Wednesday, 21 November 2007



Author: David Forgacs
Affiliation: University College London, UK
Published in: Interventions, Volume 9, Issue 3 November 2007 ,
pages 350 - 364


Why did Saadi Yacef decide to go to Italy in 1964 to find a director
to make a film based on his memoirs of the Battle of Algiers? How
far was the resulting film shaped by its Algerian producer and how
far by the Italians who worked on it - director Gillo Pontecorvo and
screenwriter Franco Solinas, but also cinematographer Marcello
Gatti, editor Mario Morra and composer Ennio Morricone? How far did
it differ on the one hand from Yacef's original story idea and on
the other from the film called Parà that Pontecorvo and Solinas had
originally intended to make in Algiers and for which they already
had a complete script ready? This article looks at the making of The
Battle of Algiers and considers these questions in relation to the
film's politics, its narrative construction and its style. It also
considers some parallels between the film and the work of
Rossellini, in particular Rome Open City.
Keywords: The Battle of Algiers; director; production history;
screenplay; sources


The story of how The Battle of Algiers came to be made has been told
on several occasions by the principal people involved. There are
some discrepancies between their versions but they agree on the main
points and details can be filled in from other sources.1 In 1964,
Saadi Yacef, who had set up the production company Casbah Films in
Algiers, had written, with French filmmaker René Vautier, a 25-page
treatment for a film with the title La Bataille d'Alger. Yacef had
played a leading role in the military wing of the FLN in Algiers
from 1956 until his arrest in September 1957.2 His Souvenirs de la
Bataille d'Alger, written during his imprisonment, had been
published in France in September 1962, a few months after Algerian
independence, and they formed the basis for the treatment.3 Vautier
was a PCF member who had made documentaries in Algiers, including
Une nation, l'Algérie (1954), which had had the backing of Frantz
Fanon, and L'Algérie en flammes (1958).

Yacef went to Italy in early 1964 with his employee Bazi Salah, with
the aim of finding someone to develop and direct his proposed film.
After making an unsuccessful approach, through the Algerian Embassy
in Rome, to Luchino Visconti, he had a meeting with Gillo
Pontecorvo. He had seen Pontecorvo's Kapo (1960) and had found out
that the director was on the left and had been active in the Italian
Resistance in 1944-5. Pontecorvo, for his part, had visited Algiers
with his screenwriting partner Franco Solinas in early 1962, shortly
before independence and during the counter-insurgency by the
Organisation armée secrète (OAS), to research a fictional film they
were developing called Parà. By November 1962 Solinas had written a
first version of the script for this film and it had been translated
into English.4 It told the story of a former paratrooper captain,
Paul Robin, now a photographer working for a press agency in Paris,
who returns to Algiers in 1962, two days before the referendum on
self-determination, with the aim of getting a scoop photograph. He
goes out for a drive with another former para and friend, Jean, who
has joined the OAS, and photographs him as he shoots and kills a
young Arab woman in the street. The contemporary story alternates
with a series of flashbacks to 1957 in which, among other things,
Paul heads the interrogation and torture of an FLN suspect. The
story ends in 1962 with Paul caught up in the crowd celebrating the
referendum result.

By the time Yacef met Pontecorvo in 1964 Solinas had revised the
script of Parà but the project had run into production difficulties.
Pontecorvo had not been able to find a suitable American star
available immediately to play the lead (Paul Newman had shown
interest but had said he would not be able to do it for two years)
and the producer, Franco Cristaldi, could not secure a US
distribution deal (Pontecorvo 1967b: 118). According to Solinas,
Cristaldi later told him that the US distributors had rejected
Parà 'on political grounds' (Fofi and Faldini 1981: 401); Pontecorvo
said that Cristaldi and the distributors ditched the project because
they feared reprisals by the OAS (Ghirelli 1978: 15). Pontecorvo
tried proposing Parà to Yacef but the latter was not interested and
offered Pontecorvo his own treatment instead. Pontecorvo rejected it
in its original form, which he later claimed was a mere celebration
of the FLN, but accepted the subject and wrote with Solinas a new
treatment which drew in part on Yacef's account of events. Yacef
accepted this and a deal was struck.

Pontecorvo then sought an Italian co-producer. After being turned
down by the larger producers, including Rizzoli, he managed to
persuade Antonio Musu, production director on Kapo, to act as co-
producer through a small company, Igor Film, and Musu secured
financial guarantees from the film fund of the Banca Nazionale del
Lavoro. Yacef invited Pontecorvo and Solinas to Algiers at his
expense to do a recce. He provided Solinas with documents and
newspaper cuttings and introduced him to other people who had taken
part in the Battle of Algiers. Solinas wrote a screenplay which he
revised until Yacef accepted it. Pontecorvo's contract with Casbah
Films, dated 16 June 1964, stipulated that shooting would start in
October or November 1964 and would last approximately twelve weeks.
In fact it began on 26 July 1965, five weeks after the military coup
that deposed Ben Bella and brought Boumediene to power, and it
lasted five months, ending on 18 December.5 Yacef was persuaded by
Pontecorvo to play himself in the film under the fictional name of
Kader (but also with his actual nom de guerre, Djafar), alongside
other Algerians who, like him, had never acted before, including
Brahim Hadjadj, the poor peasant whom Pontecorvo picked out for his
face to play Ali la Pointe.6 The paras were played mainly by white
tourists recruited in Algiers. The film was post-produced in Rome
between January and July 1966. The music, by Ennio Morricone but
with some contributions by Pontecorvo, was scored and recorded, and
the dialogue, in French and Arabic, was dubbed (a version was made
for the Italian market with the French dialogue dubbed into Italian
and the Arabic subtitled). The film had its first screening at the
Venice Film Festival in September and won the top prize, the Golden

