Old 05-25-2009, 05:32 PM
Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Here's a film with some interesting history behind it, besides the obviously significant history already contained within it. After a long battle with the occupying French, Algeria finally gained their independence in 1962. Only three years later, the Algerian government itself commissioned this film to be made, telling of the heroic struggle.

The film tells of this struggle through viewpoints on both sides, the National Liberation Front of Algeria (FLN) and the French. The main leader of the FLN that we follow is Ali La Pointe (Brahim Hadjadj) as he and his fellow resistance members carry out their plans against the French. On the French side, we mostly follow Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin), leader of the French paratroops that are brought in to assist the police. The question becomes: whose will is stronger, those fighting for their independence, or those who want to stay in control?

One thing that makes this a fascinating movie is getting to witness the evolution of tactics used by the FLN. They start off by carrying out what seem like random shootings of policemen in the streets. This starts to get people's attention, alerting some of their fellow countrymen that there are those willing to fight back, but at the same time, it also alerts the French that there is a problem that they will have to deal with.

The next step in their tactics contains some of the most engaging scenes in the movie. After the police bomb the house of a resistance member, the FLN also decides to move on to explosives. They send three female resistance members to three different locations with bombs in baskets. The women are able to cross through the checkpoints without being searched, making it a lot easier for them to get to their targets.

One woman places her bomb underneath the bar of a cafe, another places hers in a dance hall, and the last one in an airport terminal. These scenes show that the FLN means business as they are willing to do a lot more damage than the police have done so far. This is also what prompts the police to bring in the paratroopers commanded by Col. Mathieu.

Another interesting scene occurs when Col. Mathieu first arrives. He holds a meetings with his troops in which he discusses the structure of the FLN. On a board behind him, he draws as he talks. There is a section at the very top with the leaders that chooses two leaders for two different cells. Those two people each choose two other leaders for two more cells. By structuring their organization this way, each person only knows the identity of three other people in the FLN. Later on, we see a board structured exactly like this with names gradually filled in as the film progresses.

This film was shot in a documentary-like style that gave it an incredible sense of realism for many of its shocking scenes, including the scenes of killing on both sides as well as brief scenes of torture. While filming it in a documentary style did give it a sense of realism, it had the unfortunate side effect of also making it look like a low-quality film, though it is hard to deny that the film still has an amazing effect.

The way that the film ends was very strange, though this is apparently the way it actually happened. In the film, we get to see what looks to be the end of the FLN as its last members are cornered and killed with explosives in 1957. In 1960, 1,000s of people flooded the streets with flags bearing the star and crescent, but, as the film explains (or in this case, can't), it was for some unknown reason or due to some obscure motive.

At this point there had been two years of relative quiet with the fighting happening mostly in the mountains. Then, in the middle of these new demonstrations, the film tells us that there were two more years of struggle before Algeria gained its independence in 1962. It would have been nice to see the downfall of the French just as we had gotten to see the downfall of the FLN. It seems like that would be another fascinating part of the story and should have been included to complete it.

It is interesting to learn that this film was recently used as a warning to troops as to what to expect in Iraq. In Roger Ebert's "Great Movie" essay, he points out the influence this film would have, saying that the tactics used in it were later adapted by people like Castro and Guevara in Cuba and the Vietcong.

This film remains an important piece of history and its influence is easily seen. I find it amazing that only three years after gaining independence, the government was able to commission such a film to be made. You would think that it would take much longer to form a government and get society back on track, but there was director Gillo Pontecorvo (nominated for Best Director for this film), filming in the very locations the struggle took place, in a sense, preserving it for the world to see. 3.5/4 stars.
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