In This Article The Battle of Algiers

  • Introduction
  • Overviews and Biographies
  • Documentaries
  • Interviews
  • Making of the Film
  • Reception, Afterlife, and Influence
  • Reviews

Cinema and Media Studies The Battle of Algiers
by
Nicholas Harrison
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0140

Introduction

The Battle of Algiers (1966) offers a moving account of an early phase in the Algerian war of independence. Its level of historical accuracy is high and is connoted through its black-and-white images, its dialogue in French and Arabic, and its large cast of nonprofessional actors (alongside one professional, Jean Martin). So it is not surprising that it has sometimes been treated almost as a documentary, but its effect on audiences also relies on its fictionalized elements, its sophisticated manipulation of narrative convention and chronology, and its aesthetic complexities—notably in its use of music and montage. Its director, Gillo Pontecorvo, and his screenwriter, Franco Solinas (who on other occasions worked with such distinguished directors as Francesco Rosi, Costa-Gavras, Roberto Rossellini, Sam Peckinpah, and Joseph Losey), conceived of the film as an exercise in Marxist anti-imperialism, a display of international solidarity with Algerian nationalism, and an illustration of the irresistible force of class struggle. It was produced by Saadi Yacef, who during the war of independence had been a leader of the principal Algerian anticolonial organization, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), which came into being at the start of the war in November 1954 and took power in the newly independent Algeria in July 1962. The film was shot on location in Algiers in 1965, just three years after the war ended, with private financing from Italy and Algeria and with the support of the Algerian government. Solinas’s screenplay was based on Yacef’s memoirs, and Yacef was also one of the stars of the film, playing himself; some other former combatants thought the film was too sympathetic to the French and that it overplayed Yacef’s role (or underplayed their own roles). In France the film met with fierce hostility, such that it was several years before it went on general release and several decades before it was shown on television. Meanwhile, in other places around the world the film was greeted as a masterpiece of political cinema, reportedly offering inspiration to diverse political groups, and was rereleased in the 2000s, when it was also screened at the Pentagon for the lessons it offered in the so-called War on Terror.

Overviews and Biographies

The best starting point for students of the film is still Mellen 1973, which provides systematic and thoughtful analysis and a good amount of contextual information. Solinas 1973 offers less interpretative work but contains essential source material, including the screenplay. Harrison 2007 contains various essays that update, flesh out, or challenge arguments and assumptions made in earlier responses. Francione 2000 provides a brief montage of Gillo Pontecorvo’s opinions on his work. Ghirelli 1979 is a slightly fuller account, including information on the making of the film. Celli 2005 offers an overview inflected by subsequent Algerian history, and Bignardi 1999 is a substantial biography.

  • Bignardi, Irene. Memorie estorte a uno smemorato: Vita di Gillo Pontecorvo. Milan: Feltrinelli, 1999.

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    The most substantial biography: a two hundred–page account of Pontecorvo’s life to 1998 (Pontecorvo died in 2006) with a detailed account of his friendship with Franco Solinas and of how he came to make The Battle of Algiers. Includes photos of Pontecorvo on various shoots with images of him alongside Jean-Paul Sartre and Marlon Brando.

  • Celli, Carlo. Gillo Pontecorvo: From Resistance to Terrorism. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2005.

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    Overview of Pontecorvo’s entire career with detailed discussion of the major films and of Pontecorvo’s Return to Algiers (Bevilacqua 1992, cited under Documentaries). Argues somewhat disapprovingly that the film underplays the role of Islam in the struggle for independence and offers an “unwitting [sic] rationalization of violence” (p. 62). Also discusses briefly its influence on later films, including Star Wars (1977, directed by George Lucas).

  • Francione, Fabio, ed. Il coraggio delle idee: Gillo Pontecorvo, intellettuale e cineasta cosmopolita. Santhia, Italy: Grafica Santhiatese, 2000.

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    Catalogue produced for a Pontecorvo retrospective assembling his opinions from diverse sources (mainly interviews).

  • Ghirelli, Massimo. Gillo Pontecorvo. Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1979.

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    A short book offering an overview of Pontecorvo’s career up to 1979 with interview commentary on the main films and a twenty-page chapter on The Battle of Algiers. Contains interesting details on the film’s genesis and reception and on Pontecorvo’s intentions.

  • Harrison, Nicholas, ed. Special Issue: Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, 40 Years On. Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 9.3 (2007).

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    Includes work cited elsewhere in this article on women in the war (Amrane-Minne 2007, cited under Relation to History and Politics), the making of the film (Forgacs 2007, cited under Making of the Film), the “memory wars” (Stora 2007, cited under the “Memory Wars”), the film’s reception (Caillé 2007, cited under Reception, Afterlife, and Influence), the film’s aesthetics and relation to history (Harrison 2007, cited under Film Form and Aesthetics), and an interview with Saadi Yacef (Harrison 2007, cited under Interviews).

  • Mellen, Joan. Filmguide to The Battle of Algiers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973.

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    Still the best overview available with a wide range of information and analysis plus an annotated bibliography of critics’ responses. Mellen considers the film’s relation to the wider history of the war, noting its failure to explain how the Algerians eventually triumphed. Also deals with its paucity of insight into the politics, sociology, and actions on the European side and indeed into the details of the Front de Libération Nationale’s politics.

  • Solinas, PierNico, ed. Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. New York: Scribner’s, 1973.

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    In English (Italian original published the same year). Very useful source, including the full screenplay, credits, cast, list of prizes, script, a biographical note, a long interview with Pontecorvo, a shorter interview with Franco Solinas (who is no relative of PierNico Solinas), and a bibliography composed notably of early reviews in Italy and elsewhere.

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