The Battle of Algiers

War at Ground Level

Film essay by: Witney Seibold



            If a resistance is unsuccessful, it’s called an insurgency. If an insurgency is successful, it’s called a resistance.


            A bit of history:


            The French invaded the nation of Algeria in 1830. Despite a general dissatisfaction and frequent protests by the local native Arab population, France maintained an iron colonial grip on Algeria for over 100 years. In November of 1954, a grand insurgency arose. Local maquis fighters and terrorist cells began appearing in unprecedented numbers. They called themselves the FLN. They bombed civilian buildings, shot French policemen, and even started to occasionally riot. The French military were called into larger urban areas, including the capital city of Algiers. The FLN had moved to Algiers by 1955. By 1957, martial law had been declared, and violence had escalated. A full blown guerilla war was in effect.


            The French colonialists were able to subdue the uprising by hunting down and killing every last member of the FLN in early 1959. In 1961, however, after two years of peace, the Algerian people took to the streets in non-violent protest, and won their freedom from France. Algeria has been ruling itself ever since.


            (Of course The Algerian War was far more complicated than this – I couldn’t tell you a thing about The Evian Accords – but these are just a few bare facts to guide you through this essay)


            Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film “The Battle of Algiers” is possibly one of the most important war films in cinema history. It’s also, oddly, one of the more obscure. It was a hit in the U.S. in 1967, playing for weeks at some theaters. It was shown regularly at Pentagon briefings. Many teenage fans of the film grew up to be famous directors (Steven Soderbergh and Spike Lee are amongst its enthusiastic proponents). 1967 saw a huge uprising in anti-war sentiment, and the film’s horrifying portrayal of realistic violence struck a nerve.


            By the time the Vietnam War ended, production of anti-war films dropped off a bit. When “Apocalypse Now” hit theaters in 1979, it almost seemed as if the final word on the subject had finally been given. By the 1980s, war films were practically non-existent (Of course, there are exceptions like “Platoon,” but many of the more popular films of the 1980s were Spielbergian fantasy and adventure films). Part of the collateral damage was the reputation of “The Battle of Algiers.”


            “The Battle of Algiers” is now available on a high quality home video release from The Criterion Collection. I implore you to watch this film.


            If you’ve seen a large number of war films as I have, you will also notice that most of them focus on a single heroic soldier or small group of heroic soldiers as they surpass insurmountable odds to complete their mission. In the inspiring WWII films, the soldiers were often lionized as grand martyrs to the alter of American Patriotism. If the filmmakers wanted to be a bit more poignant, the soldiers would die ironically and needlessly. In the Vietnam films (and even some 1960s WWII films like Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory”), the soldiers faceless sufferers wallowing in the pit of human cruelty and confusion. Whatever the approach, though, we had to deal with heroes and anti-heroes.


            “The Battle of Algiers,” while clearly siding with the Arab resistance, is not about heroes or heroics. “The Battle of Algiers,” while focusing on a strong personality on both sides of the fight, is not about strong personalities. “The Battle of Algiers” is about tactics, tension, and the reality of modern-day urban warfare. It is about the extremes that armies – organized either through the government or through secretive guerilla channels – are willing to go to in order to defeat the enemy. And it is about the real-life exhilarating panic of living right next door to a war that could claim you at any moment.


            Modern warfare has changed. Ask anyone who fought in Vietnam, or any of the soldiers lucky enough to return from Iraq, and they will describe how the armies did not stand to fight on large battlefields, but would attack in single numbers, often in disguise, and them melt back into the jungle or city landscape. The clarity of the fight has been eradicated. Many battles are now fought guerilla style, calculated, secretly. Read any of Shakespeare’s histories, then watch “The Battle of Algiers,” and you can seen the hugely differing versions of warfare. Gone are the lessons of Sun Tzu. Now we have desperate and resourceful civilians fighting, white-fisted, against the government-sponsored enemy experts, used to the organization of the battlefield.


            “The Battle of Algiers” is a virtuosic documentary-like drama diagramming this new style of warfare. It is brutal, immediate, tense. The shots of rioters filling the streets, the bombs going off in public places, the tanks rolling down the main thoroughfares, the chases through the maze-like Casbah (the Arab portion of Algiers), they all seem so real. Pontecorvo, indeed, had to issue a disclaimer at the beginning of his film stating that none of what you see in the film was stock footage; it was all shot for the express purpose of “The Battle of Algiers.”


            That means when you see a bomb going off at a horserace, and bits of plaster seem to be falling on people’s heads, they actually had to set off a real-life bomb in very close proximity to real-life people. The panic and fear and movement are all real. Indeed, the extras in the scene were likely in some real danger of being injured. When we see people stumbling out of a bombed-out diner, they actually had to stand next to an explosion. The hurt and fear on their faces were only half acting. These are not effects that can be achieved through modern-day digital rendering. I feel the reality of “the Battle of Algiers” is far more impressive than any digital special effects sequence, no matter how masterfully it is executed. When you get actual locals (and indeed many of the actors were non-professional locals) to actually recreate a recent war on the actual location it took place, then you are going to achieve a level of realism – and hence tension and panic and immersion – not seen elsewhere in cinema.


            The two sides:


            On one side, we meet Ali La Pointe (unknown local actor Brahim Haggiag), a street kid who volunteers to become a member of FLN, and eventually, through increasingly complicated matters, rises to be a higher-up in the FLM hierarchy. He is fated to be the last FLN leader standing. The organization is constructed as such that no one member knows any more than two others. The French army describes them as being like a tapeworm. Nothing can be done, unless you kill the head.