This account of the making of the film leaves some questions
unanswered. Why did Saadi Yacef look for an Italian director for a
film about the Algerian revolution? How 'Italian', or
how 'Algerian', was the film that resulted? How does The Battle of
Algiers compare with Parà on the one hand and Yacef's original story
idea on the other? How far does it 'belong' with the other films
which Pontecorvo and Solinas worked on together between 1956 and
1969? And what were their respective contributions to the completed
film? This article suggests answers to these questions.

In the print of The Battle of Algiers released in the UK the first
title card reads 'Casbah-Film [sic] présen te La première grande
production Algérienne'. There was an element of self-promotion here,
since other feature films had been made in Algeria since
independence. Among them were Le Vent des Aurès/Rih-al-awras,
directed by Mohamed Lakhdar Hamina, and La nuit a peur du soleil/Al-
lailu yahkaf ash-shams by Mustapha Badie (a four-part film made for
television), released respectively in 1965 and 1966. Badie's film
was in production in another district of Algiers, Birmandreis, while
Pontecorvo was shooting in the casbah (Morin 1966: 121). Lakhdar
Hamina's loosely autobiographical film, about an Algerian family
destroyed by the war (Lakhdar's father is killed in a French air
raid, he is arrested by the colonial army for political activities
and his mother searches desperately for him), was, like
Pontecorvo's, submitted to the 1966 Venice Film Festival. Tullio
Kezich, who was on the jury, claimed it was offered to them by a
representative of the producers as an alternative to The Battle of
Algiers on the grounds that the latter was not really an Algerian
film but an Italian one. The festival's director, Luigi Chiarini,
went to see Le Vent des Aurès in Paris but decided to take
Pontecorvo's film in competition instead (Bignardi 1999: 136). At
Cannes the following spring Lakhdar Hamina's film won the prize for
best debut film (Prix de la Première OEuvre).

If The Battle of Algiers was not the first feature to have been made
in independent Algeria, it was, however, the first to make a big
international impact, as well as being successful in Algeria itself,
and it is likely that this reflected a deliberate calculation on
Saadi Yacef's part. Unlike the other Algerian film companies, which
were wholly state-funded, his Casbah Films had a mixture of state
and private funding and its strategy was to seek international co-
production deals, offering locations, extras, technical equipment
and assistant crew in return for foreign distribution and thus
greater visibility than would have been possible for a purely
Algerian-made film. Italy in the 1960s was the largest film-
producing country in Europe and its film industry was geared to co-
production and export. In 1966, according to Unesco figures, a total
of 245 films were produced or co-produced there, as against 160 in
Spain, 130 in France, 82 in the UK and 72 in West Germany (Unesco
1981: 32-5). In the same year, just fifteen films were made in
Algeria, of which nine were shorts (Hennebelle 1972: 141). Before
The Battle of Algiers, Casbah Films had co-produced with the
Italians a fifty-minute documentary about the war, Les Mains libres
(1964), directed by Ennio Lorenzini. After this they co-produced
with Dino De Laurentiis a western, Tre pistole contro Cesare/Death
Walks in Laredo, directed by Enzo Peri and Moussa Hadad (1966), and
Lo straniero/L'Etranger, the adaptation of Camus's novel directed by
Visconti (1967). The latter had the participation also of a French
production company, Marianne Film. All these films were shot in

For the Italians, co-production deals with a country such as Algeria
offered outdoor locations with reliable weather and cheaper labour
costs than at home. After a decade, starting in the late 1940s, of
relatively expensive co-productions, often with France and often
with some American money invested too, there had been a shift in
Italy from the end of the 1950s towards lower-cost co-productions of
genre films - first sword-and-sandal pictures, then westerns - which
were often shot outside Italy, most commonly in Spain. The majority
of these films were aimed not at a first-run public in northern
Europe and North America but at mass cinema markets on the
Mediterranean-Latin axis: southern Europe, the Middle East and Latin
America (Wagstaff 1996: 155). The Battle of Algiers was clearly
intended to be a different sort of product from these: a political
film for international festivals and art-house circuits. However, it
too was a relatively low-budget production for its time, costing
$800,000 overall, despite taking five months to shoot on location:
the long schedule was the result largely of Pontecorvo's choice to
work with untrained actors, which entailed long rehearsals. The only
experienced actors were Jean Martin, who played Colonel Mathieu, and
the Algerian actor Rouiched (pseudonym of Ahmed Ayad), who makes a
cameo appearance.7 Costs were kept down by avoiding stars, using a
small Italian crew alongside a larger team of Algerian assistants,
shooting in black and white at a time when European feature film
production was moving over to colour and, apparently, by keeping a
tight shooting ratio.8

