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DVD Review: The Battle of Algiers

The Criterion Collection

This year has seen some terrific releases on DVD, but none is better than the Criterion Collection's three-disc set, "The Battle of Algiers." First released in 1966, "The Battle of Algiers" was reissued in theaters across the country in 2004. It enjoyed a too-brief run in San Antonio in May 2004. The film's distributor, Rialto, told me that it didn't do too well in San Antonio so it was pulled after one week. That's too bad, but now the movie can be experienced at home, with nearly five hours of documentary and supplemental material, not only about the film, but also about the French-Algerian conflict of the 1950s.
"The Battle of Algiers" depicts, in near documentary fashion, the major events of the urban conflict that arose in Algiers as France attempted to dismantle the underground Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). The FLN used terrorist tactics like bombings and assassination as part of their effort to win Algerian independence. On the other side of the conflict, the French sent in paratroopers to occupy the city of Algiers, and used torture and threat of execution to extract information from suspected members of the FLN.

Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo directed "The Battle of Algiers," casting non-actors in nearly all the major roles. With the help of producer (and former FLN military leader) Saadi Yacef, he also re-created the Battle of Algiers in the very same places it had taken place just a few years prior. Yacef's participation also wasn't limited to his role as producer. He played El-hadi Jafar, a fictionalized version of his own self, in the film. Being on the set every day helped him advise Pontecorvo to keep, in his words, a more romanticized version of the story from developing.

Romanticized is one word that cannot be used to describe "The Battle of Algiers." In one of the special features on this DVD set, director Steven Soderbergh talks about the influence this film had on his own "Traffic," and remarks that you should know what you're in for when "The Battle of Algiers" opens with a scene of a man being tortured. The killings in the movie, whether by gun, guillotine, or bomb, are not depicted in an overly graphic fashion, but they are still shocking.

The only trained actor to appear in "The Battle of Algiers" is Jean Martin. Martin plays Colonel Matthieu, sent in to lead a squadron of French Paratroopers sent in to Algiers to take control of the situation. Here, Pontecorvo takes poetic license, for Col. Matthieu is a composite character of three or four real-life French military leaders. Cold and calculating, Matthieu, who fought in the French Resistance himself, respects his enemy while doing his job to eradicate them. Matthieu also understands what the politicians in France do not: you cannot stop history from happening. It seems to me that Matthieu knows that while he and his men may win the battle of Algiers, they may lose the war. "Should France remain in Algeria?" he asks reporters at a news conference. "If the answer is yes, then you must accept the consequences."
Although it's clear that Pontecorvo's point in "The Battle of Algiers" is that colonialism is bad, the FLN are not the heroes of this story. In fact, neither side in this "battle" is damned, be they the French paratroopers or the members of the FLN. We're shown scenes of torture by the French, but also FLN bombings in public places. Neither of these actions is heroic, but they are unfortunately a part of modern warfare and insurgencies. One scene stands out as a chilling representation of Pontecorvo's acknowledgement of the horror of urban warfare. A female member of the FLN, after cutting her hair and donning makeup to appear more European, is sitting at a café in the European part of Algiers, where she will soon leave behind her purse with a bomb inside. As a traditional percussive Algerian melody thrum-thrums on the soundtrack, she scans the room, and the camera catches the faces of men, women, and children enjoying their coffee and ice cream. Many of them will most certainly die after she leaves the café. It's a haunting scene that will stay with me for a long time.

Composer Ennio Morricone's score works beautifully in the picture. Director Gillo Pontecorvo had an eight-note phrase he felt would work perfectly, and Morricone takes this motif and works variations on it throughout the movie. For scenes depicting the aftermath of FLN bombings or French assaults, Morricone uses a melancholy melody based on a Bach chorale. It's a very moving and stirring score.
The Criterion DVD edition of "The Battle of Algiers" includes many special features that enhance one's viewing of the Pontecorvo film. Disc two is devoted to documentaries on the making of the film and commentary from contemporary directors. A 1992 feature "Gillo Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth" follows the director's career from his Holocaust drama "Kapo," through "The Battle of Algiers," and on to his final two films (so far), "Burn!" and "Ogro." This documentary focuses on Pontecorvo's approach to extreme realism in his films. Another feature on disc two is the 51-minute long "Making of 'The Battle of Algiers,'" featuring interviews with Pontecorvo, Morricone, the film's editor, Mario Morra, and cinematographer Marcello Gatti, whose contributions to the film were vital to its success.

Credit Courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
Saadi Yacef (far left) as El-hadi Jaffar, and Brahim Haggiag (right) as Ali La Pointe.

Disc three of the set is devoted to features that help one to better understand the French-Algerian conflict, beginning with "Remembering History," an hour-plus documentary that goes back some 150 years before the Battle of Algiers, and sheds further light on what was happening outside the urban battle depicted in the film. Revealed in the documentary but not in Pontecorvo's film (since it concentrates on Algiers' urban conflict alone) are the tit-for-tat massacres near Philippeville in August 1955, or further conflicts in the countryside. And after Algeria won its independence, many Muslims who were French sympathizers were executed. The documentary benefits from the participation of several historians, as well as Saadi Yacef and former FLN member Zohra Drif-Bitat. Yacef, for the most part, is unrepentant when discussing the bombings the FLN carried out.

"États d'armes" is a 28-minute long interview with two former French military officers, who, like Yacef, discuss their roles in the combat matter-of-factly, until the question of torture and execution is brought up. Then their answers get a little cagey.
Another feature might interest our own intelligence community. ABC News investigative chief Christopher Isham moderates a conversation with former national counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke, and former State Department counterterrorism coordinator Michael Sheehan. Both have words of caution for our own administration and its policy in Iraq. Clarke uses a phrase that was bandied about some 30 years ago, and became the title of an Oscar-winning documentary about the Vietnam War. In modern warfare, you must win not only the battle against your enemy's forces, but the "hearts and minds" of the enemy's population to be truly victorious.

The set also includes an hour-long "Return to Algiers" by Gillo Pontecorvo, and an extensive accompanying booklet that helpfully identifies the major participants in the French-Algerian War.
Screened by the Pentagon in 2003, "The Battle of Algiers" should be required viewing for film buffs, but it's also an invaluable resource for teachers and students of world history. Much of what is happening in the world today parallels this film. With the added extra features, "The Battle of Algiers" is the best DVD set of 2004.