisaged his own revolutionary epic and, with Baazi, was now shopping around for a suitable director. The Italian collaborators had sidelined the independence movement in dramatizing its impact on a single European (to be played by an American). Baazi submitted an alternative script, written by Yacef, which Pontecorvo rejected in turn as “sickeningly propagandistic.” Clearly, a new approach was needed that would avoid the reciprocal snares of well-meaning foreign patronage and indigenous saber rattling—bring the anger and grim resolve of the combatants viscerally close but preserve a critical distance. In short, a creative synergy between First and Third Worlds.
Pontecorvo and Solinas laid the foundation with meticulous spadework, traveling to Algiers and Paris, interviewing eyewitnesses, compiling dossiers, studying and pondering. In due course, a game plan started to emerge. They wouldn’t repeat their previous mistake of individualizing the conflict as a speedway to emotional involvement. Psychology was a red herring. The Algerians had, after all, waged a political campaign in response to a collective experience of injustice. The revised film would chronicle nothing less than the battle of an entire nation for selfhood, though putatively by focusing on the FLN—the muscle and brains of the resistance. The problem was how to outflank normal viewing habits and solicit identification with a group hero; luckily, there were precedents. Among the 1920s Soviet masters, Vsevolod Pudovkin and, especially, Sergei Eisenstein had torpedoed the revolutionary proletariat across the screen into dialectical collision with Cossacks, kulaks, and fat-cat bourgeoisie. It was sensational agitprop melodrama, the contending factions typed as monumental cartoons of nobility and depravity, the propulsive editing rhythms allowing the audience scant opportunity to think or even breathe. “Smashing skulls with kino fists” was the way Eisenstein picturesquely put it. If that policy seemed excessively strong-armed, there was the homegrown tradition of neorealism—in particular, Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946, the film that emboldened Pontecorvo to pick up a camera in the first place). Restaging the Italian liberation and its aftermath with the stark immediacy of a newsreel, Rossellini fostered the careful illusion that events were unfolding voluntarily, their horror, beauty, and ulterior significance waiting to be seized.
Pontecorvo and Solinas knew that every artistic decision is simultaneously an ethical one. Though as Westerners, and fellow-traveling Marxists, they hoped to forge solidarity with the Algerian underclass and honor the integrity of its suffering. Neither motive would be best served by a glossy professionalism that effectively pulled rank on the victims—or worse, reduced them to mouthwatering local color. Again, neorealism, with its democratic ideal (often finessed in practice) of placing nonactors in their vernacular setting, was the indispensable compass. Pontecorvo recruited his amateurs (almost one hundred and fifty of them, including Saadi Yacef as El-hadi Jaffar, a thinly fictionalized version of himself) more for their physical verisimilitude than their innate ability. He admitted one exception: stage veteran Jean Martin, whose dry, punctilious performance as the French military chief Colonel Mathieu sheds irony over the whole imperialist enterprise. But the Italian school hadn’t always shunned cheap pathos, and further austerity was called for. The filmmakers found it in a genre long associated with seriousness, social engagement, and plain truth—documentary. The Battle of Algiers would emulate the on-the-hoof aesthetic of 1960s cinema verité. Pontecorvo duly flung himself into the breach with a handheld camera that wobbled, zoomed, and reframed as though excitedly clawing at the action. What matter if the riots and atrocities were minutely orchestrated or if Marcello Gatti’s grainy, high-contrast cinematography was synthesized with negative dupes? Pontecorvo also knew that realism can’t be achieved without artifice.
But documentary in itself wasn’t enough. Raw actuality (or its cunning double) functions as an abrasive in the movie, scrubbing away any tendency toward spurious glamour and romanticism. All the same, The Battle of Algiers was conceived as the saga of a proud citizenry throwing off its chains, so that romanticism must be made to creep quietly, almost subliminally, back in. Ennio Morricone’s score isn’t the symphonic flattening of your tympanum by which Hollywood dependably celebrates momentous occasions. Its themes, percussive and elegiac, appear sparingly, but with a ritual inevitability that suggests hidden, antithetical forces sweeping the characters along. The blunt yet measured editing; the concatenated procession of episodes relentlessly ticking down; the repeated shots of a community waiting or mourning, seen from high above; the leitmotif of the Muslim women’s dreadful war whoops, echoing over the Casbah—all contribute to the impression of flowing like a vast, unstoppable tide.
