Before revolutions were televised, political cinema enabled large populations to contemplate the machinations and consequences of violent unrest from a distance. Technical advancements helped the cause, allowing narrative storytelling to merge with documentary aesthetics and formulate a new kind of hybrid realism. Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers immersed itself in this aesthetic, and might be the greatest film on the subject of insurrection, profiling the Algerian fight for independence against French colonial forces in such stirring detail that many of the intense fictional sequences feel as if they’re ripped directly from actual newsreel footage.
Spanning the conflict’s most deadly time period from 1954 to 1957, The Battle of Algiers plunges us headfirst down the narrow corridors of the Casbah district, a predominantly Muslim area of Algiers and the urban haven of the rebel-led National Liberation Front (FLN). Down the steep hill from the impoverished Casbah is the posh European sector where the French police force attempts to subvert the FLN’s ideological stranglehold. Communiqués and propaganda speeches inform the ideologies behind each group, but it’s just clean surface cover for the messy bombings, assassinations, and torture sessions committed by both sides. War is hell, but also devastatingly cyclical.
Pontecorvo doesn’t sentimentalize the Arab cause or villainize French colonialism. His gripping handheld aesthetic establishes a kinetic documentary effect, making the impact of every shoot-out and explosion a deeply personal experience. This approach defines the introduction of Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), a low-level grifter who becomes a crucial leader for the FLN after watching a fellow prisoner get guillotined in a French prison. Ali’s ideological shift could represent any number of the other Arab characters in the film, and Pontecorvo makes their point of view a priority immediately before and after sudden bursts of violence. A bomber scans the public room before placing the incendiary device, with the camera lingering on the unwitting smiling faces of the men, women, and children about to die. Later, a tortured informer starts tearing up when he realizes the consequences of his betrayal. These decisions couldn’t be more organic.
As Ali and fellow leader El-Hadi Jaffar (Saadi Yacef) recruit young Arabs to participate in a brutal barrage of political killings and bombings, the French government in Algiers grasps at whatever colonialist straws they have left. They call in an elite paratrooper battalion, led by Lt. Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin), who swoops down like a hammer from God, occupying the Casbah with precision and force after the FLN institutes a weeklong, citywide strike. The ensuing military chess match between the guerillas and the French shock troops becomes a protracted standoff that erupts into chaos early and often.
Each side experiences “a duty of resistance,” committing heinous war crimes to achieve their political goals. The French police aren’t above secretly bombing the house of an innocent man in the Casbah, killing dozens of civilians, while the FLN carries out a devastating three-pronged attack on different hotspots in the European district. Pontecorvo always hovers on the aftermath of each attack, watching as French and Arab bodies are pulled from the rubble, faceless innocents masked by layers of dirt and blood.
The Battle of Algiers is a political tract that understands itself also as a cinematic exercise. A fitting complement to Pontecorvo’s penetrating compositions and DP Marcello Gatti’s nimble camera work, Ennio Morricone’s score echoes through the cramped Casbah avenues like a call to arms. The pouncing musical notes crescendo during moments of mass tumult, and together all three artists perform a balancing act of epic proportions; a complex historical moment is recreated from the gritty ground up. Politicians are expectedly nonexistent in the constantly evolving social world of the film, their voices only heard via radio or transmitter dictating orders that are as ignorant as they are abrasive. They’re the true inglorious bastards.
Ultimately, Ali and Jaffar are overrun after Col. Mathieu locks down the city during a military surge ironically called Operation Champagne. But the film’s final moment prove that the colonialist machine has very little to celebrate. Shots of tortured prisoners dissolve into massive protests by regular citizens demanding freedom, and these large groups clash with riot police only to be mowed down by machine-gun fire. The unrest grows more strikingly intense with each passing montage. This sequence is a potent precursor to the fact that Algeria attained independence a few years later in 1962.
More than any other, one line of dialogue sums up the film’s unique balance of romantic lyricism and hard-nosed realism: “Violence itself does not win wars. The people themselves must act.” This statement by a high-ranking FLN leader becomes a prologue of sorts to the countless civilian revolutions that have dominated the nightly news every decade since. The Battle of Algiers may have been released in 1966, but its powerful influence still holds violent sway in the volatile streets of Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria. Great protest art like Pontecorvo’s will always be necessary.
The 1080p hi-def Blu-ray transfer by Criterion looks expectedly crisp and detailed, making the grain and grit of every handheld camera shot the star of the show. The Battle of Algiers revels in the art of tense cinematic pacing, so this heightened level of clarity makes the experience all the more gripping. The viewer feels like they are witnessing a documentary crew maneuver the treacherous line between terrorism and liberation. Even the darker sequences inside jail cells and dank crawl spaces, which looked muddy in previous transfers, are given necessary levels of shade. The 2.0 DTS-HD MA transfer improves on the previous DVD's mono soundtrack. The film hinges on the audible blasts from bomb explosions and gunfire, but also the booming presence of Ennio Morricone's score. All of these sound effects are given fresh audible weight.
The documentary-heavy supplemental package is recycled from the 2004 Criterion DVD release, but the scope of material is still impressive. On disc one there's 1992's "Gillo Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth," a dry but highly informative documentary narrated by literary critic Edward Said. "Even when I like a story…I'm seized by one tragic question. Why should this film be made?" ponders Gillo Pontecorvo about this psychological defect he can't overcome, explaining why he's made so few films since The Battle of Algiers. Early in 2004's "Marxist Poetry: The Making of The Battle of Algiers, actor Jean Martin comments, "The only position taken in the film was an expression of the right to freedom." The 51-minute documentary mixes similar anecdotes and memories from the filmmakers and historians closest to Pontecorvo's project, including Morricone. Criterion interviewed Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, Steven Soderbergh, Julian Schnabel, and Mira Nair about the impact The Battle of Algiers had on their careers. Nair sums it up best: "They [filmmakers] completely captured the raggedy edges of what protest is really like." Theatrical trailers and a production gallery (stills, lobby cards) are also included.
On disc two, producer and star Saadi Yacef discusses his involvement with the Algerian resistance at length in the hour-long documentary "Remembering History," a captivating reconstruction of the real life events depicted in the film. "Etats d'Armes," a documentary excerpt from a three-part 2002 feature on the French-Algerian conflict by Patrick Rotman, interviews former soldiers and military officers about their experiences in North Africa. The 28-minute short also discusses how it was actually a pro-European radical group that started the string of bombings: "In the capital of Algiers, counterterrorism precedes terrorism." "The Battle of Algiers: A Case Study" is an interesting video peace featuring a fittingly cold discussion between counterterrorism experts, including Richard A. Clarke. There's also 1992's "Gillo Pontecorvo's Return to Algiers," a personal video essay which finds the director documenting the country 30 years after his initial experience making The Battle of Algiers. Also included in the set is a booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Peter Matthews, excerpts from Algeria's National Liberation Front leader Saadi Yacef's original account of his arrest, excerpts from the film's screenplay, a reprinted interview with co-writer Franco Solinas, and biographical sketches of key figures in the French-Algerian War.
Powder-keg cinema at its finest, The Battle of Algiers storms the Blu-ray aisles with just as much anger, brutality, and complexity as it did theatrically 45 years ago.