A film with few precursors and few successors, The Battle of Algiers practically demands the use of hyperbole, so here I go: this is one of the most unique films in history, freely blending cinéma vérité inspired faux-documentary, psychological profiling, social commentary, Marxist anti-colonialism, horrifying violence, and good old-fashioned raw emotional power that all add up to make one of the essential works of world cinema.
There is only one place to begin, and that is with the true story behind the film: under the Bourbon king Charles X in 1830, the French conquest of Algeria began with the invasion of Algiers. The wars that would secure French control of the country were longer and bloodier than any of the other colonial wars in the invader's history, devastating the native population and leading to generations of resentment once the main conflicts ended in 1848. After more than a century of French rule, lasting through numerous upheavals in the French government, the Front de Libération Nationale was formed in the autumn of 1954, one of many groups of Algerian nationalists struggling to regain their country's independence. By 1956 - the first year of the film's story - the FLN had consolidated its position as the major nationalist force in Algeria, leading to several years of guerrilla warfare and terrorism that finally ended in 1962, when President de Gaulle ordered a vote that overwhelmingly led to complete Algerian independence from France.
Only a short time after these events, Italian film director Gillo Pontecorvo and screenwriter Franco Solinas (both Marxist fellow travelers) elected to dramatize the events of 1956-62 in Algiers, to make a great work of anti-colonialist thought. The path that it took to get from that concept to The Battle of Algiers as we know it was a twisted one (at one point, it was going to be an epic melodrama starring Paul Newman!), but it ended at the right place. Their film was a work of uncommon passion; only the most misanthropic neo-conservative could fail to be moved by this vision of a long-abused people rising to take history into their own hands.
The film is often called "even-handed," which is only true in a limited fashion. It is the case that the French are not treated as comically broad villains in the fashion of Soviet propaganda cinema; the main French character, Col. Mathieu (based upon the real-life leader of the counter-rebellion, Général Jacques Massu), is one of the film's most rounded figures, and the only major character played by an established actor, Jean Martin, and not an amateur (a trick Pontecorvo picked up from the neorealists). We understand the French, and we see why they do the things the do, but we are never invited to agree with them. No indeed, this film is unabashedly on the side of the guerilla forces, supporting their motives and remaining neutral to their tactics. Only one scene in the two hours of the film can be clearly identified as critical of the rebels: shortly after the FLN issues a proclamation that sharia law must be followed to the letter, a gang of children accost an elderly alcoholic and beat him, apparently to death, for the crime of drinking.
Other than that one case, the closest the film comes to censure is a general feeling that the necessary actions taken by the guerrillas are regrettable. Perhaps the key sequence in the entire film - certainly among the most memorable - follows three women who have been selected to smuggle bombs into prominent targets in the European sector of Algiers, where numerous civilians will be killed. The next five minutes or so are a tiny masterpiece: first, we watch the women, disguised as Europeans, sneak through the checkpoints outside the Algerian ghetto and reach their contact who provides them with the bombs which, he makes sure to insist, will explode in 28 minutes, whether they're in place or not. Once they arrive at their destinations, they attempt to blend in to their surroundings, so that they can casually leave their bags behind without being seen. The punchline comes here, as the women strike up friendly conversations with the people they're about the blow-up, and each one of the three is made aware that these French persons all have lives and personalities and aspirations, and the use of point-of-view shots showing the unaware citizens enjoying the day is one of the most shocking moments in a film full of shocks. When the explosions come, Pontecorvo and cinematographer Marcello Gatti make certain to shoot the carnage using much the same language that they did earlier in the film, when the bodies of dead Algerians were pulled from the ruins of a bomb that the French authorities left as a largely punitive strike.
In that instant, it's impossible to regard the guerrillas as anything but killers, and yet there's never any sense that their actions could have been avoided. We never see the women break down crying over their sins, we are not asked to scorn the leader who concocted the bomb scheme. We are only allowed to be sad that it came to that.
The whole sequence, like the rest of the film, is shot in a very "loose" style, handheld cameras and jerky rhythms both in camera movement and in editing. I have never personally seen a film that apes the cinéma vérité style so well, and though The Battle of Algiers did not invent the use of documentary filmmaking techniques to increase our sense of watching reality, and it certainly didn't end the technique, which was become a cliché in the decades since, the trick has never been used half so effectively as it is here. Pontecorvo succeeds in bringing an on-the-ground sense to all the action, heightening the audience's sense that this must have been exactly how it happened, and allowing us to make that jump from "this is ugly violence" to "this ugly violence was the only adequate response." To a viewer in 2008, after years of films and textbooks praising the non-violence of men like MLK and Gandhi - and especially to an American viewer, with our country's rigid views on the morality of terrorist tactics - a film that so flatly declares "violence was necessary" is one of the most shocking things that could exist.
So straightforward is the movie's embrace of that concept, and so rigorous its recreation of the tactics of the FLN, The Battle of Algiers famously became a sort of training video for radicals and revolutionaries across the globe; in 2003, it was screened by Pentagon officials who were just starting to catch on to the notion that the Iraqi people weren't actually going to greet us with flowers (the film's brief but un-ignorable shot of French soldiers waterboarding an Algerian bring that connection home all the more). That's nothing more than proof that the filmmakers did what they wanted to do. This is not a film about history, nor a film to make the audience aware of what can happen under colonialism. It is a film to make us angry, to make us want to stop such a corrupt system. It is undeniable propaganda, but it is one of the most effective and upsetting propaganda films in history. Its simplicity and directness are not supposed to be clever or intellectually invigorating; they are supposed to show us in black and white what happens when people are enslaved, and to enrage us against that enslavement. It succeeds.