Oliver Cromwell was the 17th century leader of the English Parliamentarians who overthrew and beheaded a monarch and instituted a short-lived republic; when he sat to Samuel Cooper for his portrait, he insisted that it be painted “warts and all”. Such candour is rare among revolutionary leaders, who tend to airbrush not only their own personal image, but that of the awkward processes of history that brought them to power, and the often repressive regimes they put in place of the old repressive regime.

In countless interviews, director Gillo Pontecorvo spoke about the “dictatorship of truth” informing his approach to The Battle of Algiers.1 By this, he meant a number of things. He meant the rejection of the propagandist script about the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN)’s resistance to the French occupation of Algeria that was written by the film’s future producer Saadi Yacef – former FLN military commander in Algiers, who had published a memoir of his experiences2 – and demanding a more balanced and nuanced treatment of the conflict.3 He meant continuing in the Italian Neo-Realist tradition of commemorating resistance to totalitarian power, in particular those forgotten or marginalised by history (such as the petty-criminal-turned-Islamist-and-terrorist, Ali la Pointe), using a raw visual style and cast of non-professionals to present a “reality” to counter the lies, misinformation and absences of that totalitarian power (here, as broadcast by the dominant, conservative French media). He meant imitating the visual style of newsreels and television news, as a recognisably “authentic” representation of recent historical events.4

However, the “truth of dictatorship” would be nearer the mark. The Battle of Algiers is the film equivalent of a commissioned portrait – Yacef sought out Pontecorvo and his screenwriter Franco Solinas when he learned of their earlier, abortive research trip to Algeria near the end of the war.5 After rejecting their first treatment – a Eurocentric vehicle for Paul Newman – Yacef worked on the script throughout the shooting, later claiming that he took an acting role as a version of himself in order to keep an eye on the production.6 It was Yacef who insisted that key sequences be shot in their original locations, and who accessed financial and logistical support from the new Algerian government.7 This makes The Battle of Algiers at once a portrait, a history painting and a war memorial – a state-sanctioned, hegemonic, ideologically acceptable reconstruction of history.

The sitter of this portrait is happy to admit to certain warts in order to deflect from others. Much has been made – not least by Pontecorvo himself – about the film’s even-handedness, about its willingness to show the atrocities committed by each side, to show that everyone had their reasons.8 These are diversionary tactics. Like most imagined communities, the FLN – who speak frankly and cynically in the film of the Algerian people as a homogenous and controllable mass rather than as a geographically proximate group of discrete and complex individuals – needs an Other against which to define itself and project its ideology. The film is full of stark binary oppositions pitting the colonised Algerians against the colonial French, starting with the extraordinary prologue, wherein a lone, abject, shaking, naked, unshaven, silent Algerian torture victim is surrounded by a group of erect, uniformed, noisy French paratroopers.

This focus on the French-as-enemy serves to divert attention from internal divisions and power struggles within the FLN. One of the main architects of the Algerian independence movement, Ahmed Ben Bella is absent from Battle of Algiers (his communiqués are quoted in the film, but not attributed); he had been exiled after the overthrow of his government by Colonel Houari Boumédiène in 1965, meaning that this revered left-wing project was supported by a military junta. The film can admit Algerian atrocities against the French civil and military authorities and the colonists, because these are perceived as justifiable if regrettable acts of war; it is silent about the FLN’s use of intimidation and bribery; its own widespread use of torture (often against its own people, and including castration); its monopoly on power after independence (leading to decades of corruption and stagnation); or its massacre of thousands of Algerian collaborators with the colonial regime. Nor is there mention of the support of left-wing settlers such as journalist Henri Alleg, brutally tortured by the French for his opposition to the war, and whose La Question (1958) about this widespread practice led to an international outcry.9

