The Battle Of Algiers

The Battle Of Algiers (1965)
Criterion Collection
Extras: Documentaries, Featurettes, Poster Gallery, Booklet

In the small world of overtly political films, all roads eventually lead back to "The Battle of Algiers, " a Molotov cocktail lobbed at imperialism by Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo. Made less than a decade after Algeria won its independence from France, Pontecorvo’s fictionalized look at the urban warfare tactics of the resistance movement provides an unsettling portrait that, while far from balanced, asks difficult questions of both sides. The relevance to the United States’ current troubles in Iraq are disturbing, and it comes as little surprise to find out that the Pentagon recently hosted a screening of this film for its tactical forces.

Pontecorvo’s film is certainly on the side of the resistance fighters, making it clear from the beginning that they sought a political solution before resorting to violence. However, the film does not downplay the cost of this solution for both sides of the conflict. After the French colonial forces escalate the violence by bombing a residential area of the Casbah, the victims’ bodies are removed from the rubble to a heartbreaking composition from composer Ennio Morricone. After the Algerians retaliate, detonating simultaneous bombs in the French section of the country, the same music is played for their dead. Even more striking is the scene before this bomb is placed. The Algerian woman who has been charged with planting it spends several moments scanning the faces of the crowd, all of whom are simply living their lives and are oblivious to the destruction that is about to be visited upon them.

The end result is a film that asks different questions from those we are used to hearing from political films, and our media in general. Rather than simply dismissing terrorism as barbaric, the film asks us to consider the circumstances under which these means are acceptable – after all, the tactics used by these fighters are very similar to those used by the Colonial insurgents who began the Revolutionary War in the late 1700s.

And as the film demonstrates, a failure to engage the ideas behind terrorist attacks can prove fatal. As the conflict escalates, the French government resorts to more extreme forms of repression, eventually leading them to the systematic torture of Algerians who may or may not be directly involved in the resistance movement. While this gives the French the information they need to destroy the resistance leaders, the movement continues on, eventually becoming too powerful for them to stop. As Richard A. Clarke points on one of the extra features, France’s military strategy was successful, but their lack of a political strategy caused them to lose this war in spite of their superior might. These are lessons we would do well to heed today.

While a beautifully restored transfer of this classic film would have been cause enough for celebration, Criterion has gone beyond the call of duty by providing two entire discs of extra features, making this an indispensable set for anyone interested in political filmmaking or international affairs in general.

"The Battle of Algiers" is presented <$16x9,anamorphic>ally in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, in a transfer that does everything it can with the rough source material. While the film is a fictionalized account, Pontecorvo wanted to give it the authenticity of a documentary, so the picture quality isn’t nearly as clean as DVD has made us accustomed to. It’s quite grainy with bright whites, but black levels are rather murky and the action is often obscured in darker areas. Still, there’s a good amount of detail and nothing in the way of compression errors to get upset about, meaning that the transfer is as accurate a representation of the film’s look as we could hope for.

Likewise, the <$DD,Dolby Digital> mono soundtrack suffers somewhat from the recording techniques and the format, which limit the dynamic range and cause some distortion in the upper reaches of Morricone’s score. As much of the dialogue was post-dubbed, it generally sounds clear and well-supported. A moderate level of background hiss occurs through much of the film, but isn’t too distracting.

Not only do the extra features total almost five hours, but every one of them is engaging and offers new insight to the film and its importance. The archival features are presented in <$PS,full frame>; all of the features that were created specifically for this collection are in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>. The first disc of the set is largely taken up by the film, but there was still room for a gallery of production stills and a few <$16x9,anamorphic> trailers.

The second disc is devoted to Pontecorvo and the film itself. First up is a documentary, made in 1992, on the career of Pontecorvo, hosted by the recently deceased literary critic and Palestinian activist Edward Said. This is followed by a 51-minute documentary on the making of the film, which features new interviews with many of the film’s cast and crew, along with a few film scholars who attempt to place the film in context. This disc finishes off with a series of short interviews from directors Spike Lee, Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh, and Oliver Stone, who talk about the film’s influence on their careers and the problems inherent with producing and distributing political films. Soderbergh is particularly insightful on this last topic.

Most DVD companies would have stopped there, but Criterion goes several steps further by providing a disc that discusses the historical background of the events depicted in the film, as well as the film’s relevance to contemporary politics. "Remembering History" gives a solid background of the Algerian independence movement, and features Saadi Yaeef, who produced "The Battle of Algiers" and served as a model for one of its major characters. "États d’armes" is an excerpt from a 2002 documentary, featuring interviews with French military officials who were deployed to Algiers in an effort to quell the uprising. To this day, many of them seem conflicted about the ethical decisions that were forced on them. One of the highlights of the set is an interview with former national counterterrorism coordinator Richard A. Clarke and Michael A. Sheehan, former State Department coordinator for counterterrorism. Both of them are extremely helpful in applying the film to the current situation in Iraq, while at the same time offering a clarifying view of the morality portrayed in the film. As Clarke points out, fighting for national sovereignty is a very different proposition than fighting for religious domination. Finally, the set winds down with a 1992 documentary that finds Pontecorvo returning to Algiers three decades after the country’s independence. It’s the perfect way to wrap up a nearly perfect set.

The color schemes for the menus of each disc differ, but the basic concept remains the same. Beginning with Morricone’s score, clips from the film play beneath a collage of the film’s title and the symbols from the Algerian flag. This top bar continues through the submenus, which are without sound or motion but each feature a different still image from the film. Chapter links are represented as captions.

This is the kind of lavish production that Hollywood studios usually dream of bestowing on their blockbusters. But too often, those projects are weighed down by fluff pieces, <$commentary,commentary track>s that are more fun for the participants than the viewers, and a general favoring of quantity over quality. For "The Battle of Algiers," Criterion has assembled a stunning set of extra features, all of which are excellent individually but even stronger when viewed as part of the whole package. Usually, the hope is that the DVD presentation will live up the level of the film; Criterion’s release is stunning enough that, in this case, it’s almost the other way around. Thankfully, they chose one of the true classics of cinema to bestow this level of attention on, with the end result being one of the strongest releases of a classic film the format has ever seen.