The Battle of Algiers at 55: the revolutionary classic’s long arm of influence

Featuring one of Ennio Morricone’s most urgent scores, Gillo Pontecorvo’s explosive depiction of Algeria’s struggle for independence has been cited as an inspiration by everyone from Chris Morris to Christopher Nolan. It's also been studied by governments, terrorist groups and World Cup teams.

11 August 2021

By George Bass

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

When satirist Chris Morris was asked which films he most admired ahead of the release of his second feature, 2019’s The Day Shall Come, the Brass Eye and Day Today co-creator listed three: Son of Saul (2015), Come and See (1985) and The Battle of Algiers (1966).

Looking at the latter – which is screening at the BFI Southbank this August – it’s easy to see its influence on Morris’s topical send-ups. Shot in documentary style by Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo, The Battle of Algiers dissects civil war into its key ingredients: public oppression, organised resistance and moments of incendiary violence that even Fox News wouldn’t show you – everything from bombed cafes to blowtorched ribs to child soldiers being beaten by mobs. 

Inspired by the memoirs of Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN) leader Saadi Yacef (who appears in the film playing a rebel commander), The Battle of Algiers follows the radicalisation of street hustler Ali la Pointe (Brahim Hadjadj), a young man who goes from turning 500 franc card tricks to an IED-carrying revolutionary. Hadjadj is one of a cast of dozens of non-professionals: only Jean Martin as the occupying Colonel Mathieu had a showreel at the time of production.

Introduced in the film’s second half, Mathieu is charged with restoring order following the unrest that la Pointe and his allies have fuelled in the Algerian capital. The colonel finds himself trying to uphold French colonialism via the only means he knows effective: interrogation, torture and a soldier’s refusal to lose.

The battle of the title was an all-too-recent conflict when the film was being shot in the mid 1960s. Beginning in late September 1956, clashes between Algerian guerrillas of the FLN and the French-Algerian authorities escalated into bombing attacks. The colonists (whose civilians were known as Pieds-Noirs, or “black feet”) ultimately won the battle through means of pseudo-terror tactics of their own, but their victory was short-lived: residents of the Algerian Muslim quarter had been galvanised, and – as anyone who’s seen The Day of the Jackal (1973) knows – President de Gaulle would grant Algeria independence in 1962.

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Pontecorvo’s newsreel-like look for the film came from a month of screen-testing cinematographers. He used multiple cameras to make street crowds appear larger, chalk on pavements to help with stage direction during riot sequences, and a Kubrick-like persistence in his direction, reshooting scenes upwards of 20 times each so that his characters would look appropriately fatigued and battle-worn.

The soundtrack, a collaboration with Ennio Morricone, switches from traditional folk drumming (heard as wives of the guerrilla fighters prepare to sneak bombs across checkpoints) to an ominous repeating march, one which feels like a precursor to John Williams’ Jaws theme. It features prominently over one scene where a gendarme is stabbed dead on his beat. 

The film’s 120 minutes pass quickly. After introductory scenes of a shivering prisoner, Pontecorvo shows us la Pointe’s recruitment by FLN commander El-hadi Jaffar (Yacef). Their uprising accuses the administration of “impoverishing Algerians and corrupting their brothers and sisters”; Mathieu and his soldiers retaliate by tightening civil liberties, such as forbidding citizens from the unsolicited purchase of medicine to treat gunshot wounds. Against his recruiter’s instructions, la Pointe leads a hundred-strong crowd to the streets.

One of the reasons the film is so engrossing is it’s as much a thriller as it is a bomb-making manual. The violence we’re shown is realistic: soldiers pour like ants out of trucks, and a young la Pointe’s eyes refuse to blink as a fellow detainee is guillotined. Paratroopers, usually depicted as attack dogs in war films, are here welcomed with open arms by the Pieds-Noirs in an almost ticker-tape parade. After a string of police executions, one Arab labourer observes a French ex-pat cheering from his balcony: “Murder all the bastards! Then we’ll have some peace.”

Christopher Nolan, who cited the film as an influence on both Dunkirk (2017) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012), once had Batman say “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy.” The Battle of Algiers certainly had that effect on censors: it was officially banned in France for three months, but would remain unscreened there for five years.

This feels ironic given it was one of the first films to portray its North African habitants as three-dimensional people, and not just as background characters. The guerrillas in Pontecorvo’s story are as human and conflicted as the police. They go from enjoying a night of cocktails and jazz with their wives to sneaking into the Arab Quarter and placing dynamite on the steps of the Casbah citadel.

Gripping moments like these earned The Battle of Algiers not just three Academy Award nominations but also the unlikely joint respect of the IRA, the Baader-Meinhof Group, the Black Panthers, the 2010 Algerian World Cup team – and the Pentagon, who, ahead of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, would screen the film for an invited audience. The flyer for the evening read “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas.”

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