The Battle of Algiers
Alan A. Stone
practically never experience the great events of history with
their own eyes, explained Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo;
they experience them only through the 200mm or 300mm lens
of the mass mediaphotographs, TV, newsreels. With this insight
Pontecorvo captured one of the most important anti-imperial conflicts
of the twentieth century by filming The Battle of Algiers
(1966) in black and white, using lenses and camera angles that
simulated newsreel footage. Pontecorvo succeeded so well that
many viewers thought they had watched a documentary of the Algerian
National Liberation Fronts (FLN) revolutionary struggle
against their French colonial oppressors.
succeeded on another political level as well: he convinced middle-class
audiences that terrorismdeliberately bombing innocent people
in order to pressure political opponentsmight be necessary.
His case was so emotionally compelling that Pauline Kael described
The Battle of Algiers as the rape of the doubting
intelligence. She dubbed Pontecorvo the most dangerous kind
of Marxist, a Marxist poet who uses the power of film
to persuade his audience that terrorism is a tragic necessity.
Battle of Algiers was the first European political film of
the left. Pontecorvo wanted to portray the Marxist understanding
of history as an inevitable process which once begun cannot
be stopped. In the film, when the leader of the FLNplayed
by the actual leader of the FLNis captured and the French
paratroopers seem to have broken the back of the secret revolutionary
organization, he is paraded before a press conference and asked
if the FLN is now defeated. In my opinion, he replies,
the NLF [FLN] has more chances of beating the French Army
than the French have of stopping history. Pontecorvo, a
committed Marxist, commented on that line. Not only did
we believe this to be right, but we really liked the idea it was
right. History was moving in a certain way and
the class struggle would continue in the Third World with the
lumpenproletariat of the colonized peoples taking up arms against
the colonists. It was Franz Fanons psychiatric gloss on
Marxism, endorsed by Sartre. The wretched of the earth, the black
faces condemned to wear white masks, would assert their identity
through acts of violence and rise up against oppression even when
it came from super-civilized France. The French had
been defeated by that march of history in Vietnam and Pontecorvo
wanted to depict the last futile stand of the French colonial
empire in Algiers. Out of the Casbah would come the Vietcong of
claimed his filmmaking was ruled by the Dictatorship of
Truth and his version of Truth certainly disturbed the French,
who banned his film. Certainly many critics saw in The Battle
of Algiers the power of truth revealed. Othersmost prominently
Pauline Kaelworried that the film took audiences by storm
and gave them no chance to think. Kael saw not truth but ultimate
propaganda. The Battle of Algiers, she said, ranks
with Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstals
deification of Hitler. Whether revealed truth or ultimate propaganda,
The Battle of Algiers is a text that might give Americans
some perspective on our own situation after 9/11both through
its official message and through its unintended insights.
Kael was not wrong in describing Pontecorvo as a Marxist poet,
but he meant his poetry as a celebration of humanity. He described
himself as someone who approached man and the human condition
with a feeling of warmth and compassion. His film and his
poetry were an attempt to connect himself and his Western audiences
through their common humanity to Arabs of the Casbah. He embraced
what is different about the Arabs, including their Islamic traditions,
and made them fully human for us. Yes, revolutionary terror is
a tragic necessity. But Pontecorvos inspiration is Utopian.
Revolution, even in the style of Fanon, held for him the promise
of community and comradeship in which Pontecorvo and perhaps many
European Marxists imagined themselves sharing. He made his audience
share that feeling of community so that we might accept the possibility
of justified terrorism.
film no longer has the immediacy that it had in the late 1960s.
What seemed cinematically real then is now old-fashioned, outmoded
by new visual technologies that arguably give a more realistic
picture than seeing with ones own eyes. Most of us experienced
the enormity of 9/11 on television, and we undoubtedly saw more
than the eyewitnesses at Ground Zero. The moral imagination of
most Americans could not conceive of a Pontecorvo-style justification
for such acts of terrorism. President Bush spoke for the passionate
convictions of the American public when he promised a terrible
and inescapable retribution. Overnight, many leftist doves turned
into war hawks. Something had to be done, and it seemed more than
reasonable to invade Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban, who were
cruel to women, sheltered Bin Laden, and hated Americans.
9/11 we have been following a Pontecorvo script: threatened by
Muslim terrorists as the French were in Algeria we have been caught
up in a spontaneous burst of patriotic solidarity. More than a
year later we congratulate ourselves for doing in months what
the Soviet Union failed to accomplish in years in Afghanistan,
and the march to war continues as President Bush perseveres in
what is now called Operation Enduring Freedom.
film is perhaps most ironically instructive on that American rallying
cry. Ignoring all legal restraints and using torture to gain the
information necessary to destroy the FLN, French paratroopers
won the Battle of Algiers, but as we are shown, they lost the
war to maintain the French colonial empire. Without warning, two
years after the French victory, the entire Arab population swarms
out of the Casbah to march on Algiers. The French respond with
every brutal technique of riot control at their disposalgas,
machine-gun fire, and tanksto drive the Arabs back toward
the Casbah. Then, as night and fog fall over the city, a French
police authority addresses the invisible mob through a megaphone.
