Wednesday, 21 November 2007



Author: Patricia Caillé
Affiliation: Strasbourg, University Robert Schuman, France
Published in: Interventions, Volume 9, Issue 3 November 2007


This article explores the three main phases of the reception of The
Battle of Algiers in France - in 1966 when the film was awarded the
Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, on its first national
release in the early 1970s, and in the wake of its screening at the
Cannes Film Festival in 2004 - in order to understand reactions to,
and appropriations of, the film by the critics and by the public.
This reception history, it is argued, is deeply shaped by the
intersection of the values promoted by a strong film culture and the
larger preoccupations of a national culture that has difficulties
coming to terms with its postcolonial status. An examination of the
critical reception and of the box office figures highlights a very
regular pattern: the evaluation of the film in each historical phase
owes more to national or international concerns than to the analysis
of the film itself. Paradoxically, it also shows the ways in which
the categories imposed by French film culture in the late 1950s and
early 1960s have survived and continue to inhibit the development of
new questions about the relationship between film and national
culture in France today. The relative invisibility of The Battle of
Algiers in French film culture is not so much the outcome of
political censorship as that of the film's inability to fit into
film culture's privileged categories and of critics' reluctance to
reformulate the questions that can be asked about cinema.


In a country that still regards its film industry as a national
landmark and its capacity to maintain its own film production and
distribution networks as well as its own film culture as evidence of
its unfaltering commitment to culture, the tortuous path of Gillo
Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers demands an interrogation of the
relationship between film and national culture. Contemporary French
film culture is still deeply influenced by a symbolic revolution
that took place in the critical discourse, imposing film as an art
form only a few years before the release of The Battle of Algiers.
This symbolic revolution, the auteur policy, and the rise of the New
Wave coincided with various struggles for independence and with a
sharp rise in the number of films censored (Eades 2006: 12; Stora
1997: 120). While the relationship between decolonization and film
has been tackled by historians (Ory 1990; Stora 1997), it has
remained underexplored by French film scholars, who, until recently,
have remained impervious to the influence of cultural studies and
postcolonial studies.1 Consequently, this symbolic revolution has
had a lasting impact on the questions that have been raised about
cinema. Even though generalizations are always reductive, it is
quite clear that until very recently issues of national cinema,
modes of production, film as art and 'auteurism' have made issues of
reception marginal at best.2

What makes The Battle of Algiers a particularly striking case study
is the disjunction between the media event and the life cycle of the
film, as well as the black-or-white nature of each phase of its
critical reception and, overall, the limited interest the film
itself has generated since coming out. The relative invisibility of
the film has generally been constructed - retrospectively in the
promotion and marketing of the film, and in scholarly discourse - as
the outcome of various kinds of political censorship. In scholarly
accounts the neglect of the film is seen as part of the long-
standing reluctance of the French to revisit the painful experience
of their colonial past and, in particular, the 'Guerre d'Algérie',
as it is commonly known in France.3 But it is necessary here to keep
in mind that the reception of a film is the outcome of a complex
alchemy that meshes together the status, in a film culture, of the
film as film, and the discussion of the sort of 'representation'
offered by the film as it participates in the debates of a national
culture at the moment of its reception.

The purpose of this article is precisely to examine the processes by
which Pontecorvo's film was appropriated, evaluated and eventually
marginalized at the intersection of discourses on its status as a
film in French film culture and discourses on the representation of
the Algerian War of Independence. There are three distinct moments
in the critical reception of the film. First, in 1966, the screening
and the award at the Venice Film Festival created a stir in the
French national press and film journals. The film was not released
at the time. Then in 1970, the film became associated with the
struggle against censorship even though it was granted a certificate
for its release in France without any difficulty.4 Attention was
focused on demonstrations, attacks, and lobbying for and against its
release. It went on to receive a more 'normal' commercial release in
Paris starting in October 1971.5 Finally, in 2004, the press covered
the screening of the film at the Cannes Film Festival, its re-
release in September and its first broadcast on French public
television in November. The first wave of reviews from 1966 was
overwhelmingly negative, while the second wave in the 1970s was
generally positive. In 2004, Cahiers du cinéma staunchly opposed the
film while the national press largely supported it. This most recent
phase reveals an inconclusive debate about what constitutes film
culture in France today.

An examination of the different phases of the reception highlights
the ways in which the publicity around the release of The Battle of
Algiers always exceeded the actual encounter between audiences and
the film. The Battle of Algiers has been a political and a media
event beyond the film itself, and one striking aspect of its
reception has been the wide national consensus in each phase - as
one cannot but note how few reviews express an independent judgement
on the film.6 I will consider The Battle of Algiers in French
culture as a 'social fact' ('fait social') and examine its
construction based on what the box office receipts and the critical
reception tell us about its filmic value within the specific context
of its French reception (Esquenazi 2000: 15-47). I will borrow Roger
Odin's theoretical framework, his 'semio-pragmatique', although
diverted from its initial purpose (Odin 1983, 2000). In the debate
in film and media studies about the balance between, on the one
hand, the power of the film to limit the interpretation of the text
and, on the other, the freedom of the spectator to produce meaning
and affect, Odin is very aware of the 'external constraints in the
process of communication' that may shape the production of meaning
and affect but still proposes a heuristic model to understand 'the
modalities of the production of meaning and affect' based on the
film text (Odin 2000: 54, 57). I will turn his model inside out to
start from the critical discourse - what the critics claim the film
does and how - to recover the 'processes of structuration' of the
film in order to examine critics' understanding of these 'modalities
of production of meaning and affect' (ibid.: 57).

