THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS directed by Gillo Pontecorvo (Algeria/Italy, 1966)
Victory for the Algerian freedom fighters is merely the epilogue in this astonishing movie. The main events focus on the period 1954-7 when the first wave of violence aimed at winning independence was suppressed by the French army.
I saw this film many years ago and watching again now it still has the same powerful impact. Its resonance lies in not taking sides in the conflict but showing a degree of barbarity on both sides – the FLN (National Liberation Front) and the French army headed by Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin).
Martin is the only professional actor in this film, all the other parts were chosen mainly for the physical presence or striking faces. The pained expression of the informer we see at the beginning and end is one of the most haunting – he suffers the added indignity of having to wear a French army uniform as they raid the hideout of guerrilla leader Ali la Pointe.
The ruthless tactics of these opposing factions are depicted with gripping documentary style realism. As one FLN leader says, they must convince the people of the rightness of their cause or eliminate them – no half measures. Equally Mathieu tells his troops they have to isolate and destroy the leaders to kill the movement. Each side demands discipline and unyielding loyalty.
We see the terrorist campaign of bombing at civilian targets – one particularly memorable sequence is when three women are each given a time bomb and sent to their targets. The camera shows the victims before the moment of detonation and the sound of tribal drums creates an almost unbearable tension (the soundtrack was composed by the director and Ennio Morricone).
On the other side, we see the torture of captured members of the liberation front, acts which contravene the legal guidelines but, like the terrorism, is carried out on the grounds that the ends justify the means.
You don’t win wars with outrages alone nor can military might change the hearts and minds of the people. The injustice of colonial rule remained unchanged even though the army won the battle depicted in the film.
Two years later, the wave of protests resumed with greater intensity and with a unanimity that couldn’t be ignored or broken. The journalists on the scene of these historic events report the “rhythmic nightmarish cries” and these defiant voices of the people ring in our ears at the end of the film.
One of the greatest movies ever made.