That tide is history, of course. The main part of the narrative treats the escalating tactics—police shootings, terrorist bombings, a general strike—that the FLN deployed against the French from 1954 until the movement’s (temporary) defeat in 1957. The details are so explicit that The Battle of Algiers was adapted into a training manual by the Black Panthers and the IRA—even screened (for a more cautionary purpose, one assumes) at the Pentagon. Pontecorvo and Solinas observe the endless chain of actions and reprisals like scientists confirming the invariability of some natural law. The strict formal symmetry of assassinations, bombs, and vengeful mobs on either side has led liberal-minded critics to the comfortable opinion that the movie is balanced—essentially declaring a pox on both houses. But the objectivity belongs to history alone, weaving its secret design, indifferently crushing its pawns, ever rolling on. As for the filmmakers, they view colonialism as an unmitigated evil and join hands with the weak against the strong. In the sole sequence expressing a degree of ambivalence, the FLN announces a purity crusade to rid the district of counterrevolutionary riffraff. Later, we watch aghast as Muslim street children swarm around a harmless drunk, then drag him down the stairs to who knows what nightmarish fate. That may be an example of sectarian “fanaticism,” but it’s also undeniable that the Algerians require dignity and discipline to advance their fight. Otherwise, Pontecorvo stands firm in the insurgent camp and aims to bring the viewer over. In most earlier films about colonialism, the natives were depicted as aloof, menacing, treacherous, if sometimes ravishingly exotic. Pontecorvo’s natives retain these attributes, but the director cleverly reverses their intention. Here, it’s the French who appear remote—pale, anemic, and corporate in their army fatigues or police uniforms. Apart from the sardonic Colonel Mathieu, they’re denied the least spark of personality and systematically refused close-ups. The Algerians, by contrast, are given flesh, sensuality, bodies, and, above all, faces. Pontecorvo doesn’t press the point with brutal caricature, in the manner of Eisenstein. The Europeans are shown as just doing their jobs, while the “poetry” of the Africans is glimpsed in passing, never italicized.
No doubt we are aligned the more surely with the seditionists by the unconscious nature of the appeal. The acid test of this comes in the unforgettable sequence where three Algerian women plant bombs at various crowded hangouts in the French quarter. Masquerading as loose-living Europeans, carrying mortality in a shopping basket, they would be sinister femmes fatales in another context. But we have been made to collude with their perspective and look through their eyes at the innocents about to be slaughtered. For once, the French settlers are particularized—in vivid snapshots of teenagers dancing, men sipping drinks and idly chattering, a toddler licking an ice cream cone. The women take no pleasure in their mission and shoulder full responsibility for its appalling consequences. But history has spoken. If we can accept the grievous necessity of these deaths, then we consent to everything. Pontecorvo has penetrated our Western self-absorption and let in the harsh light of reality. If not, the movie at any rate offers iconography—checkpoints, child martyrs, interrogation rooms, torture chambers—that has become timely again and worth meditating on. “It is the moment of the boomerang,” Jean-Paul Sartre wrote of the Third World rebellions in his introduction to Frantz Fanon’s 1961 The Wretched of the Earth (a book that Pontecorvo and Solinas read avidly). The Battle of Algiers offers an indelible image of how that boomerang pitilessly returns, which we ignore at our peril.
For Fanon, violence is endemic to colonial rule, tightening its grip over decades and centuries, finally leaving no option save bloody payment in kind. Pontecorvo follows this intransigent thesis to the letter, and few artists have risked their necks so forthrightly. That may explain why a movie universally acknowledged as a radical touchstone has spawned only a tiny handful of imitators. Perhaps the most immediate beneficiary was Constantin Costa-Gavras, whose 1969 Z and 1973 State of Siege (cowritten by Solinas) investigate the paranoid mechanisms through which nominally legal governments snuff out subversion, real or fantasized. While the Greek director borrowed freely from Pontecorvo’s quasidocumentary technique, he siphoned it off into the accessible mold of conspiracy thrillers merely trimmed with dissident ideas. The rebranding of militancy as nail-biting entertainment spelled the beginning of the end for political cinema. In recent times, the pugilistic Oliver Stone has built a durable career on attacking icons and institutions with a sledgehammer. Briton Ken Loach continues to hoist the red flag in works (such as 1995’s Land and Freedom) that combine emotional intensity and hard-nosed materialist rigor. But the true heirs of The Battle of Algiers have been numberless filmmakers from Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, Senegal, Mali, Tunisia, Morocco, Palestine, and Algeria itself—inspired by Pontecorvo’s supreme empathy to tell their own stories of nationalist striving. Still, history moves on, and world cinema reflects market forces in an increasingly smooth, prettified style. The hour is more than ripe for The Battle of Algiers to renew its fire.
Peter Matthews is a senior lecturer in film and television at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. He is also a regular contributor to Sight & Sound. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2004 DVD edition of The Battle of Algiers.