The Battle 1966: an illegitimate award, an illegitimate film, an
illegitimate filmmaker

The presence of The Battle of Algiers at the Venice Film Festival
took French culture by surprise, imposing awareness of a nation and
a new national cinema at a major international event. Numerous
contemporary articles about 'the diplomatic incident' that could
have been avoided and the unnecessarily 'awkward position of the
French' blamed the jury for a lack of sensitivity in the selection
of such a film (i.e., Aurore, 6 September 1966). In reporting the
film, journalists and critics alike implicitly considered themselves
primarily as Frenchmen, with the foremost question being whether or
not the film was 'anti-French'. Thus, Henry Chapier in Combat
contested the French delegation's decision to walk out of the awards
on the grounds that 'there is nothing hurtful toward us in the film'
(2 September 1966). Such concerns about the effects of the film on
the image of the French neatly sidestepped any detailed descriptions
and discussions of the film itself.

Once the film was awarded the Golden Lion, the articles turned to
outrage. Whatever the political or cultural status of the
publication, the reviews were united in criticizing the low
standards of a dysfunctional international film festival, even
proclaiming the influence of a 'social-democrat mafia' (Combat, 12
September 1966).7 Many critics in the national press deplored the
inability or unwillingness of the jury to consider the films from a
purely cinematographic standpoint, as no one, it was claimed, could
contest the superior quality of Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar
or François Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451. Thus, French critics rallied
in a defence of 'cinema', a reaction which coincided with the
struggle to impose French films as representing the authentic values
of any film culture worthy of the name. The struggle for the
autonomy of art from politics was promoted as the only true sign of
a commitment to cinema as art and dispensed the critics from having
to account for The Battle of Algiers in terms of colonial history.

Except for one mixed reaction in Télérama (25 September 1966) and
two positive responses in Arts (14 September 1966) and Cinéma
(November 1966), the reviews in the national press were negative.
While the impression of unanimity is striking, there were two
complementary grounds for the dismissal of the film. The first was
the illegitimacy of the festival as institution, whose vocation
should have been the assessment of the films and whose competence
was contested by many French reviewers; the second was based on the
fact that the film did not fit into any of the categories valued in
the new French film culture: its mode of production, the conditions
of its screening at the festival and its formal choices were
discredited, and its director was disqualified as an auteur. On all
of these grounds, it was impossible to regard this particular
representation of the 'Battle of Algiers' as a legitimate 'building
block' in the larger representation of the War of Independence. More
insidiously, one senses an inability on the part of the critics to
watch and 'adhere' to images of the War of Independence and of
Algerians through an Italo-Algerian film.

The Battle of Algiers was not only regarded as inferior to other
films in the festival. It was also defined by its limitations and
positioned in film culture in relation to a list of international
films it purportedly could not match. It was most often compared
with Salvatore Giuliano (Francesco Rosi, 1962), another Italian
action film about a mobster, a film considered to have more rigour
and efficacy. Reviewers made references to classics like
Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin and Strike, and Godard's Les
Carabiniers in order to condemn the absence of real political
analysis. The critics demanded either a documentary representation
of the liberation struggle (and found only caricature and
commonplace) or a montage film, which was considered the legitimate
form for political analysis. One reviewer noted the objectivity,
sobriety and political honesty of Pontecorvo's film, but turned
these values against the film and its director:

Neither objectivity, nor historical honesty, nor the courage to take
on political passions that are still burning constitute
cinematographic qualities. These are conditions without which it
would have been impossible to make the film These are 'negative'
qualities, but cinema needs artists and creators. (Télérama, 25
September 1966)

Clearly, Pontecorvo did not qualify. The balanced account of the war
was likewise turned against the filmmaker:
never inspired, hesitating between a plain report and exaltation,
objectivity and sentimentalism, the individual and collective
dimensions sparing everyone's sensitive feelings through a
meticulous balance of responsibilities, cautious to the extreme,
Pontecorvo abandons his film to an ill-defined position. (Cahiers du
cinéma, October 1966)

The film was condemned for its refusal to provide the spectator with
a clear message, for the undecidability of its meaning.

As I have already implied, Pontecorvo's lack of renown in the new
film culture in France and his being Italian were factors in the
dismissal of the film. The Battle of Algiers was very seldom read as
being part of a larger corpus - Pontecorvo's previous film Kapo
(nominated for an Oscar for Best International Film in 1961) was
hardly ever mentioned except to remark on the relative superiority
of The Battle of Algiers. Indeed, Pontecorvo was primarily
characterized, implicitly at least, as a former communist journalist
turned filmmaker - i.e., someone who used film as a vehicle to get
ideas across.8 His reputation as a director of large-scale co-
productions on political subjects was completely at odds with the
image of the auteur interested in exploring the potential of film
form through low-budget personal films. In contrast to other films
by Pontecorvo, there are no stars in The Battle of Algiers, but his
reliance on non-professional actors was regarded as undermining
character development. Pontecorvo's image also suffered from the
involvement of Saadi Yacef (Djafar in the film), which was regarded
as evidence of Pontecorvo's pro-Algerian commitment and the film's

Overall, the representatives of the French film industry and
apparently most of the newspapers and magazines shared the same
disdain for the film. There is even a sense among those who did
review the film (Cahiers du cinema, Télérama) that the numerous
articles decrying the presence of the film at the festival had
artificially inflated its actual interest. Critics claimed that they
were unable to 'connect' with the representation because the film
was shown in Italian, which was implicitly regarded as evidence of
low production standards. They attacked its large budget, treating
it as 'a resistance film made in Hollywood' (Nouvelles Littéraires,
8 September 1966). It is difficult to assess retrospectively the
critics' reactions without relying on dubious psychology. Still, we
can surmise that the critics could not recognize themselves in the
target audience on two grounds. The Battle of Algiers was obviously
a production aimed at large audiences. First, as film critics in a
new French film culture, while they may have been ready to commend
the formal choices of a film aimed at large audiences, they could
not endorse what they saw as Pontecorvo's slick didacticism. Second,
as Frenchmen, the critics assumed that they had nothing to learn
about the 'Guerre d'Algérie' from Algerians or Italians, a
hypothesis supported by the French audiences' subsequent preference
for French films on the subject. They were dismissive of a film in
which everything 'rings false', with its string of 'commonplaces',
its 'close-ups of children' that 'leave the spectator unmoved'
(Nouvelles Littéraires, 8 September 1966), the 'tear-jerking
melodrama and self-righteous scenes' (Combat, 2 September 1966).
According to one reviewer, the tense faces captured in close-ups all
looked the same and made it impossible to identify with the heroism
of the Algerian fighters (Le Monde, 2 September 1966).