            He is not convinced by others that becoming a terrorist is a good idea. He takes it upon himself. He wants the French out of his country, and is willing to go to serious lengths. Ali is given little to no backstory, and is defined only by his political relations. We meet women and children, and even one of Ali’s most immediate superiors (Fusia El Kader), but Ali’s relationship with these people is only seen through the lens of the Battle. There is no lonely wife for his to fight for, or a child he is trying to rescue. Not a hint at melodrama in included. When we see the tight sweaty closeups of Haggiag’s face, we see his steely gaze. We care about him because we care if the Arabs win.


            Pontecorvo has made no cheap moves to make Ali relatable or “human” (in the classic Hollywood melodrama meaning of the word). And, in so doing, made him more understandable and more, well, human (in the realistic sense of the word).


            On the opposite side, we meet Col. Mathieu (veteran stage actor Jean Martin). We know a little bit more about Mathieu. He fought in pervious wars, he knows tactics, and has a bemused, jaded approach to warfare. He is not a spitting maniac like Patton, or a cold-eyed torturous villain. He is a terrifyingly efficient military expert who is not unnerved by much, and is quick to make correct tactical decisions.


            Once again, Pontecorvo does not make Mathieu likeable, relatable, or melodramatically “human.” While Ali may serve as the film’s “hero,” Mathieu can hardly be called its “villain.” In fact, to many empire-minded French people, he probably served as the resolute hero who tragically lost Algeria to the hands of devious terrorists. Yes, he did evil things. He killed many innocents, and even implemented torture. But, in a film that is about violent escalation on both sides, his sins are hardly the most grievous. Or are they? He is a soldier without an ideology. He is merely a machine enacting orders. Without men like Mathieu, could wartime horrors take place?



            I, strangely and despite the cold evil in his eyes, like the character of Mathieu. Reporters and other army officials ask him stupidly glib and leading questions. Do you like Sartre, colonel? Do find the law to be inconvenient colonel? His answers are calm, not rushed, and surprisingly resolute. Yes, they are violent, and in some of his answers, he seems to condone torture. But his comfort in such situation, and his calm intelligence make him a marvel to watch. Some of his dialogue, while borderline wicked, makes perfect sense in a military situation:


            The word ‘torture’ doesn’t appear in our orders. We’ve always spoken of interrogation as the only valid method in a police operation directed against unknown enemies. As for the NLF, they request that their members, in the event of capture, should maintain silence for twenty-four hours, and then they may talk. So, the organization has already had the time it needs to render any information useless. What type of interrogation should we choose, the one the courts use for a murder case, that drags on for months?”


            “Interrogation becomes a method when conducted in a manner so as always to obtain a result, or rather an answer. In practice, demonstrating a false humanitarianism only leads to ridiculousness and impotence. I’m certain that all units will understand and react accordingly.”


            “There are 80,000 Arabs in the Kasbah. Are they all against us? We know they’re not. In reality, it’s only a small minority that dominates with terror and violence. This minority is our adversary and we must isolate and destroy it.”


            Sound familiar?


            Why is torture necessary? Because the terrorists are increasing their attacks. Why are the revolutionaries stepping up their attacks? Because the French declared martial law. Why did the French declare martial law? Because they feared an increase in Kasbah violence. The cycle extends too far back to really determine its origin.



            So, what “The Battle of Algiers” ultimately does to dissect the unavoidable cyclical velocity of modern warfare. Each side escalates their tactics in response to the other. If you wish to better understand the Vietnam war, or the war in Iraq, watch “The Battle of Algiers.”


            Another reason “The Battle of Algiers” works so well is that it manages to avoid moralizing. As I have already stated, the Arab’s are certainly the more sympathized with of the two sides, but there is not a hint of jingoism or and cheap, preachy moments. No one gives long heartfelt speeches about how what they stand for is right. People do not speak that way. No one stops what they do to explain themselves. They merely act on their decisions, and those around them know they do. A speech in “the Battle of Algiers” would have been disastrous.


            An additional note on the film’s music: While “The Battle of Algiers” was shot in a documentary style without much music, what music is included is a brilliant score by master Ennio Morricone. The gentle pounding and insistent quirky themes do not interfere with the all-important realism. Morricone has hundreds of credits to his name (nearly 500 according to the Internet Movie Database), and rarely produced anything short of impressive.



Published in: on October 17, 2008 at 7:25 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This movie absolutely amazed me. It is my second favorite movie (V for Vendetta is first). After we watched it, my friends and I tried to hypothetically structure perfectly resilient insurgent organizations, designed not to be seriously compromised by deaths and interrogation, and to last no matter what the enemy does. The goal was complete invincibility of the organization as a whole, with maximum efficiency, even though longevity was the priority.

    We got way too into it, making these complicated charts and color coding them and arguing about it. Then my friend’s little sister walked in on us and said the chart looked like a flower. 😀

    Nice article, except it really annoys me when people make the word “terrorist” and words similar to “revolutionary” interchangeable. You said, “Why is torture necessary? Because the terrorists are increasing their attacks. Why are the revolutionaries stepping up their attacks?”

    I know that in the movie they were kind of both, but still it’s not good when those two become too closely used. I’m not trying to be nit-picky. I just take that personally because I am a…subversive. I freaked out at Google and sent them complaint letters when they made “terrorist” and “insurgent” interchangeable search terms and you’d get both when you typed one. 🙂

  2. I wasn’t interchanging the words. I was reversing perspective. Depending on what side you’re on, the fighters in a war have different names.

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