Back in 1966 director Gillo Pontecorvo courted controversy with his documentary-style depiction of the battle between French soldiers and freedom fighters from Algeria. His much-celebrated epic was one of the few films focusing on war that showed the revolution from both sides, purposefully refusing to be biased towards one side or the other. Now, The Battle of Algiers has been carefully restored for the Blu-ray release, giving it a fresh new look while still managing to shock with the graphic nature of what occurred during that episode of the Algerian War of Independence.
The Battle of Algiers tells the story of the fight for independence undertaken by Algerians. As the National Liberation Front (FLN) go up against the French foreign legion, violence against civilians increases resulting in the army moving in to try and bring the bloodshed to an end. Led by Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin), the paratroops use torture tactics, the FLN up their terrorism campaign with bombings of soda shops and the general public, fearing for their lives, participate in indiscriminate acts of racism and violence against anyone they suspect as a terrorist.
With its faux-documentary style – Pontecorvo deliberatley filmed in black and white with many scenes resembling a news reel – The Battle of Algiers is one of the most impressive examples of how the story of war has been told. A refusal to pick sides by the director gives a fair representation of what happened in all its murderous glory. An almost sun-scorched effect – using white sheets to diffuse the African sun – helps provide an added aesthetic akin to documentaries.
Giving an insight into the guerilla tactics used in the Casbah, we ‘witness’ the effect this fight for independence had on everyone involved with much of the focus on Ali la Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), a criminal who is radicalised whilst in prison and used by the FLN. The fact only one of the cast – Martin – is a professional actor gives an added sense of realism as real Algerian people play, in essence, themselves and gives extra gravitas to many of the scenes. It’s an intense experience.
Much of the mayhem on screen is accompanied by a soundtrack that includes tribal Algerian drumming – used to great effect during a sequence involving female bombers – as well as chanting to portray the approach of the indigenous people. On the other hand, we get gunfire and tank engines to depict the French army. Meanwhile, the music – created by Ennio Morricone and Pontecorvo is haunting.
The Battle of Algiers may be 46 years old, but it’s no less important or powerful, packing a punch as it portrays war as a horrible thing that sullies and harms everyone involved. It’s a true masterpiece.
With the Blu-ray transfer, Pontecorvo’s classic looks fresh without losing the grainy effect deliberately used to give the newsreel look.
Extras include an interesting interview with Pontecorvo discussing his techniques for filming The Battle of Algiers while there are also interviews with people portrayed in the film. Fellow directors Ken Loach and Paul Greengrass also give their opinion on how the film affected them.