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Better Late Than Never: 'The Battle of Algiers' (1966)


The Guys from {FILM} is a discussion on movies and films from all eras and genres

Better Late Than Never: 'The Battle of Algiers' (1966)

Shaun Cordingley

It can be absolutely fascinating when you find a film that was not only completely relevant and important in it's own time, but has remained so today; The Battle of Algiers, a look at FLN Resistance movement inside Algeria (and specifically the capital city of Algiers) against the Colonial French, is one of those films.

Set in the 1950s, Battle of Algiers tells the story of the rise, failure, and ultimate triumph of the FLN (the Front de Liberation Nationale) in Algeria as they work to overthrow the French Colonial government, which are bolstered by the French Paratroopers (who, having failed to keep Indochina French, now feel they have something to prove). The film does not particularly follow one character, rather it flows in a documentary sort of fashion, through the conflict, from both sides...although the slant is definitely toward being favorable to the FLN.

The film is based on Souvenirs de la Bataille d'Alger, by Saadi Yacef, which was essentially a campaign account of an FLN military commander of the conflict from 1954-1957. An exiled FLN man actually approached Italian director (who, at the time, was largely known for his documentaries) Gillo Pontecorvo with the book, as well as screenwriter Franco Solinas, about the prospect of working with the new Algerian Government to produce a film. The Italians said yes, and ended up making, with the help of Ennio Morricone, what is considered one of the best Italian Neorealist films. Shot in stark, documentary style black and white, and seemingly completely done on location in Algiers, it is easy to see why: 

Now first off, I have to say that this film is very watchable: the style is not jarring at all, and while there is no real "lead character", The Battle of Algiers is probably one of the best films to manage an entire series of real life events without getting bogged down, or losing the thread--you will see the completest picture of a 3 year rebellion that 2 hours can deliver. The performances are good throughout, and it is very easy to be drawn in to seeing the hopelessness of both sides as the insurgency continues.

I had mentioned above that the film is somewhat timeless, and that is 100% the case with The Battle of Algiers. This film is...not exactly a how-to for urban guerilla warfare (although it is fairly well known that on release in the United States, the Black Panthers were seen to be seeing the film repeatedly, and taking notes), however the fact of the matter is, this film is almost exactly what did/is going on in Iraq, and other places now. This film, for as long as there are insurgencies and rebellions against established (and foreign) powers, will remain prescient.

Accepting the subject matter, and the docudrama style, I must say that this film can be disturbing at times, because you are going to see conflict, you are going to see attacks from both sides (and their results), and you are also going to see torture. Nothing is over-the-top, or gory, but the documentary style that Pontecorvo chose does make the scenes feel a lot more like you're watching sometimes horrifying newsreel footage.

However, this film is one that everyone really should see once. As the first film to really show both sides of a conflict, to show the rationale on both sides, and to show Imperialism from the other side, and why there is the fight against it, is remarkable. Subtitles are going to be a must, as the film is largely in French and Arabic, but I never found that to be distracting (however, I am a subtitles guy--I will not watch dubbed if subtitles are an option).

 In the end, The Battle of Algiers is the perfect representation of the perils of not learning from history, and how we as a species are doomed to repeat our mistakes, and sometimes, thankfully, our triumphs, wrapped up in a thoroughly brilliant film.

-S (@Shauncord)