As well as the commercial advantages of involving Italians, Yacef
also had cultural and political reasons: 'I chose an Italian
director after being rejected by the French film world. What
encouraged me to make this choice was the reputation of the Italians
for their neo-realism and above all the fact of Italy being a
Mediterranean country.'9 Yacef had always been a keen filmgoer. At
the age of 8 he was an extra in Pépé le Moko (Julien Duvivier,
1937), shot partly on location in the Algiers casbah. Later he saw
in commercial cinemas in Algeria Roma città aperta/Rome Open City
(Roberto Rossellini, 1945) and Ladri di biciclette/Bicycle Thieves
(Vittorio De Sica, 1948). Before leaving for Italy in 1964 he had
seen Riso amaro/Bitter Rice (Giuseppe De Santis, 1949). The
reputation for neo-realism which he mentions had been established
soon after the Second World War, when the diverse filmmakers grouped
under this label had been described by André Bazin as 'l'école
italienne de la libération' and praised for their truthful
depictions of anti-fascist struggle and post-war society. As for the
affinity with Italy as Mediterranean country, this may also have had
to do with the fact that Italy had lost all its colonies and
protectorates during the Second World War, it had ostensibly created
a new democratic state after a resistance movement against fascism
and German occupation, and there was growing interest there in the
early 1960s, particularly among the new left, in anti-colonial
movements in the so-called Third World.

All the directors whom Yacef approached were identified with the
left and would have been likely to be receptive to a film project on
the Algerian revolution. Visconti had been a fellow-traveller of the
Italian Communist Party (PCI) since 1942 and his feature La terra
trema (1948) had started life as a party-funded documentary about
workers' struggles in Sicily. Pontecorvo had been in the PCI from
1944 until 1956 when, like many other party members, he quit over
the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Franco Solinas had stayed in the
party and would remain a member till his death in 1982. Pontecorvo
and Solinas had already worked together on two features - La grande
strada azzurra/The Wide Blue Road (1957) and Kapo (the latter was
nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1961 Academy
Awards) - as well as a shorter film about a women workers'
occupation of a factory, Giovanna (1956), an episode of the
international compilation film Die Windrose coordinated by Joris
Ivens and Alberto Cavalcanti. After The Battle of Algiers they would
work on one more film together: Queimada/Burn! (1969). Francesco
Rosi had also been contacted by Saadi Yacef on his trip to Italy
and, like Visconti, had declined his offer. He had been an assistant
director on La terra trema and by 1965 he had established an
international reputation as a political filmmaker. Yacef had seen
Salvatore Giuliano (1961), on which Franco Solinas had been one of
the screenwriters.

Casbah Films sought to present the film in Algeria as a national
production and there were those there who saw it as Yacef's attempt
to promote, by involving an Italian director and getting foreign
distribution, h is own version of events over others.10 Guy
Hennebelle, discussing it in the context of other post-independence
Algerian films, wrote that 'Casbah Films kept close control over
the direction the film took' (1972: 123). However, the print
released in the UK did correctly acknowledge, after the first title
card presenting it as an Algerian production, that it was a joint
Algerian-Italian venture. Two subsequent cards, over the opening
sequence of the paras bursting into the casbah, stated: 'Production
CASBAH FILMS - Alger IGOR FILM - Rome' and 'Produit par Antonio
Musu et Yacef Saadi'. By contrast, neither the print originally
released in the USA nor the Italian version contained an adequate
acknowledgment of the Algerians' role in the production or of the
fact that the story had originated with Saadi Yacef. The Italian
version presented the Algerians as the minor partner - indeed Igor
Film managed to secure from the Italian government in 1967 a
declaration of the film's Italian nationality - while the American
print did not even mention Casbah Films or give a production credit
to Yacef. Rather, it read: 'Produced by Antonio Musu for Igor Film
S.r.l. - Rome'. This misleading credit reflected a series of
underhand moves by the US distributors and Igor Film whereby they
effectively appropriated the film for themselves and pocketed
earnings that should have accrued to Casbah Films. These operations
were eventually stopped when Casbah Films took legal action, as a
result of which it was granted, in 1998, world distribution rights
for the film in all territories apart from Italy, where Igor Film
retained the rights.

In Italy, the film was generally seen as an Italian film about
Algeria and, on these grounds, some critics, particularly those to
the left of the PCI, objected that its perspective was
too 'Western', that is to say too soft on the French (see, for
instance, Fofi (1967: 97-8), and the comments of some of the
students at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in discussion
with the director (in Pontecorvo 1967b)). And yet for all the space
it accorded to the paras and to the European casualties of FLN
attacks, there is no question that The Battle of Algiers, compared
with the shelved Parà project, centred its narrative decisively on
the struggle of the Algerian Arabs rather than on the French. The
two projects were also very different in scope and style. Parà was
to have had a fairly large budget, a European crew and an American
star; it would probably have been shot in colour, with some location
work in Algeria but also with studio filming in Rome.