What do you want? he asks in bewilderment. In response,
Arabs emerge from the fog demanding and celebrating their
freedom. Pontecorvo had imagined this scene as an ecstatic ballet,
the camera focused on an Arab woman pushed down again and again
by the French police; each time, she rises up in a dance of freedom.
This was the revelation to Western audiences: the Muslims of the
Casbah were freedom fighters.
* * *
her 1972 review Pauline Kael wrote that Pontecorvos historical-determinist
film showed us how the Algerian people were spontaneously
turned into Marxist revolutionaries by historical events.
But The Battle of Algiers conveys another message that
was lost on contemporary audiences, and apparently on Pontecorvo
himself. Watching the film recently for the first time in many
years, I saw something very different. Pontecorvo had achieved
something beyond his conscious artistic and political intentions.
Like Tolstoy, who wanted to show the evils of adultery in Anna
Karenina but created a character that transcended his moralizing
agenda, Pontecorvos Algerians transcend Marxist categories.
The historical turn is to traditional Islam, not enlightenment
progress. If Pontecorvo could now revisit his own film, he might
recognizeas we can with the hindsight of 9/11the essential
place of Islam in the films setting and how that background
context has now become its foreground message.
appreciate this other message you need to look past the original
script (which has been published) and consider what Pontecorvo
put into his finished product. Pontecorvo and his writer Pier
Franco Solinas had created a screenplay out of a Marxist/Fanonian
screed, and that is what the audiences saw at the time. Yet what
he filmed shows how important the theme of Arab-Muslim fundamentalist
identity was for the mobilization of the people of the Casbah.
The very first FLN communiqué to the people of Algiers in
the film is not in the published screenplay. The voice of the
FLN proclaims our revolt is against colonialism, our goal
to restore independent Algeria within the framework of Islamic
principles with respect for the basic freedoms regardless
of race or religion. And throughout The Battle of Algiers
Islam, not Marxism, provides the yeast of the revolutionary
solidarity that rises in the Casbah. The screenplay is, as Solinas
said, an ideological debate in dramatic form, but
the film portrays a cleansing of the Arab peoples by a return
to Islamic principles and to a puritanical Islam that blames the
French colonizers for imposing European decadence on Algiers.
It is the French who have made the Arabs their prostitutes, undermined
the traditional authority of the Muslim family, brought cigarette
smoking, alcoholism, and drug addiction to their community. Bin
Laden, the Taliban, and many Islamic fundamentalists would agree
FLN begins its campaign not by teaching Marxism but by preaching
Islam. The FLN understands that its recruits are marginalized
outcasts with every reason to hate the French and with nothing
to lose. Both these recruits and the Arabs of the Casbah must
be purified before they can undertake guerilla warfare; that purification
will come through a return to Islamic traditions, and through
violence in the name of Islam. Pontecorvos central example
of this process is the young Arab, Ali La Pointe, an illiterate
juvenile, sometime boxer, grifter, and street criminal. He is
ready to join the FLN after he witnesses from his prison window
the guillotining of a man who goes to his death chanting Tahia
el Djez-air (Long live Algeria). To join the revolutionary
underground Ali must agree to kill a French policeman. He hates
the police with all the resentments of his past criminal life.
The FLN trick him with an unloaded gun: this test is only to prove
that he is not a French double agent. His real rite of passage
into the FLN will come when he kills a friend, an Arab pimp who
controls a string of brothelsonly after purification can
Ali become a revolutionary leader. This purification through violence
in the name of Islam is also symbolized unforgettably in Pontecorvos
scene of a derelict Arab alcoholic set upon by a pack of young
boys who symbolize the new Islamic order.
* * *
this is now so obvious and undeniable, it seems strange that thirty
years ago even the clear-eyed Pauline Kael could not see it. What
might be even more astonishing is the suggestion that Pontecorvo
created all this without appreciating what he was doing. What
is prophetic in The Battle of Algiers is Pontecorvos
backdrop of Islamic fundamentalism; what proved false was Pontecorvos
foreground depiction of the world moving in a certain way.
did so much Islamic fundamentalism find its way into Pontecorvos
film? The explanation lies in the way the film was made. Yacef
Saadi, who had been the military head of the FLN in Algiers, came
to Italy looking for a director to make a movie of the Algerian
struggle from the Algerian point of view. Pontecorvo was third
on the list, and was chosen only after the first two declined.