Only in Arts was The Battle of Algiers regarded as providing as yet
unseen images of a conflict, images of 'the immense potential
battlefield' that had so far remained 'apparently empty of direct
confrontations [corps-à-corps]' (Stora 1997: 187). Arts claimed that
for 'us here in France, to look at ourselves through the eyes of
others has become an urgent matter of public health' (14 September
1966). This constituted a very dissonant acknowledgement that French
identity had been affected by decolonization and that the French had
from now on to draw on the cultural productions of former colonies
to learn about their own history, a step that most reviewers could
not even imagine and did not need to imagine in view of the
hierarchies that prevailed in film culture. Significantly, the
review in La Croix (2 September 1966), one of the more positive,
engaged with the film only to support the implicit parallel The
Battle of Algiers imposed between the 'blind terrorism' of the
Algerian bombers who killed innocent victims and the 'strong
repressive measures' carried out by the French air force. Four years
after the end of the conflict, the reviewer questioned the French
government's rhetoric about the illegitimacy of the Algerian
struggle but without contesting the legitimacy of French military

These categories used in assessing the film - regarding the
illegitimacy of the film festival, of the auteur, of the mode of
production and of the representation - all guaranteed the legitimacy
of the negative judgement. Critics could overlook the film's
documentary style, its vivid rendering of the conflict, and its
recreation of the atmosphere of the casbah during the war, on the
grounds that the film did not meet any of the requirements expected
from a film in French film culture at the time. Thus the film was
criticized both for its excesses and for its indecisiveness,
sometimes within a single review. It was not only constructed as a
failed 'process of discursive structuration' (Odin 2000: 57), but
also and maybe more importantly as a failed process of production in
that the operations involved in the production of the film were not
recognized as guaranteeing a legitimate political discourse about
the struggle for liberation and about the birth of a nation.
Consequently, any account of the 'adjustment' of the spectator to
the film had become superfluous because the diegesis, the narrative
and this particular representation of a historical moment did not
require any such engagement (ibid.).10 In France, The Battle of
Algiers started its life drifting on the edges of a film culture in
which it had no place. The criteria imposed by the Auteur Policy and
the New Wave - among them the necessity of the autonomy of cinema as
art - coincided neatly with the dismissal of an Italo-Algerian
production. There was a consensus in the press as well as in the
industry that The Battle of Algiers should not be released in France
at the time and no distributor ever requested a certificate for its
release even after it had received the Golden Lion.11

1970: a legitimate film for a mature nation

The Battle of Algiers was not the first film about the Algerian War
of Independence nor was it the first Algerian film to be released in
France after Algerian independence. French audiences had had the
opportunity to see several films about the war in the first half of
the 1960s (Eades 2006; Guibbert 1992), but the attitude of the
French toward the Algerian War of Independence was very narcissistic
and most films dealt with France, the French and French and European
culture during the war (Le Petit soldat by Jean-Luc Godard, released
in 1963; Muriel, le temps d'un retour by Alain Resnais, released in
1964; La Belle Vie by Robert Enrico, released in 1964; and other
rarely seen films that had no certificate). Other films dealt with
the war in Algeria, including Les Oliviers de la justice by James
Blue, a French production about a pied noir12 living in France who
returns to Algeria during the war to bury his father and decides to
settle there. The film was released in 1962 and well received by the
national press. Les Centurions, a Columbia production directed by
Mark Robson about a French parachute regiment in Indochina and
Algeria which presented different male points of view on the
Algerian War of Independence, was released in 1966, shortly after
Pontecorvo's triumph in Venice. Les Centurions featured big box
office draws - Anthony Quinn, Maurice Ronet and Alain Delon - and
did well commercially. Also, Le Vent des Aurès by Mohamed Lakhdar-
Hamina - an Algerian film, made in 1966, about a woman following her
son who is taken prisoner and sent to a camp - got a small-scale
release in Paris and in the provinces and was reviewed positively in
the French national press.13

In 1970, Universal Films requested a certificate for the
distribution of The Battle of Algiers and obtained it without any
difficulty. Nevertheless, the commercial release of the film due to
start in June was suspended owing to disruptions and threats from
extreme right groups as well as political lobbying from war veterans
or associations of pieds noirs. Once more the film became the object
of two debates that are related but distinct and that clearly went
beyond the issue of the representation, as most people discussing
the film had not yet seen it. The first debate was about the values
associated with national culture, the second about censorship. In
the press, opposition took the form of articles in extreme right
newspapers seething with hatred for the 'Italo-Fellagha'14 film,
press releases issued by war veteran organizations, coverage of the
disruptions in the cinemas which resulted in exhibitors cancelling
some shows and local authorities banning others. Even though the ban
by local authorities of a few screenings of Lakhdar Hamina's Le Vent
des Aurès in southern France in 1969 and January 1970 had also been
reported in the press, it is clear that the international
recognition of Pontecorvo's film made it the object of much more

The Battle of Algiers became a pawn in a much more politicized
national culture allowing various communities to position themselves
in relation to the Algerian War of Independence. By now most critics
no longer saw the film as an insignificant film production or as a
blow to the honour of the French, but as a means to mark the divide
between an enlightened humanist French community and retrograde
pieds noirs and war veterans. (Some critics questioned the
representation of Colonel Mathieu, the fictionalized French leader
of the 'paras', regarding it as too positive with respect to the
real-life officers who may have inspired the character.)