A letter sent by Pontecorvo to Cristaldi when Parà was still in
development makes it clear that he saw that film as being also about
the people's liberation struggle and the emergence of the Algerian

The role of Paul is very difficult. It is made up entirely of
nuances and one might miss some of these on a first reading. Because
of these nuances it will take a great performance to give sufficient
stature to this character who must be able, on his own, to hold up
the counterpoint with the 'chorus' represented by the Arab people
and their dramatic stuggle to be born as a Nation.11

However, the fact that Parà sought to depict the people's struggle
in the margins of a story about the exodus of Europeans, a French
photographer and an OAS killerwas sufficient reason for Saadi Yacef
to turn down Pontecorvo's offer of it to him as co-producer. In his
2004 interview with Cineaste he stated:
I told Pontecorvo if he wanted to make his film, Para, that No. 1, I
would not help him in any way, and, No. 2, that the film would not
have any credibility. I told him he might as well star John Wayne in
it! It was at that point that we agreed to collaborate on a new
film. After a great many discussions, I succeeded in convincing him
to have Franco Solinas prepare a new screenplay based on the book I
had written in prison, which dealt with the main events that had
taken place in Algiers. (Crowdus 2004: 32)

Yacef has not kept the treatment he originally wrote with René
Vautier, but, on his own admission, as well as according to
Pontecorvo's statements in interviews, it was not really conceived
as a dramatic film. Yacef has recalled that it started with a lurid
scene, to which Pontecorvo objected, of an execution by guillotine
of an Algerian patriot with blood flowing.12 Pontecorvo told Yacef
he might as well throw this treatment in the bin.13 'The genius of
Pontecorvo and Solinas', said Yacef,

is that they were able to translate my book into cinematic language,
which is something that I didn't know how to do. They took the
events of the experience that I had lived and transformed them into
something that could be seen on the screen. (Crowdus 2004: 32-3)

However, there is evidently some truth in Yacef's claim that
Solinas's screenplay was based on his book. Many of the episodes in
the film have counterparts in it (some of which would have been
documented also in the other sources Solinas consulted): the
transformation of Ali la Pointe from petty criminal to a sort of
Robin Hood of the casbah; the FLN's killing of individual policemen
and seizure of their weapons; the grief and anger in the casbah
after the Rue de Thèbes massacre by ultras on 10 August 1956 and
Yacef's role in channelling it into support for a 'disciplined
counteroffensive' by the FLN against European civilian targets; the
use of chemists to make bombs and the attacks of 30 October on the
Milk Bar and Caféteria; the week-long general strike 'for the UN'
from 28 January to 4 February 1957; the tortures carried out
publicly by paras in the casbah; the residents' solidarity with the
FLN, including the hiding of Yacef and others down a well during a
search; the placing of a bomb in a basket by Ramel and Si Mourad
after being cornered by paras; the arrest of Saadi Yacef and Zohra

The film's title was also indebted to Yacef: he used it for his book
and it was the title of his original treatment. Pontecorvo said that
his own working title for the film had been You Will Deliver in Pain
(God's words to Eve in Genesis 3:16), alluding to the travails of
making an Algerian nation. Several details in the film also seem to
be directly adapted from Yacef, including the sequence of shots of
torture after Mathieu's second press conference, which adheres to
Yacef's descriptions respectively of rope torture, ducking in water
and electric shocks (1962: 47-9). Moreover, the screenplay and the
completed film largely reproduce Yacef's account of the FLN's role.
They make no allusion either to the presence of other parties in the
nationalist movement or to the acts of violence perpetrated by FLN
members against some of their political rivals or to the differences
that existed within the FLN leadership itself in Algiers. The main
omissions and elisions have been noted by historians. The film
depicts only one of the five members of the FLN national leadership
in Algiers, namely Larbi Ben M'Hidi. Notably absent is Abbane
Ramdane, who drafted most of the communiqués read out in voice-over
in the earlier part of the film; he had been purged by rivals in the
FLN and was assassinated in December 1957. Another significant
elision is the FLN's struggle against its political rivals in the
Mouvement Nationale Algérien (MNA), led by Messali Hadj, of which
the most notorious episode was the massacre with axes and picks, by
a group of FLN members led by Mohamedi Said, of 303 people in the
village of Melouza on 28 May 1957, while the Battle of Algiers was
going on. These elisions allow the film to suggest that the FLN was
solely responsible for the raising of popular consciousness in
Algiers and the eventual success of the revolution.

At the same time, it is clear that the screenplay did modify Yacef's
account in two important ways. First, it created an entirely new
dramatic structure in which the narrative of the Battle of Algiers
itself (January to September 1957) is enclosed within a flashback,
framed by the discovery by the paras of the hiding place of Ali la
Pointe and his comrades Mahmoud, Hassiba and Omar. Inside the
flashback there is some pre-history, from 1954 to 1956, centred on
Ali la Pointe's early illegal activities, his arrest, politicization
in prison, recruitment by Djafar (Saadi Yacef) and role in de-
westernizing the casbah. His story is used to show, with the
assistance of the FLN communiqués in voice-over and the superimposed
titles with dates, the FLN's building of a movement in Algiers.
After the closure of the flashback, and the murder by paras of Ali
and comrades, a coda is added, with commentary by an unidentified
voice, taking the story forward from 1957 to 1962. In other words,
Solinas created a new frame around Yacef's memoirs, partly using
material in them (Ali la Pointe's early life and imprisonment are
narrated in the fifth chapter) but also elaborating them and adding
fictional elements, such as the episode of the European youth
tripping up Ali in the street. In addition, the screenplay gave
dramatic representation to the paras and their police operation in
scenes that have no counterpart in Yacef's memoirs, most notably
those with Mathieu: his briefings of his men, his statements to
journalists at press conferences and on the steps of the prefecture,
his dialogue with the military chiefs and with the general after the
killing of Ali la Pointe and comrades. In reworking Yacef's account
Solinas also borrowed back a few elements from his screenplay of
Parà, notably the use of a flashback structure and four sequences
involving the paras: the raid on the casbah, the torture of an FLN
member, the march through Algiers to the applause of Europeans
lining the street and the ending with a crowd scene in which women
move back and forward as if in a dance (in Parà they are celebrating
independence, in The Battle of Algiers staging an anti-colonial

