Criterion // 1966 // 121 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // August 17th, 2011
The Revolt that Stirred the World!
Sometimes fiction reveals more than we would like, and if you were interested in political protest on a grand scale in the late Sixties and early Seventies, there were two fictions that occupied your attention. The first was The Day of the Jackal, Frederick Forsyth's account of a lone gunman's attempt to assassinate Charles De Gaulle. In it, Forsyth spelled out the means by which documents, guns, and opportunities for shooting could be manufactured by anyone with sufficiently cold blood. The other essential fiction of the era was in many ways the opposite. The Battle of Algiers. Instead of being about a lone man's attempt to kill a single politician, The Battle of Algiers is about an uprising of the people, a concerted effort to overthrow a colonial government. Those watching the film could easily appreciate the drama of history, but for the would-be revolutionary, The Battle of Algiers (Blu-ray) is a document that shows how and why to organize a revolt, including information on secrecy and guerilla tactics. Almost fifty years on, the film is still a relevant today as it was upon first release, whether it's approached for drama, historical interest, or revolutionary inspiration.
The film opens in 1957, just as the French paratroopers have finished "interrogating" (i.e., torturing) an Algerian citizen. He has finally agreed to give up the location of notorious revolutionary Ali "The Point" (Brahim Hadjadj), member of the National Liberation Front. The citizen points out Ali's hiding place inside a wall, and the paratroopers threaten to blow him up. The film then rewinds to 1954, and shows how Ali became involved with the National Liberation Front as they battled against the French government.
There are so many obvious places to go when discussing The Battle of Algiers. It's almost certainly an accident (though one never knows) that the film was originally released by Criterion on DVD just as the whole Abu Ghraib torture scandal was heating up. It's easy to talk about the debate between terrorist and "freedom fighter," and how it's easy to look at the French as evil and the NLF as good because the Algerian's won their independence. The film also brings up the issues of acceptable tactics; is it okay to target civilians or use children to conduct urban warfare?
Certainly The Battle of Algiers raises these questions, and more -- more than most films in the history of cinema. However, what is truly striking about The Battle of Algiers is not the historical moment it attempts to recreate, nor the ethical questions it raises. The most striking thing about The Battle of Algiers is its cinematic achievements. Viewers who know nothing, and care even less, about Algerian political history or revolutions in general can marvel at the tense plotting and amazing visual of the film. Long before faux documentary became the rage, The Battle of Algiers takes a stark, black-and-white look at the world of Algerian resistance. In the extras we learn that the film was at one time proceeded by the warning that none of the footage was from documentaries or newsreels. Honestly, they could have fooled me. There's an immediacy to the presentation of this film that goes far beyond its "ripped from the headlines" story.
In fact, the immediacy of the visuals and the story go a long way towards deflating the expectations generated by decades of constant praise. Returning to a film from 1966 with fresh eyes, especially a film as highly regarded as this one, can often be a deadening experience; some film simply can't live up to the hype. The Battle of Algiers is one of those that can, precisely because it's a well-crafted cinematic experience, not just agitprop for would-be revolutionaries. I would argue, finally, that the film taught more filmmakers how to make better films than it taught revolutionaries how to throw bombs.
For a film this important, and one with this much history surrounding both its subject and creation, Criterion pulled out all the stops. Their original 2004 DVD was a three disc affair, and it's been ported whole hog to Blu-ray, though the number of discs has dwindled to two. The 1.85:1 AVC-encoded transfer looks simply spectacular. The film itself is slightly damaged and looks murky in places, but considering the age and budget of the film this is a loving restoration. The amount of fine detail in the frame is impressive, as is the contrast of this black-and-white masterpiece. Grain is pretty omnipresent, but handled perfectly. The PCM 1.0 track is similarly hampered by its age, but the clarity and depth is pretty impressive for a soundtrack of this vintage. Voices are clear and distinct, and the film's excellent use of music stands out most beautifully.
The extras are simply staggering. For those desiring more knowledge about the making of the film, there are two different documentaries. The first is 37 minutes and covers director Pontecorvo's life and art more generally, while the second ("Marxist Poetry") lasts almost an hour and covers the making of the film specifically by conducting new interviews with some of the participants. Pontecorvo appears again for another hour-long documentary, this time chronicling his return to Algiers after a quarter century away. For those desiring more info about the French-Algerian war, Criterion has rounded up a pair of documentaries on the conflict. The first is an hour-long examination of both sides, while the second is about half as long and looks at things from a purely French perspective. The film's afterlife is also examined. In a 17-minute featurette, five directors (Spike Lee, Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderburgh, and Oliver Stone) provide their own interpretations, reminisces, and appreciations for the film. There is also an excerpt from a 2004 ABC News show that demonstrates how guerilla fighting is still conducted along the lines show in the film, demonstrating its continued relevance. There are also a pair of the film's trailers, and a production gallery. Criterion's usual booklet contains essays from critic Peter Matthews, co-star Saadi Yacef, and an interview with screenwriter Franco Solinas.
The Battle of Algiers doesn't flinch. It's not particularly violent by today's standards, but its attitude towards violence is much more sincere than many movies released today.
Criterion fans who already own the previous DVD set will only get upgraded audio and video with this set, which may be a negative to some.
The Battle of Algiers is an important document in the history of war and war films, but, more importantly, it's a brilliant aesthetic achievement that is just as visually inspiring as it was in 1966. Fans of drama and war films should not miss this one. For those who already know the value of The Battle of Algiers, this Blu-ray disc is the perfect way to revisit the film.
The war has been won: The Battle of Algiers is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Year: 1966
MPAA Rating: Not Rated