The Battle of Algiers (1965)
An Italian movie with a French and Arabic soundtrack; subtitled in English
Brahim Hadjadj as Ali La Pointe
Jean Martin as Colonel Mathieu
Yacef Saadi as Djafar
Mohamed Ben Kassen as Little Omar
Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo
Music Composed by Ennio Morricone
In 1962, after years of warfare and 130 years of French occupation, Algeria became independent. The National Liberation Front (FLN) was chiefly responsible for making this possible. Gillo Pontecorvo’s searing film, The Battle of Algiers, examines part of this struggle.
Set mostly in 1956 and 1957 and shot on location, The Battle of Algiers depicts urban warfare and terrorism without glorifying or demonizing the French or Algerian sides. Pontecorvo means for us to sympathize more with the Algerians, for he was an ardent anti-imperialist. Yet he is sufficiently even-handed to depict partisans of both sides as people who bomb civilian targets, murder and execute people, and think of themselves as warriors for a national cause.
A brief history lesson is appropriate. Algeria contained three departements incorporated into the French Republic. Thus Algeria was more than a colony but less than equal, too. The French settlers had more land, wealth, education, and opportunity than the native population. The situation could not remain as it was forever, for resentments built up over time, exploding after World War II.
Below: A dead French police officer in the movie
French bombings of Algerian civilians prompted Algerian bombings of French civilians, and the cycle of violence escalated. The movie depicts Algerian bombings of French civilian targets. Three women, each carrying a bomb in a basket, planted the bombs then left the targets. As the camera focuses on the faces of patrons of a milk bar, for example, the viewer knows they will die soon.
Below: Three women bombers
Afterward the French government sends in the paratroopers, led by Colonel Mathieu. This character, played by the only professional actor in the film, is a composite of several officers, including General Massu, notorious in history for authorizing torture as an interrogation technique. Mathieu does not think of himself as a monster, although he authorizes torture. Rather, he thinks of himself as a soldier fighting for his nation. In the movie he says:
We aren’t madmen or sadists, gentlemen. Those who call us Fascists today, forget the contribution that many of us made to the Resistance. Those who call us Nazis, don’t know that among us there are survivors of Dachau and Buchenwald. We are soldiers and our only duty is to win.
Below: Colonel Mathieu
The captured FLN leader, Ben M’Hidi, speaking to the press corps on the presence of Colonel Mathieu, takes a reporter’s question:
Journalist: M. Ben M’Hidi, don’t you think it’s a bit cowardly to use women’s baskets and handbags to carry explosive devices that kill so many innocent people?
Ben M’Hidi: And doesn’t it seem to you even more cowardly to drop napalm bombs on defenseless villages, so that there are a thousand times more innocent victims? Of course, if we had your airplanes it would be a lot easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets.
French officers murdered Ben M’Hidi in his cell. The French government acknowledged this fact years after the event.
Think about this quote from Colonel Mathieu, addressing journalists:
Should we remain in Algeria? If you answer “yes,” then you must accept all the necessary consequences.
The main Algerian character is Ali La Pointe (a real historical figure), a street thug who found meaning in the FLN. He emerges as a compelling figure capable of fighting for Algerian independence, murdering enemies of the FLN on the streets, and sacrificing himself for a cause in which he believes. His main contact in the FLN is Djafar, a fictionalized version of Yacef Saadi, played by Yacef Saadi. And La Pointe’s protege is Little Omar, who participates in the cause, too.
Below: Ali La Pointe
Below: Yacef Saadi Playing Himself
In history and the movie the French won the Battle of Algiers insofar as they defeated the Algiers FLN. Yet they lost the war and Algeria. They could not defeat people who made flags out of bed sheets and filled the streets.
In late 2003, months after President George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” photo event, the Pentagon screened The Battle of Algiers. A flier contained the following copy:
How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.
Now showings of this film need not be rare, thanks to Criterion Collection’s three-disc set, with two DVDs of special features, including an interview with Richard Clarke, late of the National Security Council.
The Battle of Algiers remains timely and sobering, especially the context of current and recent events. In fact, a few semesters ago, one of my students told me that his ROTC unit had watched this film. To learn what the Department of Defense might perceive valuable about The Battle of Algiers, watch for yourself.
Kenneth Randolph Taylor