The second way in which the screenplay departed from Yacef's memoirs
was in its representation of the effects of FLN actions on the
European civilian population. This has been one of the most widely
discussed aspects of the film, and it is worth asking how far it had
the agreement of the Algerian producers. According to Pontecorvo the
only scene to which the latter objected, but which he insisted on
keeping in, was that of the child eating an ice cream in the
Caféteria before the explosion. In the screenplay this scene was
written in such a way as to focus even more on the child than in the
completed film. He goes up to the counter to ask for an ice cream
with his parents smiling proudly at his independence; he pays and
then, just after he is handed the ice cream, the explosion happens
(Solinas 1973: 78). Pontecorvo said:

The only thing the Algerians asked right up to the last moment, up
to the day before the screening at Venice, was 'Please, take out the
scene of the boy with the ice cream, because it makes us look like
monsters planting bombs even where there are children.'14

It was the inclusion of this sequence in particular, and the use of
the same music by Ennio Morricone as over the aftermath of the Rue
de Thèbes massacre, that led both to objections from left critics
that the film equated FLN violence with the institutionalized
violence of a colonial power and to the approval of liberals and
others who saw it as even-handedness. Goffredo Fofi, editor of the
left film journal Ombre Rosse, described The Battle of Algiers in
1971 as 'carefully calibrated to appeal both to Algerian bureaucrats
and to Charles de Gaulle' (1971: 78), while Michael Ignatieff, in an
article of 2004 about terrorists filming their own atrocities (his
contemporary references were to Chechnya and Iraq), remarked:
The greatest film ever made about terrorism - Gillo Pontecorvo's
Battle of Algiers (1965) - was actually shot at the instigation of a
terrorist Had it been up to Yacef, the result would have been pure
propaganda. Pontecorvo held out for a deeper vision, and the result
is a masterpiece, at once a justification for acts of terror and an
unsparing account of terror's cost, including to the cause it
serves. (Ignatieff 2004: 50)

Ignatieff's account, like others which take a similar line, misses
the point that Yacef probably did not want to produce a film
of 'pure propaganda'. It is true that his initial treatment was
described by Pontecorvo, in his subsequent recollections, as
a 'hagiographic' celebration of the FLN. But given that Casbah Films
was seeking, by involving the Italians, to gain legitimation outside
Algeria for a broadly FLN account of the events of 1957, it seems
likely that Yacef consented, as producer, to the film that they made
under contract to him. He himself has stated that he told Pontecorvo
he wanted it to represent the enemy as intelligent and to show 'the
violence on both sides' (Crowdus 2004: 33). There is no record of
his having objected to the film's showing civilian casualties of the
FLN bombs as such; only to the shot of the child. He now claims that
the objections he expressed about the latter were actually made on
behalf of 'ultra-patriotic' Algerians and that he eventually agreed
to dismiss them.15 There may, of course, be an element of
retrospective adjustment in these statements. However, according to
Germaine Tillion's 1960 account, 'Témoignage pour un condamné a
mort', of her meeting in 1957 with Yacef and Ali la Pointe in the
casbah, Yacef already expressed doubts and regret at the time about
the civilian casualties, and this suggests that his relationship to
the use of terror was more complex than in the neutralized account
he gave in his 1962 memoirs, in which there is no mention of moral
qualms. Tillion, who wrote her account shortly after the arrest of
Yacef and Zohra Drif on 24 September 1957 as a deposition in the
former's defence, described him 'with tears in his eyes' during
their meeting as he recalled seeing the victims of the casino bomb
which he had planted; she mentioned, with reference to the Melouza
massacre, that according to one of Yacef's collaborators he had
personally issued orders against throat-cuttings and mutilations,
and she reported his promise to her after their discussion to
suspend all attacks on civilians (Tillion 1960: 47, 45, 49). Donald
Reid (2005) has noted that Yacef did not mention in his Souvenirs of
1962 either his meetings with Tillion or her role in saving him from
execution, but that he did acknowledge them in his later published
memoirs (for instance, Yacef 2002: 405-24). Yacef also mentions his
meeting with Tillion in his 2004 interview in Cineaste and says
she 'gave faithful accounts of our exchanges in the press and in her
book' (Crowdus 2004: 34). It seems likely, then, that Yacef is in
good faith in claiming that the film's representation of the victims
of the bomb attacks was, like its depiction of French military
intelligence, desired by him and not forced on him by Pontecorvo and

If Pontecorvo and Solinas did not make the film in Algeria that they
had originally planned but an almost entirely different film,
elements of Parà nevertheless found their way into the next feature
on which they worked together, Queimada. Sir William Walker (Marlon
Brando) is, like Paul Robin, a sexually charismatic man who charms
and manipulates others to his own ends and whose ruthlessness and
taste for violence become more visible as the film progresses. Like
Paul, the character of Walker does not work simply as a negative
foil to the 'chorus' of indigenous people towards whom the
audience's political sympathies tend. Rather, his cynicism and
emotional detachment enable him to have a perceptive understanding
of the wider course of events. Just as Paul tells the settler Jean
that the OAS is doomed to lose and that they should leave Algeria to
the Algerians ('They've been fighting for over seven years and they
know what they want'), so Walker knows that the slave economy in the
sugar plantations of the Antilles is destined to be replaced by a
capitalist mode of production and the ultimately more efficient
servitude of the wage contract. Even the endings of the two stories
are similar. Walker meets his nemesis on the dock as he is about to
leave the island of Queimada. The script of Parà leaves open the
possibility of a similar fate for Paul, as, caught up in the crowd
of jubilant Algerians on his way to the airport, he comes face to
face with the man he had tortured five years earlier.