Of course, not every artist tries to flatter his subject; witness Graham Sutherland’s psychologically revealing 1954 portrait of Winston Churchill, which was loathed by the sitter and destroyed by his widow. How does Pontecorvo work against the revisionist project of his sponsors? A key scene is probably the most terrifying and prophetic in the film: during the FLN’s moral cleansing of the Casbah, as it targets the Algiers underworld and its pathetic dependents, a gang of children beat up a helpless old wino. This sequence is echoed in the revenge of the pieds-noirs on Ali la Pointe (Brahim Hadjadj) after he head-butts one of their arrogant compadres; the verbal assault of the settlers on the old man seated on the side of the road; and the furious and vengeful attack at the bombed race track by white adults on a pre-pubescent Algerian paperboy. Pontecorvo’s equivalence of these tribal acts of mob rule is far more pertinent than the presentation of shared bombing campaigns, and intuits a suppressed dynamic in the revolution that re-emerged in 1992 when Pontecorvo returned to Algiers for Italian TV to witness the jaded FLN being challenged by militant and violently intolerant supporters of Islamic Salvation Front, using similar methods to those shown in the film.

Further, Pontecorvo counters the FLN’s moral cleansing by casting prostitutes, beggars and criminals, figures demonised in the film and marginalised in the new regime.10 Most importantly, he traces the growing disenfranchisement of women – first we see three puppets in Western disguise mindlessly and silently obeying the murderous diktats of male commanders; 11 at the end, in the closing sequence of choral protest, one woman is singled out and dehumanised, becoming a “symbol” of the nation rather than an active political agent. Battle of Algiers has been celebrated for capturing the liberation movement in action. But underneath the surface propaganda, Pontecorvo manages to ask, “liberation for whom?”

The Battle of Algiers (1966 Italy, Algeria, 121 min)

Prod Co: Casbah Film/Igor Film Prod: Antonio Musu, Saadi Yacef Dir: Gillo Pontecorvo Scr: Franco Solinas, after a story by Saadi Yacef Phot: Marcello Gatti Ed: Mario Morra, Mario Serandrei Comp: Ennio Morricone, Gillo Pontecorvo Prod Des: Sergio Canevari 

Cast: Brahim Hadjadj, Jean Martin, Saadi Yacef

Endnotes:

  1. See, for example, the documentary Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth (David Curtis, 1992); Edward Said, “The dictatorship of truth: an interview with Gillo Pontecorvo”, Cineaste, vol. 25 no. 2, 2000.
  2. Saadi Yacef, Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger, Julliard, Paris, 1962.
  3. Irene Bignardi, The Making of The Battle of Algiers, Cineaste, vol. 25 no. 2, 2000, p. 15; Gary Crowdus, “Terrorism and torture in The Battle of Algiers: an interview with Saadi Yacef”, Cineaste, vol. 29 no. 3, Summer 2004, p. 32.
  4. Joan Mellen, “An interview with Gillo Pontecorvo”, Film Quarterly, vol. 26 no. 1, Autumn 1972, p. 7; Bignardi, pp. 19-20.
  5. Bignardi, p. 14,15; Crowdus, p. 32.
  6. Bignardi, pp. 14, 15, 16; Crowdus, pp. 32-33; Criterion Collection, Remembering History, extra on DVD and Blu-ray editions of Battle of Algiers, 2005.
  7. Mellen, p. 3; Bignardi, p. 16; Criterion Collection, Marxist Poetry: the Making of The Battle of Algiers, extra on DVD and Blu-ray editions of Battle of Algiers, 2004.
  8. Mellen, pp. 3-4; Crowdus, pp. 30-31. The proof usually presented is the film’s juxtaposition of two sequences showing the aftermath of bombings – one in the Casbah, targeted by the police; the other the European quarter attacked by the FLN. Both are scored to the same funereal music, an apparent act of empathy that recognises the terrible losses suffered by both sides. But any moral equivalence is partial. Compare both scenes more carefully – the first sequence is longer and more sustained; there are a greater number of close-ups and emotive images of dead children (anticipating Benetton advertisements); repetition and abbreviation dilutes the impact of the second sequence.
  9. Remembering History is an essential corrective to the historical distortions of Battle of Algiers. See also Mellen, p. 4; Crowdus, pp. 31, 34.
  10. Bignardi, pp. 16, 18.
  11. For more on gender and masquerade in Battle of Algiers, see Mark Betz, Beyond the Subtitle: Remapping European Art Cinema, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2009, pp. 107-110.

About The Author

Darragh O’Donoghue is an archivist at Tate Britain, and is completing a PhD with the Department of Art, University of Reading.