Understandably, articles about the need to resist the intimidatory
tactics of various lobbies and to release the film established lines
of discussion that the reviews followed; the protest against all
forms of censorship was more prominent than was actual analysis of
the film. Writers were clearly competing in the overdue recognition
of the legitimacy of the Algerian struggle for liberation. Thus,
expressing support for the film became a means to prove that 'a
nation must take responsibility for its own history' and that the
national community was a 'mature people' ('un peuple adulte') able
to rise above the divisions and prejudices caused by this now-
resolved conflict, an effort that the pieds noirs and war veterans
were apparently deemed incapable of making (France-Soir, 5 June

Thus, in the 1970s, The Battle of Algiers became part of a much
wider protest and was lumped into the category of censored films,
even though it was never actually censored by the national
Commission de la Censure Cinématographique. The debate about
censorship in the national press went beyond the issue of
decolonization - it also focused, for instance, on the
representation of sexuality - and was part of the larger expression
of a growing malaise in French culture about what was perceived as
the outdated and stifling paternalism of the French public audio-
visual media. The ban of a five-minute excerpt from The Battle of
Algiers in a political programme, Panorama, in June 1970, generated
a slew of articles, the resignation of the prominent journalist
Olivier Todd who hosted the programme, and much hostility towards
the government, toward the national committee in charge of
censorship and toward other forms of censorship including political
lobbies, distributors who were only interested in making money,
exhibitors who lacked any kind of commitment and the audio-visual
media's servility in relation to the government in general. The
Battle of Algiers was evoked in the press primarily alongside films
like Elise ou la vraie vie (1970), the adaptation of a novel by
Claire Etcherelli in which a French girl working in a car factory
falls in love with an Algerian colleague who is an FLN activist; its
director Michel Drach had to borrow money in order to manage the
distribution himself because he could not find a distributor for the
film. Among other films mentioned were Lakhdar Hamina's Le Vent des
Aurès and Comité Audin/Jacques Panijel's Octobre à Paris (1963), a
documentary about the Paris demonstrations of 1961.15 Shot without
authorization, the film obtained a certificate after René Vautier, a
prominent filmmaker in the struggle against French colonial power,
went on hunger strike in 1973, but it still has not been shown
because Panijel's condition that a preface be added to the film has
never been met by the distributors (Panijel 1997).

The 'national' release of The Battle of Algiers started in the
summer of 1970 in the provinces and in October 1971 in Paris where
it was screened less widely than initially planned, in one, then up
to four cinemas. Screenings were sporadically disrupted but the film
went to the end of its run with a very steady stream of spectators.
It did reasonably well at the box office, like other French films
about the war at the beginning of the 1970s. It was seen by 126,623
spectators over sixteen weeks in Paris (147,032 over twenty-two
weeks). Elise ou la vraie vie sold 146,242 tickets; Avoir 20 ans
dans les Aurès, a fictionalized account of the reluctant involvement
of a group of soldiers from Brittany in the war and of the desertion
of one of them with the Algerian prisoner he was guarding, received
the Grand Prix de la Critique at the Cannes Film Festival in 1972
and drew 110,216 spectators; La Guerre d'Algérie, a documentary film
by Yves Courrière (the author of a four-volume history, La Guerre
d'Algérie (1970-1973)) and Philippe Monnier, based on archival
material that came out in March 1972, drew 169,885. None of them did
as well as RAS by Yves Boisset (1973), another popular fiction about
the participation yet again of a group of French soldiers who had
been recalled and were regarded as strong-headed and dangerous,
which drew 324,617 spectators. By contrast, December, the second
film by Lakhdar-Hamina that was released in Paris a few months
before RAS, drew only 18,025 spectators.16 Overall, these audience
figures attest to a growing interest in the war.17 While they appear
high if one remains attached to the belief that it was a taboo
subject in the national imaginary, they are nevertheless low if one
takes into account the publicity that the struggle against
censorship generated. The gap in the box office figures between
Algerian films and French films also highlights that the French
were - and perhaps are - interested primarily in French
representations of the French during the Algerian War of
Independence. This may explain why The Battle of Algiers was less
popular than 'smaller' French auteur films even though it did much
better than Lakhdar Hamina's films. Vautier's film, though it had
won a major prize, was probably hindered by Vautier's reputation,
his vocal anti-colonial stance and the perception that he had fought
on the Algerian side.

The articles and reviews about The Battle of Algiers published in
1970 and 1971 were almost unanimously laudatory, with only Aspects
de la France, a very vocal extreme right paper, arguing that the
film should be banned, and the Tribune Socialiste and the film
journal Cinéma still criticizing the film's lack of political
analysis.18 The negative reviews were in publications from the
extreme right and from the left, with small readerships. Once again,
in this second phase the film's reception in France was
characterized by a broad consensus. What is most striking, however,
is that even though the critics saw The Battle of Algiers this time
round as endowed with great 'cinematographic qualities', they used
exactly the same terms to describe the film. It was regarded as
a 'work whose artistic qualities should have lifted it above
reactions tied to its context' (France-Soir, 4 June 1970). This
reversal of attitude could be attributed to the passing of time and
to the perceived necessity to make amends. Still, emphatic praise
could not disguise an ambivalent attitude. First, The Battle of
Algiers remained at the same level in the hierarchy of films
mentioned in the reviews. In a few instances, it was compared
negatively with La Voie by Slim Riad (1968) which can be regarded as
having replaced Rosi's Salvatore Giuliano as the benchmark for this
film, and once with Les Oliviers de la justice. Overall, The Battle
of Algiers was still rarely integrated in a larger corpus of
Algerian films or films about the war.19 Even though the
representation of the War of Independence had become an issue in the
assessment of the film, in critical discourse, film form prevailed
and The Battle of Algiers was deemed to lag far behind Battleship
Potemkin or Z (Costa-Gavras, 1969). Second, the film was examined at
the intersection of two concerns that cannot be easily reconciled.
On one level, the critics were emphatic about the visual beauty of
the diegetic world and its vivid rendering of the struggle in the
casbah. It did not really matter whether these were the outcome of
the tempo of the film, of the chemical processing of the film, or of
the performances of the actors, which were highly praised: 'Nothing
looks acted or reconstituted. It not only takes the form of a
document but has a document's impalpable materiality' (Figaro, 1
June 1970); 'The naturalness of the characters captured on the spot'
(Canard Enchaîné, 3 June 1970); 'Everything rings true' (La Croix, 2
June 1970). This time the film was discussed as providing the visual
raw material of a conflict of which images had been lacking. On
another level, the critics dealt with the film's capacity to produce
a political and historical analysis. They often described the ways
in which the film could have fallen into, but avoided, the traps of
nationalistic propaganda or a Manichean world view. As a result, the
film was highly praised for its objectivity, its impartiality, its
political honesty and its sobriety. The question of how the
spectator was positioned, however, was not clearly addressed.