As for the respective contributions of Solinas and Pontecorvo to The
Battle of Algiers, these cannot be entirely prised apart, given that
the two worked together on the original story. Pontecorvo probably
invented the scene with the boy Omar stealing the microphone from
under the noses of the paras during the general strike and making a
speech which rouses the people, since he recalled a similar event in
which he took part in the Resistance in Milan when he and other anti-
fascists stole a van with a loudspeaker, parked it near German
headquarters and played an insurrectionary speech they had cut on a
gramophone record.16 Beyond such details, however, it is possible to
identify in broad terms what each of them brought to the project.
Solinas provided, through his screenplay, the dramatic construction
and the dialogue, including the rhetorically powerful speeches of
the captured Larbi Ben M'Hidi and of Mathieu at the press
conference. He also provided a good deal of what one might call the
political intelligence of the film, in other words its lucid and
careful representation, in successive scenes, of the building of a
resistance movement. Pontecorvo gave the film its overall artistic
shape and texture, partly as a result of fundamental decisions that
would decisively affect its appearance and style. Three of these
decisions in particular are worth emphasizing.

The first was the casting of 'non-actors'. Pontecorvo spoke on
various occasions about the importance of having the right face in a
film, as opposed to the performance skills of a trained actor. The
latter is infinitely easier to direct but he or she may simply look
wrong for the part. Pontecorvo had directed non-actors since the
start of his career as a documentary filmmaker, as well as in
Giovanna, but it was not until The Battle of Algiers that he took
the risk of casting poor people with no formal education entirely
for their physical appearance. On his own admission, this required
often painstaking work with the untrained performers, but the
results were remarkable. The experiment he began with Brahim Hadjadj
would be repeated in Queimada with the Colombian peasant Evaristo
Márquez whom he cast as the rebel leader José Dolores. The second
decision was to give the film a photographic look resembling that of
a newsreel (the techniques, developed by director of photography
Marcello Gatti, are described in Pontecorvo (1967a: 266-9; 1967b:
115) and Bignardi (1999: 131-2)) and to combine this with a non-
classical editing style. During post-production Pontecorvo replaced
the veteran editor Mario Serandrei with Mario Morra, originally his
assistant editor, because Serandrei was too tied to classical
conventions such as reverse-angle cutting.17 The third was the
choice to integrate with this look a carefully contrived musical
score with its many variations on a simple ostinato ('Ali's theme',
originally composed by Pontecorvo) and its eclectic mixture of
styles, from the action music of the opening credits, based on a
theme by the seventeenth-century Neapolitan composer Girolamo
Frescobaldi, to Algerian ethnic music to Bach's St Matthew Passion
(used in the opening sequence of the tortured man) and music in the
style of Bach (used contrastively over images of the other victims
of torture and the bomb blasts). The score itself was very largely
the work of Morricone but the way it interacted with the images was
decisively shaped by Pontecorvo, and his sharing of a composer's
credit with Morricone was intended to reflect this.

In the interview with Pontecorvo published with the English
translation of the screenplay he said, when asked to describe
his 'perfect director', that he would be 'three quarters Rossellini
and one quarter Eisenstein' (Solinas 1973: 173). What if one were to
take this remark literally and apply it to The Battle of Algiers?
The 'one quarter Eisenstein' would be the way its narrative is
concentrated, like that of both Strike (1925) and The Battleship
Potemkin (1925), on an episode of rebellion which is defeated but
which will lead to a later successful revolution not depicted in the
film itself. It is also, more particularly, the way it echoes, in
the raid by the paras on the casbah during the o pening credits
sequence, the sequence in Strike when troops break into the
strikers' homes on horseback and one of them deliberately throws a
young child over the balcony. The 'three quarters Rossellini' is
made up of the elements I have listed - use of non-actors,
deliberate visual roughness, counterpointing of sweet music with
violent images, all of which are present in Paisà (1946) - and
something else: the depiction on film of a divided city.

The film that Pontecorvo made in Algiers in 1965 was, in a loose
sense, a remake of Roma città aperta twenty years later. It too was
about underground urban resistance. It too reconstructed recent
actual events, even if these were not quite as close to the film as
in Rossellini's case (Roma città aperta was made in the first half
of 1945, just one year after the factual events reconstructed in
it), using authentic locations and local people as extras. It too
mixed invention with reconstruction and it created a character -
Mathieu - who, like Rossellini's Manfredi, was a composite of
several different historical individuals (Solinas 1973: 194). It too
showed both the methods of the dominators (police intelligence and
surveillance, patrols, curfews, raids, and so forth) and those of
the dominated (local knowledge of hiding places and escape routes,
disguises, surprise attacks, mobilization of popular support). There
are even some shots that directly echo Rossellini's film: the views
down through a building from an upper storey during the round-up;
the man shown, like Manfredi, in a 'crucified' pose (hands
outstretched and tied) being tortured with a blowlamp.

