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Often presented as an account of the Algerian struggle for freedom, Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers (La battaglia di Algeri ) is in fact more precisely defined as an analysis of the strengths and limitations of counterinsurgency measures during the Algerian War (1954–1962) for independence from France and, as such, remains very relevant to the early twenty-first-century “global war on terror.” Though one of the major films of the 1960s, rightly rewarded with the top prize, the Lion of Saint Mark, at the Venice Film Festival in 1966, The Battle of Algiers is, in terms of its production, a marginalized film. Coproduced by Igor Films in Rome and shot in Algeria with an Italian crew, it is a key work of the Italian post-neorealist generation. Yet it is ignored (along with its director) in such standard English-language studies of Italian cinema as Millicent Marcus’s Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism (1986) and Pierre Sorlin’s Italian National Cinema, 1896–1996 (1996). At the same time, it is self-evidently, with its Italian director, not part of Algerian national cinema, despite the major contribution of Yacef Saadi.
Saadi was the National Liberation Front (FLN) leader for the autonomous zone of Algiers, and it was his arrest by French General Jacques Massu on September 24, 1957, that brought to an end the Battle of Algiers, which had begun in January of that year with an eight-day general strike called by the FLN. Saadi’s book of memoirs, Souvenirs de la bataille d’Alger (Memories of the Battle of Algiers, 1962), is often cited as the source of the film (though it is not mentioned in the credits). Saadi also coproduced the film through his own company, Casbah Films, the only independent production company allowed to operate in postliberation Algeria, and he plays the role of the (fictional) insurgent leader, Djafar. But Saadi’s direct experience has been shaped into a knowingly constructed film narrative, which, far from offering the Algerian experience from within, presents instead a reflection on this experience from the outside perspective of two committed Italian Marxists, Gillo Pontecorvo and his regular scriptwriter, Franco Solinas.
The film begins at the end of a torture sequence, when the Algerian victim has been broken and has given the required information, and, for the opening credits, shifts smoothly into a French military raid over the roofs and through the alleyways of the casbah to the hiding place of Ali la Plante, the last FLN leader to remain at large. This opening sequence sets the tone and style of the entire film: grainy black-and-white photography and location shooting, but at the same time fast-paced, action-film editing and the emotive use of music. The film’s ambiguous attitude to the French torturers is apparent early in the film: they are men doing their job without personal animosity, and the colonel, their leader, is a man who tolerates no joking at the expense of the victim. Italian composer Ennio Morricone’s music for the French assault is jaunty and positive, echoing the music used for scenes of Italian partisan raids in neorealist films a decade and a half earlier. From a close-up of the trapped Ali’s faced framed in darkness, there is a dissolve into a flashback to Algiers in 1954 and the start of Ali’s career.
Ali’s story is the conventional tale of a petty criminal who discovers his political awareness when he witnesses a prison execution. The film follows his rise within the FLN from impetuous newcomer to resourceful leader. His story is intercut with scenes of a trio of women who take on the key role of placing bombs in the French quarter of the city, which is ringed with barbed wire and accessible only through heavily guarded checkpoints, but is otherwise unsuspecting and unprepared. There is no attempt to minimize the horror of bomb attacks on defenseless men, women, and children or in any way to condone the French settlers’ revenge attacks, which occur with police connivance. The choice of Ali as protagonist—rather than the true leader and planner, Djafar—means that we never see the terror attacks as part of any coherent strategy, with thought-out objectives and tactics, on the part of the FLN. Within the film, the suffering of the Algerian people is depicted as leading “naturally” to the violence, so that the notoriously murderous internecine struggles within the FLN leadership are simply airbrushed out of the picture. Djafar is seen and heard only when he is a man on the run, aware that his very presence within the city brings danger to his followers. Thus the uprising in The Battle of Algiers is shown in narrative terms as an enigma: How is all this violence organized and how can it be stopped?
The man to resolve the enigma and deal with the stalemate of violence and counterviolence, Colonel Mathieu, makes his stirring entry into the film marching proudly at the head of his paratroopers past crowds of cheering settlers. Though we are notionally still within Ali’s flashback, it is Mathieu who is the driving force in the film from this point onward. His briefings to his troops are lessons in counterterrorism and his press conferences present the justification for the use of torture by the French. If politicians will the outcome, they have to accept the necessary methods, however distasteful these may be. There is nothing personal about torture: it is just part of a job that has to be done. It is also Mathieu who lucidly points out—as the film takes on an increasingly didactic tone—that winning a battle is not the same as winning a war, and he goes to his next assignment “in the mountains” aware that none of his efforts can ultimately defeat a united Algerian people. His insights form a context in which Ali’s choice of death rather than surrender can seem a fitting resolution to his personal story, while the audience can derive a wider emotional satisfaction from the spontaneous popular uprising in Algiers in 1960, which presaged the ending of French rule and with which the film concludes.
- Celli, Carlo. 2005. Gillo Pontecorvo: From Resistance to Terrorism. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow.
- Hennebelle, Guy, ed. 1997. La guerre d’Algérie à l’écran. Paris: Corlet-Télérama-CinémAction 85.
- Mellen, Joan. 1973. Filmguide to The Battle of Algiers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Mimoun, Mouloud, ed. 1992. France-Algérie: Images d’une guerre. Paris: Institut du Monde Arabe.
- Saadi, Yacef. Souvenirs de la bataille d’Alger, décembre 1956–septembre 1957. Paris: R. Julliard, 1962.
- Solinas, Franco. 1973. Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers: A Film Written by Franco Solinas. New York: Scribners.
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