Pontecorvo's image as director was likewise renewed in this second
phase, although this transformation was not the outcome of a shift
in his trajectory as a filmmaker. Indeed, shortly before the
commercial release of The Battle of Algiers Pontecorvo had released
another feature film about decolonization in the West Indies,
Queimada, starring Marlon Brando.20 Despite its relative success in
France (over 89,500 spectators saw it in Paris), Queimada did not
significantly affect Pontecorvo's status in French film culture.
While Queimada was at times evoked as confirming his continued
interest in struggles for independence in the colonies, he was not
constructed as an auteur in relation to a corpus of films but as the
heir of a legitimate national Italian film history. Pontecorvo was
seen to belong to the second generation of neo-realists who
successfully combined 'aestheticism' with the 'rigour of a Marxist
approach' (L'Express, 1 June 1970) - a capacity that was contested,
significantly, by one of the few negative reviews in Cinéma. Such an
interpretation of Pontecorvo's style may be surprising: the plot-
driven rhythm of The Battle of Algiers is very remote from what
André Bazin, for instance, regarded as the specific features of neo-
realism (Bazin 1975). The notion that the conception of the film
was 'bicephalous' remained, although credit was given this time to
Franco Solinas, the screenwriter who participated in the writing of
Salvatore Giuliano, rather than to Saadi Yacef. Pontecorvo was
described as a 'witness of his time', able to steer between the
Scylla of caricature and the Charybdis of complacency, drawing
praise for his impartial, yet engaged, representation of the war.
Thus, the main effect of the transformation of Pontecorvo's status
as a respected filmmaker - he wasn't considered a real auteur - was
the new legitimacy of his own comments, now considered to offer a
trustworthy point of entry into the interpretation of the film.

Some perceptions of the film's limitations did survive: Tribune
Socialiste and Cinéma criticized Pontecorvo, Yacef and Solinas for a
questionable ideological slant, for their stylistic choices and for
the lack of Marxist dialectical analysis. For Cinéma, the film
remained 'like the Algerian revolution, a nationalist ode and
nothing more' (Cinéma, December 1971). Pontecorvo, Cinéma claimed,
had succumbed to the mysticism of action and produced a 'western'.
The critics highlighted the absence of the pieds noirs, the excess
of 'description' and the lack of character development. In this
second phase, assessments based primarily on a political reading of
the film, however, appeared as solitary protests amidst the
overwhelming applause.

As I have indicated, the reception of The Battle of Algiers cannot
be detached from the context of the struggle against censorship of
which it was a part and of the re-ordering of French culture taking
place in the national press at the time, a process to which the film
contributed. Consequently, even though the point of view on the film
adopted by most critics shifted by 180 degrees, French reviewers
still positioned themselves primarily as Frenchmen in their response
to what had become a legitimate representation of the Algerian War
of Independence. Doing so, they did not condemn or even revise the
categories that had been the foundation of the new French film
culture of the 1960s, nor did they have in mind the promotion of any
alternative and more political film culture. As Frenchmen they
endorsed the position of politically aware individuals, a position
they had staunchly opposed a few years earlier, and it is from this
position that they affirmed what they liked about the film. French
national culture at large was much more politicized in the early
1970s and the necessity to take a clear stance on decolonization and
censorship overrode any real engagement with the political analysis
offered by the film. In other words, The Battle of Algiers was once
again considered as a 'process of discursive structuring'; but this
time, it was considered to have achieved its goal even though the
film was not integrated into a corpus, be it that of Algerian
cinema, of representations of the Algerian War of Independence, or
of resistance films.

It is clear too that the thorough reconsideration of the
relationship between film and politics that shook French film
culture in the early 1970s, and made room for the recognition of The
Battle of Algiers, could not embrace the film. Caroline Eades shows
that a fair number of postcolonial fil ms were produced and released
in the 1970s and argues very convincingly that postcolonial films -
a corpus of fiction films about the French colonial empire produced
after its demise from the former colonizer's point of view - have
enabled the shift from memory to history. As a response to the
coherence of colonial discourse, the filmmakers in question have
favoured fiction as a means to construct a different temporality
anchored in the present that enables them to account for the past.
The films tend to privilege a fragmentation of time, individual
points of view and memories that questions the limits of rigid
ethnic, national and gender categories, rather than any recounting
of events (Eades 2006: 63-101). Despite its real attempt at
humanizing both sides of the conflict, it is easy to see how The
Battle of Algiers does not quite fit into such a vision of
postcolonial cinema. Even though the film was clearly made
with 'Western' audiences in mind, its story is not told from the
colonizer's point of view, and, more to the point, even though the
story is to a degree fictionalized, the film constitutes a
meticulous reconstruction of a precise historical moment. Mainstream
film criticism awkwardly meshed together a recognition of the film's
formal beauty and the humanity of its narrative with a recognition
of the birth of a nation, failing to consider the extent to which
its specific film aesthetics and the country and mode of production
may have hindered the 'adjustment' of the spectators. Critics' main
aim was to endorse the representation rather than to reflect on the
film's effect on audiences. Within this context, the rejection of
the film by Cinéma and Tribune Socialiste made sense. Paradoxically
in the 1970s The Battle of Algiers had come to be seen in mainstream
French culture and in mainstream film culture as a remarkable
universal film against decolonization, but the compunction to
express clearly one's 'adherence' to the representation overrode any
desire to establish the film's status as a work of cinema or even to
consider it as part of French film heritage.