Despite these resemblances one should push the analogy only so far.
Pontecorvo's film absorbs the lesson of Rossellini's not because it
depicts the occupied city in the same way but because it finds its
own ways of depicting a different city under a different occupation.
Algiers was not Rome and Pontecorvo is careful to show its
distinctive spatial layout. He does this, memorably, by the
instructional establishing shot after the freeze frame on the face
of the trapped Ali la Pointe which begins the film's historical
flashback. The face goes out of focus and dissolves onto a long shot
of the lower part of the city, accompanied by Morricone's music. The
title 'Algiers 1954' appears and dissolves, followed by the
title 'The European City', which in turn dissolves as the camera
pans rightward and zooms onto the upper part of the hill, over which
the title 'The Casbah' appears and dissolves.18 From this point on
we are shown particular features of both the European city and the
casbah that are functional to the battle. The former's wide streets
and cafés are vulnerable to surprise attacks, public shootings of
policemen, bombs planted by Arab women dressed in European clothes,
a hijacked ambulance first used to machine-gun pedestrians then
driven into a group standing at a bus shelter. The casbah, by
contrast, with its narrow streets and steps, is impenetrable to
motor vehicles, although its rooftops may be searched by helicopter;
it is a place where individuals may escape and hide (through
doorways, down an indoor well, behind the false interior walls built
by Ali la Pointe), but it is at the same time easy to cordon off,
attack and trap people in. The hiding place of Ali la Pointe and his
comrades becomes their tomb.

The Battle of Algiers was the product of a fortuitous and fortunate
encounter between an FLN activist turned film producer looking for a
director and two Italians who were seeking a producer for an anti-
colonial story. Each brought different resources, knowledges and
skills to the project. The hospitality and trust which Saadi Yacef
and the many other Algerians involved in the production accorded to
Pontecorvo and Solinas was essential in allowing these two Italians
entry to their society - not just introducing them to the casbah but
enabling them to film inside Qu'ranic schools, to involve Muslim
women as actors, and to reconstruct events such as the blowing up of
the house containing Ali la Pointe and his comrades in their actual
historical locations. At the same time, it was the outsider status
of the director and screenwriter, their experience of filmmaking and
their cultural memory of other films, including Rossellini's, as
well as their respective talents, that enabled them to create what
Yacef was looking for: a dramatic representation of a divided city
and the collective struggle of the Algerian people in the last years
of colonial domination.

1. Bignardi, Irene ((1999)) Memorie estorte a uno smemorato: Vita di
Gillo Pontecorvo Feltrinelli , Milan
2. Caviglia, Francesco ((2005)) A child eating ice-cream before the
explosion: notes on a controversial scene in The Battle of Algiers.
P.O.V.: A Danish Journal of Film Studies 20 , pp. 4-19. - (readable
online or downloadable as a pdf file at
3. Crowdus, Gary ((2004)) Terrorism and torture in The Battle of
Algiers: an interview with Saadi Yacef. Cineaste 29:3 , pp. 30-37.
4. Fofi, Goffredo ((1967)) Film da vedere e da non vedere. Quaderni
Piacentini 6:29 , pp. 92-99.
5. Fofi, Goffredo ((1971)) Il cinema italiano. Servi e padroni
Feltrinelli , Milan
6. (Fofi, Goffredo and Faldini, Franca eds.) ((1981)) L'avventurosa
storia del cinema italiano raccontata dai suoi protagonisti, 1960-
1969 Feltrinelli , Milan
7. Gervais, G. (1966) Bataille d'Alger: escarmouche de Venise. Jeune
Cinéma 17 , pp. 9-11.
8. Ghirelli, Massimo ((1978)) Gillo Pontecorvo La Nuova Italia ,
9. Hennebelle, Guy ((1972)) Les Cinémas africains en 1972 Société
Africaine de l'Édition , Dakar
10. Ignatieff, Michael ((2004)) New York Times - 15 November
11. Massu, Jacques ((1971)) La Vraie Bataille d'Alger Plon , Paris
12. Mellen, J.oan ((1972)) An interview with Gillo Pontecorvo. Film
Quarterly 26:1 , pp. 2-10.
13. Morin, Pierre ((1966)) Le cinéma algérien et "La Bataille
d'Alger". Positif pp. 121-125. - 79 (October)
14. Olla, Gianni ((1997)) Franco Solinas. Uno scrittore al cinema
CUEC , Cagliari
15. Pontecorvo, Gillo ((1967a)) The Battle of Algiers: an adventure
in filming. American Cinematographer pp. 266-269. - (April)
16. Pontecorvo, Gillo ((1967b)) Il mio film sull'Algeria: colloquio
con Gillo Pontecorvo. Bianco e Nero 28:7-8 , pp. 118-119.
17. Reid, Donald ((2005)) Re-viewing The Battle of Algiers with
Germaine Tillion. History Workshop Journal 60 , pp. 93-115. [
crossref ]
18. (Solinas, PierNico ed.) ((1973)) Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle
of Algiers: A Film Written by Franco Solinas Scribner , New York
19. Tillion, Germaine ((1960)) Les Ennemis complémentaires Minuit ,
20. Unesco ((1981)) Statistics on Film and Cinema 1955-1977 - Paris
21. Wagstaff, Christopher (Brunetta, Gian Piero ed.) ((1996))
Identità italiana e identità europea nel cinema italiano dal 1945 al
miracolo economico pp. 141-171. Fondazione Giovanni Agnelli , Turin -
22. Yacef, Saadi ((1962)) Souvenirs de la Bataille d'Alger: Décembre
1956 - Septembre 1957 Julliard , Paris
23. Yacef, Saadi ((2002)) Publisud Publisud , Paris - (one-volume
edition of text originally published in two volumes by Editions du
Témoignage Chrétien, 1982)
1My account here draws on the interviews with Pontecorvo in Gervais
(1966), Pontecorvo (1967b), Mellen (1972), Solinas (1973: 163-5) and
Ghirelli (1978: 14-17), as well as the more recent ones included on
the Argent Films DVD of The Battle of Algiers (UK, 2003) and the 2-
disc Surf Video DVD (Italy, 2004); it draws also on the account by
Bignardi based on interviews with Pontecorvo (1999: 118-23, 134), on
the interviews with Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas in Solinas (1973)
and in Fofi and Faldini (1981: 400-2), the interviews with
Pontecorvo, Saadi Yacef, Ennio Morricone and Tullio Kezich on Disc 2
of the Criterion Collection DVD (USA, 2004), the interview with
Saadi Yacef in Crowdus (2004) and my own telephone interview with
him on 3 May 2006. I should like to thank Kevin Durst and Zaphira
Yacef for their help in arranging the latter. Kevin Durst also
provided me with copies of documents including the original
contracts between Casbah Films and Pontecorvo and Solinas, and
materials relating to Casbah's later legal case against Igor Film. I
should also like to thank Paolo Musu for kindly allowing me to
photocopy an unpublished early version of the Italian script of The
Battle of Algiers in his family's possession.

