The Battle of Algiers
Special Edition, The Criterion Collection
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One of the most influential films in the history of political cinema, Gillo Pontecorvos The Battle of Algiers focuses on the harrowing events of 1957, a key year in Algerias struggle for independence from France. Shot in the streets of Algiers in documentary style, the film vividly recreates the tumultuous Algerian uprising against the occupying French in the 1950s. As violence escalates on both sides, the French torture prisoners for information and the Algerians resort to terrorism in their quest for independence. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range, women plant bombs in cafés. The French win the battle, but ultimately lose the war as the Algerian people demonstrate that they will no longer be suppressed. The Criterion Collection is proud present Gillo Pontecorvos tour de forcea film with astonishing relevance today.
What does the Criterion Collection do for the release of one of the greatest and controversial war movies you never heard of? Fill a three-DVD set with more extras than one could imagine and give The Battle of Algiers the attention it deserves. The film itself is gritty, with a neo-realistic, documentary-like look and feel, and the new high-definition digital transfer has done wonders for its quality while retaining its visual integrity. Assuming many have never heard of The Battle of Algiers, this DVD set has provided a series of documentaries to fill in the many unknown gaps. The first two documentaries give a rich background on Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo ("The Dictatorship of Truth," 1992) and an exclusive making of the film ("Marxist Poetry," 2004). "The Making of The Battle of Algiers" is a wonderful documentary filled with current interviews with Pontecorvo, cinematographer Marcello Gatti, composer Ennio Morricone, and various film historians, biographers, and actors. Disc 2 finishes up with a 17-minute documentary of five directors (Lee, Nair, Schnabel, Soderbergh, and Stone) discussing the importance and influence of The Battle of Algiers on their careers and film in general.
The third disc focuses on the history of the French and Algerian conflict. Remembering History (69 minutes, 2004) is another exclusive documentary historically detailing the battle. It is followed by the chilling États d'armes (2002) which documents various French officers on interrogation, torture, and execution techniques used during the conflict. Another interesting extra is "The Battle of Algiers: A Case Study" (2004). This is a 25-minute conversation with Richard Clarke and Michael Sheehan (former State Department coordinator for counterterrorism) shot for ABC News discussing the film and its relevancy to studying terrorism today. Combine this with a 56-page booklet filled with articles, interviews, Saadi Yacef's account of his arrest, and biographies of French-Algerian war participants and you have yourself a full-fledged course in the film and the history surrounding it. The only minor criticism of this package is that the movie itself has no commentary track. However, considering the abundant historical and background material and directorial testimonials, a commentary track hardly seems necessary. The Battle of Algiers is a must-have for film, war, and history buffs alike. --Rob Bracco
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Dedicated to the people of Algiers, it is more an account of the rise and fall of the Algerian Liberation Front (FLN) between 1954-7 than the popular resistance to the French occupation, following their strategies and the response of the increasingly militarised French. The country's genuine revolution and liberation in 1962 is dealt with almost as an afterthought in the film's epilogue.
With the visual authenticity of a newsreel, the lean construction of a documentary and a gripping immediacy to many of its scenes, the film is fairly even handed in its treatment of the outrages on both sides, but never allows either side to justify or even explain itself. Only in the UN's habitual cowardice in refusing to take a stand on the issue is the reason for the escalation in violence, rather than the ideology that drives it, made apparent.
Certainly, for all the rightness of their cause, the FLN's methods are, by necessity, so brutal and dictatorial that automatic sympathy for them is out of the question. They rule by fear, clearing (translation: driving out or murdering) the Casbah of prostitutes, junkies and crooks not for any moral reason but to ensure a safe hideout. The petty criminal turned freedom fighter 'hero' machine-guns the man who raised him because he will not help the party; a woman leaves a bomb in a milk bar with children in it without a trace of conscience or remorse; passers-by are machine-gunned from a speeding ambulance. So lacking in pity or simple human decency are they and so callous is their disregard for human life that it is almost impossible not to hold them in contempt while still supporting the principle their fight for freedom - this is a film that doesn't romanticise the moral price at which that freedom is bought. Nor, more surprisingly still, does it demonise the French (many themselves veterans of the French resistance to occupation of their own country during WW2) and their response. It's almost as if the film is challenging you to hate its heroes and sympathise with its villains while at times lucidly explaining why both sides are driven to such desperate measures. It's something a filmmaker as relentlessly partisan as Ken Loach would never have the guts to attempt or the skill to pull off.