2004: a classic outside the confines of French film culture

The Battle of Algiers was shown as part of the selection of classics
at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004, before being re-released in
French cinemas in September, and receiving its first French
television broadcast on the Franco-German public channel ARTE in
November. The renewal of interest in the film was attributed by
critics to the 2003 screening of the film at the Pentagon as part of
the search by the American military for strategies to fight
terrorism in Iraq. Here again, it was the news that brought The
Battle of Algiers back into the limelight.

A very approximate and inaccurate history of the censorship of the
film was used as a teaser in marketing the film and once again the
publicity surrounding its release tended to emphasize the events
that brought the film to attention rather than the quality of the
film itself. The distributor's promotional flyers and booklet sold
the film as never having been available, 'forbidden in France' in
1965, 'released at last but quickly withdrawn from the screens' in
1971, 'screened at the Pentagon' in 2003. In the event, the interest
of the French public remained very limited, with only 13,266 tickets
sold in 2004, i.e., one tenth of those sold at its 1971 release in
Paris. (These figures cannot be interpreted as attesting to a
particularly marked lack of interest in the film, however, whatever
the reasons for it may be, because the box office figures for re-
releases are commonly much lower than those of first releases.)

The critical response was certainly much more limited in scale than
in the earlier phases and critics expressed surprise at the belated
resonance that the film was finding in French culture as well as
doubts about the Pentagon's real motivation for screening such a
film. Even though the film was highly praised in the national press,
critics could not but regard the screening at the Pentagon as
raising suspicions about the film's capacity to transcend dubious
appropriation. The Pentagon connection, however, strongly affected
reviewers' perception of the film, which was no longer seen as
providing an opportunity to re-examine the representation of the
Algerian War of Independence, French national identity in a
postcolonial context or Algerian identity. Rather, critics now
regarded The Battle of Algiers primarily in terms of its apparent
pertinence to the 'global war on terrorism' and the perceived
conflict between Islam and the 'Western world'.

Cahiers du cinéma devoted a special feature to the film consisting
of five articles by critics philosophers, and film scholars, wherein
the negative assessment of the film was cast in such strong terms
that it undermined, on moral grounds, the legitimacy of any critic
or analyst who did not condemn the film, let alone anyone who dared
consider it worthy of filmic attention.21 Each article addressed the
specific context of the 2004 release of the film and regarded its
appropriation in the current debate on international terrorism as
evidence of its lack of legitimacy. Jacques Rivette's seminal 1961
article 'De l'abjection' about Pontecorvo's Kapo, a scathing
critique of the film which equated the value of a film with the
morality of its director's formal choices, was evoked to exclude
Pontecorvo from the category of auteurs (Giavarini 2004: 72). The
critique offered by Cahiers in 2004 was articulated first around the
representation of a heroic terrorism. Thus, Abdelwahab Meddeb
claimed that The Battle of Algiers extolled the virtues of terrorist
engagement and an 'ideology of sacrifice', saw the women in the film
as suicide bombers, and therefore regarded the film as contributing
to the glorification of terrorism in Algeria- a position which is
highly questionable, not least because, although there is one
suicide attack in the film, the women are not suicide bombers
(Meddeb 2004: 68). Jean-Louis Comolli claimed that the spectator's
body was 'projected into' the body of the torture victim: according
to him, spectators are put in the position of always expecting new
blows, with each blow increasing their 'jouissance' (2004: 70, 71).
Comolli strongly objected to the film's 'control' of the spectator's
affect as well as to the implied message that political awareness
and engagement do not stand a chance against violence. Neither
Meddeb nor Comolli considered The Battle of Algiers as a film about
decolonization - that might vaguely correspond to the vision that
the filmmaker sought to construct - but they did raise the question
of the spectator's position as it is constructed in film form and as
it can be analysed in historical terms. In doing so, both critics
implicitly moved the debate away from a discussion of the
representation of the Algerian War of Independence to a discussion
of the impact, on easily manipulated masses, of a film aimed at
large audiences. They described the film as lending itself to
dubious appropriations by various audiences (especially in the light
of international terrorism) and dismissed the film through their
invocation of vague categories of spectators - and it is not clear
whether these categories are national, political, military or
religious - over whom the film putatively cast a dangerous spell. In
doing so, they signalled that the question of the reception of the
film was no longer a French problem but a much larger one.

Even though the reviewers in the national press were aware of the
screening at the Pentagon and also placed the film in the context of
a global 'war on terrorism', they did not draw the same conclusions:
the spectrum of evaluations of the film varied from excellent to
mildly interesting. Libération, for instance, noted the 'painful
resonance of the film at a time of radicalization of a type of
Islam', but still considered the film the 'best film ever made about
the Algerian war. Because it was the most credible and the fairest'
(4 November 2004).

In 2004, the filmic value of The Battle of Algiers was treated as
taken for granted, and the film was praised as much for its powerful
representation of the war as for its formal choices, its 'sumptuous
black and white [photography] and quasi-documentary realism'
(Télérama, 26 May 2004). Comparisons, always rare, with other films
about the War of Independence or with other films about struggles
for liberation had all but disappeared. The Battle of Algiers was
accepted as a landmark to the extent that no justification for this
status now seemed necessary. Some reviews implicitly endorsed the
marketing claims that interpreted the new release as a belated means
to right a wrong. Other reviews remained purely descriptive, noting
the power and beauty of the film without engaging in a debate about
the spectator's position or the impact of the film, as construction
and representation, on audiences today.