2See Interview below.

3Yacef 1962 (the date of printing is 31 August). Twenty years later
a more detailed memoir appeared (see Yacef 2002 [1982]).

4Three different versions of the script of Parà are conserved in the
Archivio Franco Solinas, in the offices of the Premio Solinas in
Rome, in the file 'Parà: sceneggiatura e materiale vario' (cited
hereinafter as AFS, Parà file): an early version in Italian, dated
on the front cover 31 October 1962; the English-language version, a
translation of the first, dated 8 November 1962, and a later Italian
version, undated, set out in two columns with scene descriptions on
the left and dialogue on the right. I should like to thank Francesca
Solinas and Francesca Mancini for their assistance with this
archival material. For an overview of Solinas's writing career which
draws on this archive see Olla (1997).

5The dates of shooting are in 'Relazione sulle riprese del film "La
Battaglia di Algeri"', in a letter dated Rome, 21/2/67, from Igor
Film s.r.l. to Ministero Turismo e Spettacolo, Direzione Generale
dello Spettacolo. This document, with others in the possession of
the Musu family, is reproduced on Disc 2 of the Surf Video DVD in a
computer-readable folder labelled 'Documenti Film'.

6The film's credits transliterate his name into Italian as Haggiag.

7Along with many eminent figures, Jean Martin had signed
the 'Manifesto of the 121', published in 1960, which expressed
support for the Algerian cause and advocated conscientious
objection. Martin was among those whose careers had suffered as a
result of his having signed.

8Pontecorvo has stated that the Italian crew consisted of just nine
people, but a surviving production document suggests an Italian crew
of fifteen on the set, excluding the producer, production supervisor
and set photographer (see 'Relazione sulle riprese del film "La
Battaglia di Algeri"', note 5 above). As for the shooting ratio,
according to Bignardi, Pontecorvo returned to Rome in December 1965
with 91,000 metres of unedited film (approximately 300,000 feet
(1999: 134)). This corresponded to a running time of about 330
minutes (90 feet per minute at 24 fps). If this is correct, the
film, which was subsequently edited to just under two hours, had a
shooting ratio of 3:1. A normal ratio for a commercial feature film
at the time was around 6:1.

9Telephone interview, 3 May 2006.

10See the quotation from Lacheraf in Harrison's article below (p.

11A copy of the letter is in AFS, Parà file. It is undated, but it
accompanies a treatment of the film that must have preceded the
first draft of the complete script, and was thus presumably written
in the spring or summer of 1962.

12Telephone interview, 3 May 2006.

13Interview on Criterion DVD, Disc 2, in the film Marxist Poetry:
The Making of The Battle of Algiers.

14The remark is in the commentary by Pontecorvo and Giuliano
Montaldo (assistant director on the film) on the Surf Video DVD.
Pontecorvo goes on to say that the Algerians objected to the shots
of the boy from the moment they read his and Solinas's original
treatment of around seventy pages. On this scene, see also Caviglia

15Telephone interview, 3 May 2006; for a slightly different version,
see the Interview below.

16He recounts this story in Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth
(director Oliver Curtis, presenter Edward Said, Rear Window for
Channel Four, series producer Tariq Ali, 1992), reproduced on Disc 2
of the Criterion Collection DVD.

17Interview with Pontecorvo on the Argent Films DVD.

18This shot is virtually repeated towards the end of the film, but
as a night-time shot, concentrating on the casbah, and accompanied
by sounds of ululation and a voice-over about the 'incomprehensible
chants' emerging from the Muslim districts

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