Updated: June 13, 2011



These Study Guides on War Films were originally prepared for a course entitled "Responses to War: An Intellectuall and Cultural History" given in the Department of History at The University of Adelaide between 1989 and 1999.

The Director


(This handout was prepared originally by Katharine Thornton).

Gillo Pontecorvo (1919-) Jewish Italian film-maker. Studied chemistry at university where he met anti-fascist intellectuals. Moved to France to become journalist because newly introduced anti-semitic laws in Italy limited his opportunities. Found photojournalism more interesting than straight print - the beginning of his interest in visual media? Returned to Italy and joined Italian communist party in 1941, member of Italian Resistance. Fought as guerrilla in northern Italy, resistance leader in Milan. After WW2 continued work for Communist party but increasingly uneasy at Soviet Union's policies. Left party in 1956 after Soviet invasion of Hungary. Maintains left-wing politics and this commitment inspires his work as a film-maker. Self deprecating description: 'I am not an out-and-out revolutionary. I am merely a man of the Left, like a lot of Italian Jews. I come from Pisa and I lean that way naturally.'

1946, GP saw Rossellini's neo-realist film Paisa and inspired to become film-maker of neo-realist school. Although less stylistically strict as his craft developed, these influences still apparent in his later work. First feature film success with Kapo (1959), set in Nazi death camp. Most successful film: La Battaglia di Algerie (1965). Other war film: Burn (1969).

Note that Pontecorvo was the director of this year's Venice film festival & that his early feature, The Wide Blue Road about a poor fisherman & family was shown on SBS recently.


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The Film

Meaning of the Title

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Literary Source

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The Cast

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About the Film

Opening with the end of the story, 1957 capture of FLN leader by French soldiers, film then covers period from 1954-58 when FLN mobilising in Casbah of Algiers (the Moslem/Arab section of the capital city of Algeria) for Battle of Algiers: terrorist attacks on French. The attack on French policemen causes an inevitable retaliation which sparks a cycle of violence. FLN bombs are planted, more Arabs are taken into custody and tortured. The Arabs call an 8-day strike, French troops take opportunity to strike. All the time, the French are tracking down the FLN cell groups, trying to get to the heart of the structure and its leadership. Ultimately, they succeed, the French destroy the FLN in Algiers and 'win' the battle. Film ends with revival of revolutionary spirit in the Casbah in 1962, independence is just around the corner...

Film sponsored by Yacef Saadi, FLN leader of Algiers units during war, but Pontecorvo insisted on creative autonomy and independence. Pontecorvo and his script writer Franco Solinas spent 6 months doing research for the film; using newsreels and police archives and eyewitness interviews. Interviewed veterans from both sides and then worked on script for 6 months. Shot on location in Algiers.

Historical Background

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Things to Note

1. Pontecorvo said the challenge of the film was 'coming as close as possible to the truth'. To what extent has he succeeded? Pontecorvo uses a documentary style of film-making, black and white film and hand-held camera, to enhance the realism of the story. The film ties its story closely to historical facts by showing dates, times and places on the screen.

2. Great music! Like Burn! Ennio Morricone wrote the score for the film and uses lots of percussion to tighten audience's nerves and expectations.

3. The scene where the female members of the FLN transform themselves from Arab to French women to sneak past the French soldiers - everyone/anyone can be a soldier in a guerrilla/terrorist war.

4. The press conference scene: the French commander Colonel Mathieu (representing the real life General of the paratroopers, Jacques Massu) and the FLN leader have an understanding that the liberal members of the Western press corps are excluded from. The se two soldiers know that this kind of war is about going to the furthest edge, the bleeding hearts don't appreciate such realpolitik. Note Mathieu's comment: 'If you want Algeria to remain French you must accept the consequences.'

5. The occasional freeze frame on a character when the film stops to reinforce something for the audience. Same technique used in Burn!. Draws audience attention.

6. Political argument about FLN substituting for French colonialism (and traditional Islam?) in the FLN wedding scene.

7. Only professional actor in major role in film is Jean Martin who plays Col. Mathieu. Martin had career as stage actor until he lost his job for signing a manifesto against the Algerian war. Pontecorvo's use of non-professionals could be part of the film's authenticity.

8. Alleged that Black Panthers (militant black rights movement in US) used film as training manual for urban guerrilla tactics and to 'psych up' their members about killing policemen.