Saadi Yacef was born in Algiers, the capital city of Algeria, in 1928. He learned the trade of baker, but didn’t learn to read or write. Yacef became involved in nationalist politics from 1945 on. From 1947 to 1949 he was a member of a secret nationalist para-military organization. The French stomped on this organization. Escaping the round-up, Yacef went to France for three years. While working as a baker, he thought a lot about what he had learned about conspiracy. He returned to Algiers in 1952. When the Algerian war for independence broke out in 1954, Yacef joined up. From May 1956 to September 1957 he commanded the Algerian nationalist forces inside the city of Algiers. The French captured him in September 1957, then kept him in prison until the end of the war in 1962. In prison he purportedly wrote a memoir of the Battle of Algiers. That memoir became the basis for the screen-play of the movie “The Battle of Algiers.”
Enter Gillo Pontecorvo, who was born in Pisa, Italy, in 1919. Well-off, Jewish, and trained in science, Pontecorvo fled Mussolini’s Italy for France in 1938. While scratching out a living as a journalist, he met a lot of interesting people in Paris and got started in the movie business. After the Second World War broke out, Pontecorvo returned to Italy to join the Communist Party and the Resistance movement. He led the Communist Party’s resistance organization in Milan from 1943 to 1945, so he knew a good deal about living on the run and blowing up things. After the war, Pontecorvo taught himself to make movies. He remained a Communist until 1956, and never stopped being a “man on the Left.” His movies had a strong anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist strain in them. So he was a natural for the Algerians who were seeking a director to tell the story of their war against the French.
Pontecorvo had his own style. He shot the movie in black-and-white. He shot it on location, with the eager assistance of the post-colonial Algerian government. The combined effect is to make it look like a documentary. He liked using amateurs, whose faces looked right for the scene, rather than professional actors. (His one exception in this movie was Jean Martin, a former member of the French Resistance and a paratrooper in the Indo-China War, who plays the commander of the French paratroopers.) You can see he had watched a lot of Eisenstein.
Colonel Mathieu, the para commander is a composite of several real French officers (Jacques Massu, Marcel Bigeard, Yves Godard). Many of the other leading characters are based on real people: Andre Achiary (the mustached police officer), Ali “la Pointe” Ammar, “le petit Omar,” Hassiba Ben Bouali, Djamila Bouhired (who later married Klaus Barbie’s defense attorney), and Zohra Drif (actually Yacef’s girlfriend at the time). Some of them are still living.
The movie came out in 1966. The French government banned it for five years; Fidel Castro’s Cuba awarded it a big prize. So that’s a wash. The movie deserves to be evaluated in its own right as a work of art. More to our purposes is the reception it has received from professionals in the insurgency line of work. Andreas Baader, one leader of a 1970s German terrorist group, claimed it was his favorite movie. Israeli audiences flocked to see the movie in 1988 when it was shown at the same time as the Palestinian “First Intifada” broke out. In Summer 2003, shortly after completion of the major military operations phase of the Iraq War, the US DoD’s Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict sponsored several showings of the movie in the Pentagon. So, a lot of people at the sharp end of the business thought that it had some lessons to teach. What are they?