The Algerians could not provide much money, but they could give
the filmmaker access to any site he wanted and put crowds of people
at his disposal. And he made good use of what he was given. Crowds
were to be the protagonists of the film. Pontecorvo had been a
journalist and a still photographer, and he decidedwith
the one notable exception of Jean Martinnot to use professional
actors. His method of casting means that the faces in the film
are visually arresting; the actors, at least in appearance, are
authentic, and there is no Hollywood or studio gloss. With a photographers
eye he chose people like Brahim Haggiag, the young man who played
Ali La Pointe. But such actors could not be expected to give convincing
expression to Marxist slogans. So Pontecorvo gave them lines natural
to them, the product of long hours interviewing FLN members and
Algerians who had participated in the events the movie depicted.
Reading Pontecorvos description of his research methods,
one could almost say he psychoanalyzed the participants on both
sides and distilled their collective memories into his dialogue.
films one professional actor, Jean Martin, played Colonel
Mathieu. The story goes that he earned the part for having been
blacklisted in France for signing a statement of sympathy with
the Algerian liberation movement. As the head of the paratroopers,
himself convinced of the truth of Marxist inevitability, he is
given all the polemical lines about Marxism, which he explains
to his troops and to journalists as he describes unfolding events.
His character, a composite of three French commanders in Algeria,
had fought in the resistance and in Vietnam. He knows that this
is Frances last stand and that victory will be temporary.
Martin is a good enough actor to carry this ideological burden,
and that frees the Algerians to speak and to act out their own
Pontecorvo began to film and edit, he continually added touches
to convey the particulars of Algerian life in the Casbah. His
impulse was to convey the feelings and the emotions shared
by a multitude. What his Algerian actors and extras shared
was their Islamic tradition. In the popular press, Muslims are
often shown at their prayers with their foreheads pressed to the
ground in submission to their God. No such image appears in this
film. There is a less familiar prayerful position in which they
raise their head and hold out their cupped hands. To Western eyes
the latter is the much more acceptable picture of pious humility.
It is only in that collective gesture that Pontecorvos Muslims
respond to the tragedy that befalls them. In the final scene where
the Algerians appear out of the night and fog and demand their
freedom, Pontecorvo had originally intended to have all the extras
chanting political slogans, but decided it did not work artistically.
Then he hit on the idea of having the Arab women erupt into their
traditional ululationrhythmic piercing cries. It has a powerful
effect, but the effect is of the unifying claim of Arab identity,
rather than of the brotherhood of revolution. Pontecorvo thought
it worked so well he used it in earlier moment of the film as
the rallying cry of the Casbah.
is another very important moment in the film when Pontecorvos
artistic imagination idealizes Muslim tradition. One of the most
striking contrasts in Algiers was the difference between the appearance
of the French and the Muslim women. The French woman wear stylish
short dresses, dye and coif their hair, use lipstick, and emphasize
their sexuality. The Arab women of the Casbah cover their long
hair, use no cosmetics, and conceal their faces and their sexuality.
There comes a moment in the escalating terrorism when the French
Police supervisor decides on an unofficial act of counter terrorism.
He sets off some dynamite in the Casbah destroying homes and killing
innocent men, women, and children. An FLN response is justified.
Three Arab women are shown cutting their hair, putting on make-up
and French-style dress. There can be no doubt that this is a ritual
moment of Western degradation as these modest Muslim women are
being transformed into sexual objects. And as they deliver their
hidden time bombs, some French soldiers and other men hit on them.
Pontecorvo films each of these three women looking around the
crowded places their bombs will destroy. One womans gaze
lingers over a small boy licking his ice cream cone before she
leaves her bomb.
those women today it seems clear that what made their terrorist
mission sacred was Islamic faith, not revolutionary solidarity.
Each woman fully appreciates that there will be innocent victims,
but theirs is a holy cause. These women are not suicide bombers:
they risk their lives but do not sacrifice themselves. Pontecorvo
does film a scene where FLN terrorists hijack an ambulance and
drive down a street machine-gunning the French people on the sidewalks.
When they run out of ammunition they crash the ambulance into
thought that the French torture of their captives was worse than
any Algerian terrorism, but his artistry now also reveals the
holy war horror of the Casbah uprising against the decadent west.
As America rallies behind President Bushs crusade against
the axis of evil, there is more horror to come. If you have a
doubting intelligence it is time to look at the lessons
of history in Pontecorvos Battle of Algiers and think
for yourself. <
Alan A. Stone is
the Touroff-Glueck Professor of Law and Phsychiatry at Harvard
Originally published in the February/March
2003 issue of Boston Review