Certainly it is one of the ironies of time and hindsight that whereas in 1965 the French were so obviously the undisputed villains of the piece that the film was banned in France, now their actions seem, if not morally justifiable, at least understandable. Fighting an unseen enemy hiding behind the civilian population, with each member knowing only three others in the organisation, the French cannot find them because even they do not know who or where they are. Afraid of another Dien Bien Phu and faced with a lack of political will by their government, you understand why the French paratroops resort to torture as their only means of gaining information in the face of increasing outrages aimed indiscriminately at the civilian population. It's all part of a desperately escalating series of immoral outrages on both sides, with the occupiers never understanding why it's their atrocities that draw more public outrage than those they're fighting against - at one point, the French Colonel is moved to wonder "Why are the Sartres always on the other side?" on learning of the popular support for the FLN among the left-wing intellectuals, a sentiment that still holds true of the military and political mindset that looks upon rebellion and terrorism as a purely logistical and tactical problem today. The film was screened at the Pentagon in 2003 and it's clear that they saw nothing in it but tactics.
This pragmatic loss of ordinary standards of decency is inherent in the film: even though Pontecorvo shows the reasons for the atrocities on both sides, that doesn't undermine the savagery of the acts themselves. Interestingly, the film's trailer adds voice-over from many of the participants explaining their motivations more clearly than the film itself, but in many ways the film really reflects the point of co-producer and real life senior FLN figure Yacef Saadi's original book - not a handbook or a celebration so much as a explanation of just why pity had to quickly fall by the wayside on both sides. The success of the film is that it doesn't feel the need to mitigate any of its protagonists actions with comforting emotional outlets or devices to add sympathy and point the audience, whether it's the girl in the milkbar or the French colonel who can publicly admire one of the rebels at a press conference before (by implication) arranging his suicide in his cells because he recognises he's still a danger even in captivity. It's a rare unflinching portrait of revolution in all its ugliness and moral vacuity (rather than ambiguity) where the object becomes all-consuming and all-destroying on both sides. Yacef Saadi's final small victory isn't military - it was the people themselves who won their freedom rather than their self-proclaimed champions - it's that he finally sees beyond the kind of empty nihilistic gestures that leads others to pointlessly martyr themselves. It's a human reaction and one that puts life - even if it is only his own - and the hope for change that life still carries first, yet Pontecorvo never overstates it.
It's not a film that gives easy answers or clear cut heroes and villains, and Criterion's superlative 3-disc NTSC DVD set more than amply addresses the moral contradictions in a truly impressive array of supplements that look at the film in a post-9/11 light. You can hardly move for documentaries both on the film itself and its influence - Gillo Pontecorvo - The Dictatorship of Truth, Marxist Poetry - The Making of The Battle of Algiers and Five Directors - and the history and aftermath of the revolution - Remembering History, The Battle of Algiers - A Case Study and Gillo Pontecorvo's Return to Algiers - as well as a 28-minute extract from documentary Etats d'Armes in which French soldiers talk about the use of torture in the war. Throw in a couple of trailers, a 54-page booklet and an excellent transfer and it's one of the finest releases Criterion ever put out.
And now, in its Blu-ray Criterion Collection version, the reproduction is so crystal clear it is a true work of art.
Any student of military history that wants to grasp how things can go wrong and how a seemingly simple action can turn out so bad, simply must watch this film.
This is one you do not want to stream...this is one you want to own and keep for future viewings.
Defeating a guerrilla army when it is fighting for its own homeland is extremely difficult. Only the British in Malaya were successful in defeating Communist forces, and that was more than 40 years ago and under very different circumstances that Americans face in Iraq.
In the Battle of Algiers, the French seem to be winning, but of course, de Gaulle realized by 1958 or so that, indeed, Algeria was not a part of metropolitan France after all.
I come away from the Battle of Algiers each time thinking how absolutely futile it is for a colonial or foreign power to try to impose its will and its political system on another society and culture. Those people being suppressed will always find a way to fight back. It may take a generation or two, but it is inevitable.
Had more people in the Bush administration seen the Battle of Algiers and truly appreciated it -- and left their arrogance at the door -- we might not have the awful situation in Iraq that we do now.
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19/06/1965,while the movie was being...Read more