'The Battle of Algiers was released in 1964, two years after the Algerian people won their war for independence from France. It was one of the most hard fought national liberation struggles, with 1 million Algerians killed out of a population of 9 million. Gillo Pontecorvo reconstructs the main political events in Algiers between 1954 and 1957.
It is a powerful film. The French government banned it until 1971. It was also shown by other national liberation movements the Viet Minh in Vietnam, the IRA in Ireland and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Cinematically it has influenced generations of film producers, from Costa Gavras's Z and Missing to Oliver Stone's Platoon and Salvador.
The film follows the life of Ali La Pointe from street hustler and petty crook to a commander of the FLN (National Liberation Front) bombers in Algiers. The film is shot in black and white and, without one foot of newsreel, creates the illusion of on the spot reporting. Pontecorvo uses mainly amateur actors. The film shows the brutality of the French, with harrowing scenes of the execution of two FLN activists, the Pieds Noirs' (European settlers) bombing of the Casbah and the torture of FLN suspects. It explains why individuals commit acts of terrorism and how the FLN became a mass organisation.
The war for independence raged all over Algeria but the film concentrates on the city of Algiers. The Muslim quarter known as the Casbah was home to over 100,000 Muslims despite being only 1 square kilometre. The FLN turned it into a `no go area' for the French. Many of its buildings were hiding places and bomb factories, from which was launched the bombing campaign of the French zone.
Although Pontecorvo leaves the audience with no doubt that he supports the FLN, he is not uncritical of the tactics used. In some of the film's most powerful scenes, he shows the results in slow motion of bombs going off both in the Casbah and in a Pieds Noirs cafe, milk bar and air terminal. As the camera pans across the carnage all you hear is a haunting, sorrowful piece of music by Bach accompanying the look of anguish in all the victims' faces.
To deal with the FLN's bombing campaign the French government brought in the paratroopers. Many of them had witnessed the crushing of the French army by the Germans, their own humiliation by the Viet Minh in Dien Bien Phu and the catastrophe of Suez. For the paras the fight in Algeria was about regaining national pride. The second part of The Battle of Algiers shows the paras capturing and destroying the FLN's organisation, leaving only Ali to continue the war.
Finally the French paras surround Ali and his three accomplices in their hiding place. By murdering and imprisoning the FLN the French beheaded the Algiers movement. For two years afterwards the city of Algiers played no major role in the war.
However, it is in the final scenes of the film, of the mass uprisings in Algiers two years later, that Pontecorvo shows the power of ordinary people. With the exception of Eisenstein, no other director has captured a mass movement so well.
He takes the camera into the crowd so the audience feel as if they are involved.
The cries made by the women from the backs of their throat combine with the sound of tanks rolling up the street and the voice of the radio commentator to make you believe you are witnessing the event. He also focuses on individuals in the crowd who have previously been seen taking part in the bombing campaign, now not merely individuals but part of a mass movement.
Pontecorvo, like many other European film makers at that time, was influenced by the Communist Party. He joined the PCI (Communist Party of Italy) in 1941 and became a commander in the Resistance, but left in 1956 over Russia's invasion of Hungary. He became a left independent and supporter of the national independence struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. While making documentaries in France he worked for the FLN running money from France to Swiss banks.
He made two other fims in this period: KAPO, a film about the concentration camps in Nazi Germany amd Queimada, a brilliant film about a slave uprising starring Marlon Brando. However, his disillusionment with the new governments of liberated nations left him very demoralised. He now makes his living as the organiser of the Venice Film Festival and making television commercials.
The war for independence had a massive impact on France. It brought down six prime ministers. It caused the collapse of the Fourth Republic and twice plunged France into near civil war. Algerians won their independence. Nobody has shown the heroic struggle against colonialism better than Pontecorvo in The Battle of Algiers. He created a masterpiece.