50 years, 50 films: The Battle of Algiers (1966)
The latest film in our countdown from 1963 is a classic study of political conflict
It hardly needs to be said that there was a lot of politics about in the 1960s. All decent folks knew where they stood with Martin Luther King or with Cesar Chavez. But the rise in political violence left a great many cosy liberals in an uncomfortable position. Which brings us to Gillo Pontecorvo’s incomparable, indecently exciting The Battle of Algiers. It is weird to recall that the film occasionally found itself classified as a documentary. You feel few punters would be quite so easily confused now. The picture is quite obviously a rigorous, dramatised study of the Algerian revolt against colonial French rule in the mid-1950s. There is certainly a stink of verité about the piece. Marcello Gatti’s camera jostles its way through the casbah in convincing, unfettered style. But there is great artifice on display too. Ennio Morricone’s score exhibits the same angular oddness that characterised his work on contemporaneous Sergio Leone pictures. The scene in which a bomb is placed in a milk bar buzzes with carefully sustained tension. It’s a brilliant work of high-end fakery.
Okay. But what is the film trying to say? Is The Battle of Algiers in favour of what we now call terrorism? Opponents of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty may view any comparison with Battle of Algiers as a kind of sacrilege, but both pictures do investigate the same uneasy questions about political violence (in the later film’s case, state-sponsered violence). If we are being asked to side with the movie’s principal characters — and that is certainly the case in Battle — then are we necessarily being asked to approve all of their methods? Probably not. Nonetheless, Battle of Algiers does put the pacifist in a very tricky position. Watching the torture being carried out by the French, observing the sly cunning of the revolutionaries, it is very hard not to cheer when they achieve one of their brutal coups.
You could see Battle of Algiers as The Wind that Shakes the Barley without that film’s exasperated, regretful second half. Ken Loach and Paul Laverty see the socialist revolution as being betrayed by religion and capitalism. Quite a lot of that has been going on in North Africa over the last few years.
For the record, other films considered for 1966 included The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Persona and Au Hazard Balthasar,