To summarize: the central explicit issue for Cahiers du cinéma was
the spectator's position and this was dealt with in two ways: first,
as the outcome of film form that not only deprived him/her of any
freedom but also allowed him/her to take pleasure in a questionable
representation that promoted violence; and, second, in relation to
history where contemporary appropriations of the film constituted a
diversion from the film's initial intent and attested to its
weakness. It was in the name of these easily manipulated spectators
that the experts adopted a strong moral stance in order to condemn
the film. This moral stance did not apparently 'filter down' to
affect the reception in the national press. There it was impossible
to distinguish any pattern of response that might be attributed to
divisions in the press between right and left, highbrow and lowbrow,
or any dissension concerning the film's positive attributes, which
were perceived as a mixture of stylistic, contextual, formal and
narrative traits. Previously the evaluation of the film had been
implicitly considered a France-centred issue; today the question of
different communities of spectators means the film is taken to
belong to a much larger struggle, one that goes beyond French
national preoccupations. In raising the possibility of an Algerian
spectator galvanized by the film, recent critics of the film have
made the question of the positioning of the specifically French
spectator and of the relationship between film and decolonization in
France appear completely irrelevant. In this context, in France, The
Battle of Algiers remains, in many ways, unwatched and under-


The different phases of the reception of The Battle of Algiers
illustrate both the vigour of the principles that established the
new French film culture in the late 1950s to early 1960s and the
constricting inability of this culture to redefine over time the
questions it ought to raise about cinema. The Battle of Algiers
constitutes an interesting case study because it highlights the
extent to which the relative 'invisibility' of the film, commonly
attributed to political censorship, is actually the outcome of its
cultural marginalization. The film was never considered primarily in
relation to other films within a defined category, such as
representations of the Algerian War of Independence, Algerian cinema
or resistance films, or in relation to the audience's perception of
the film as a film. Instead the film has always been apprehended,
and in a sense submerged, within larger concerns - about France's
international image in the wake of the loss of the empire in the
mid1960s; about censorship and postcolonial national identity in the
early 1970s; and about the global 'war on terrorism' that made the
film look suspicious in 2004.

Crucial here is the relationship between film culture and national
culture. The 'processes of structuration', be they diegetic or
discursive, at work in the film were certainly evoked by the
critics - only to be discredited the first time and highly praised
the second time on the same grounds - but they were never
convincingly examined. The spectator's 'adjustment' to the film and
the operations required for this adjustment remained underexplored,
because the appropriation of the film in national culture operated
at other levels and because this enquiry into the spectator's
response to the film did not bear on the evaluation of a film that
does not really fit into the categories valorized by French film
culture. The strong narrative of The Battle of Algiers, its visual
fluency, its documentary quality, its clear characterization, and,
as well as his formal choices, the director's trajectory, together
made it impossible for the film to become part of that film culture.
If at times it appeared to have gained critical legitimacy
nonetheless, this was only because the debate about the release of
the film and its subsequent release contributed to a larger debate
about the reconstruction of national culture.

In the 2004 context of international terrorism that dominated the
last phase in the reception of the film, there was, as we have seen,
a sharp divergence between the rejection of the film by 'legitimate'
critics and its taken-for-granted status as a classic by the rest of
the press. In this way, The Battle of Algiers exposed the fading
hegemony of the discourse associated with an elite film journal like
Cahiers du cinéma, with its very restrictive conception of film. The
strong moral condemnation of The Battle of Algiers in Cahiers
highlighted the latter's apparent need to reaffirm film hierarchies
and with it a real distrust of the 'masses' and mass culture. Such a
distrust cannot be interpreted as a rejection of mass audience films
in general that can be valorized in French film culture as big
spectacles, but rather as a distrust in the capacity of its
audiences to draw on the experience of such a film to reflect on
representations of themselves. The limitations of Cahiers' position
deserve further critique, but it is quite clear that it is no longer
tenable. It cannot resist indefinitely the necessity to revise the
categories at work in film criticism and to account for audiences'
experience of film, hence the need to take into account more
systematically a much broader spectrum of films, including those
outside the hierarchy imposed by film criticism. The reception
history of The Battle of Algiers helps demonstrate, among other
things, the limits of the hegemonic position of French film
criticism in national culture and its unwillingness or inability to
direct its attention to films aimed at large audiences. In the end,
French culture is left with a film that offers a powerful evocation
of the Algerian War of Independence yet is banished to the fringes
of a film culture incapable of offering an appropriate framework for
its analysis.

1. Bazin, A. (André, Bazin ed.) ((1975)) Qu'est-ce que le cinéma?
pp. 257-285. Le Cerf , Paris - in
2. (Berrah, M.ouny, Hennebelle, Guy and Stora, Benjamin eds.)
((1997)) La Guerre d'Algérie à l'ecran, CinémAction - and
3. Bourdon, Jérôme (Gervereau, Laurent, Rioux, Jean-Pierre and
Stora, Benjamin eds.) (1992) La Guerre d'Algérie à la télévision. La
France en guerre d'Algérie pp. 242-245. MHC-BDIC , Nanterre
4. Chominot, Marie (Mohammed, Harbi and Benjamin, Stora eds.)
((2005)) La Guerre d'Algérie 1954-2004: La Fin de l'amnésie pp. 833-
864. Hachette Littératures (Pluriel) , Paris - in
5. Comolli, J. -L. ((2004)) L'attente du prochain coup. Cahiers du
cinéma pp. 70-71.
6. Courrière, Yves ((1970-1973)) La Guerre d'Algérie: Les Fils de la
Toussaint (vol. 1), Le Temps des léopards (vol. 2), l'Heure des
colonels (vol. 3) les Feux du désespoir (vol. 4) Fayard , Paris
7. Dine, Philip (Guy, Hennebelle ed.) (1997) Trois regards
étrangers: Les Oliviers de la justice de James Blue, La Bataille
d'Alger de Gillo Pontecorvo, Les Centurions de Mark Robson. La
Guerre dAlgérie à lecran, CinémAction, 85 pp. 80-86.
8. Eades, Caroline (2006) Le Cinéma post-colonial français Cerf ,
9. Esquenazi, J. -P. (2000) Le film, un fait social. Réseaux 99 ,
pp. 15-47.
10. Fleury-Villate, Béatrice (2001) La Mémoire télévisuelle de la
guerre d'Algérie: 1962-1992 L'Harmattan , Paris
11. Giavarini, Laurence ((2004)) 'Quelle histoire?' Cahiers du
cinéma 592 , pp. 72-74.
12. Guibbert, P. (Gervereau, Laurent, Rioux, Jean-Pierre and Stora,
Benjamin eds.) (1992) La guerre d'Algérie sur les écrans français.
La France en guerre d'Algérie pp. 247-255. MHC-BDIC , Nanterre
13. (Harbi, Mohammed and Stora, Benjamin eds.) ((2005) [2004]) La
Guerre d'Algérie 1954-2004: La Fin de l'amnésie Hachette
Littératures (Pluriel) , Paris - and
14. House, Jim and MacMaster, Neil (2006) Paris 1961: Algerians,
State Terror, and Memory Oxford University Press , Oxford
15. Jeancolas, Jean-Pierre (1979) Le Cinéma des Français, la Vème
République 1958-1978 Stock , Paris
16. Meddeb, Abdelwahab ((2004)) 'Quarante ans après', Conversation
in Cahiers du cinéma. 592 , pp. 66-69.
17. Odin, R. (1983) Mise en phase, déphasage et performativité dans
Le Tempestaire de Jean Epstein. Communications 38 , pp. 213-238.
18. Odin, R. (2000) La question du public. Réseaux 99 , pp. 51-72.
19. Ory, Pascal (Rioux, Jean-Pierre ed.) (1990) L'Algérie fait
écran. La Guerre d'Algérie et les Français pp. 572-581. Fayard ,
20. Panijel, Jacques ((1997)) Unpublished interview with Patricia
Caillé. - November
21. Rivette, Jacques (Alain, Bergala ed.) ((2001) [1961]) Théories
du cinéma: Petite Anthologie des Cahiers du cinéma vol. 7 , pp. 37-
40. Cahiers du cinéma , Paris - in
22. Stora, Benjamin (1992) La Gangrène et l'oubli: La mémoire de la
Guerre d'Algérie La Découverte , Paris
23. Stora, Benjamin ((1997)) Imaginaires de guerre: Algérie-Viêt-
nam, en France et aux Etats-Unis pp. 111-125. La Découverte , Paris -
24. Stora, Benjamin (Harbi, Mohammed and Stora, Benjamin eds.)
(2005) 1999-2003, guerre d'Algérie, les accélérations de la mémoire.
La Guerre dAlgérie 1954-2004: La Fin de l'amnésie pp. 725-744.
Hachette Littératures (Pluriel) , Paris
1Images of the Algerian War of Independence in the illustrated press
and in the audio-visual media have been examined more consistently
(Bourdon 1992; Cheminot 2005; Fleury-Villate 2001). CinémAction
constitutes a singular exception in the landscape of French film
journals (see, in particular, Berrah et al. 1997; but also Dine
1997; Guibbert 1992; Jeancolas 1979). Postcolonial French culture
has been explored more consistently in Anglo-American scholarship.
In the last ten years, a significant body of work has been produced
about the imaging of the colonies, and to a lesser extent about
postcolonial France, by historians of ACHAC (Association pour la
Connaissance de l'Histoire de l'Afrique Contemporaine), a research
group led by Pascal Blanchard.

2In Imaginaires de guerre, Benjamin Stora takes into account issues
of reception, and reintegrates film reception within the larger
context of the transformation of the audio-visual landscape in
France at the time (1997: 175-207).

3Much of the scholarship on the representations of the Algerian War
of Independence has been constructed around the notions of
the 'repressed', 'silence' and 'amnesia' (Harbi and Stora 2004), and
the absence of images has been regarded as important in these
debates (Stora 1992; Stora 1997: 248-55).

4See Stora's article above.

5The Battle of Algiers received a few (very positive) reviews when
it was shown briefly in 1981 in Paris as part of a film festival
about the Algerian War, together with Avoir 20 ans dans les Aurès
and Elise ou la vraie vie by Michel Drach, and La Question by
Laurent Heynemann. I will not take this festival into account in
this analysis due to the very limited 'release' of the film in that

6In this respect, the review by Jean Daniel (Le Nouvel Observateur,
10 May 1967) in the wake of a screening of the film in Tunis and the
review by Claude Mauriac (Figaro Littéraire, 1 June 1970) are
striking exceptions, as both writers convey personal responses to
the film in the light of their own experience of the war.

7All translations from French are by the author.

8By 1966 Pontecorvo had directed La grande strada azzurra (1957), a
Franco-Italian-West German production starring Yves Montand and
Francisco Rabal, and Kapo (1959) a Franco-Italian production
starring Laurent Terzieff and Emmanuelle Riva. See Forgacs's article
above for more information on Pontecorvo's career.

9For more detail on Yacef's role see Forgacs' article above.

10The term 'adjustment' is here a translation of the term 'mise en
phase' which Odin defines as the 'process' that enables spectators
to let themselves be 'moved' to 'the rhythm of the depicted events'
(2000: 57).

11For more on this 'censorship from below', see Stora's article

12See p. 366, n. 2.

13In Paris and its suburbs Les Centurions sold 389,983 tickets over
ten weeks; LeVent des Aurès 22,572 tickets over seven weeks; and Les
Oliviers de la justice 29,323 tickets.

14See p. 341, n. 2.

15See Editorial above; and see House and MacMaster 2006.

16Le Canard Enchaîné (6 June 1973) reports that an exhibitor stopped
the screenings of December, even though it was doing well, because
the film drew too many Algerian spectators and thus jeopardized the
reputation of his cinema.

17These figures, drawn from Le Film français, l'hebdomadaire des
professionnels du cinéma et de l'audiovisuel (France, 1944), are the
box office figures of the films for Paris and its suburbs.

18My analysis focuses on twenty-five actual reviews of the film,
examined within the larger context of the many articles published
about its eventful release.

19The exceptions come in L'Express (1 June 1970) and in Cinéma.

20See Forgacs' article above.

21'La Bataille d'Alger à présent', Cahiers du cinéma (September
2004): 64-74.

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