Thursday, October 18, 2012

#24 - The Battle of Algiers

BACK-STORY:  “The Battle of Algiers” is an Italian/Algerian production released in 1966.  The film was subsidized by the Algerian government.  It was directed by Italian Gillo Pontecorvo in the neorealist style.   He was nominated for the Best Director Oscar and the film also got nods for Original Screenplay and Foreign Language Film.  It won numerous international awards.  The movie was banned in France for many years and the torture scenes were edited for the U.S. (I must have seen one of the edited versions) and the United Kingdom.
OPENING:  The movie opens in Algiers in 1957.  Algeria is a French colony and it has been in a state of rebellion for several years.  French soldiers have just finished water torturing an Algerian terrorist.  He has told them the whereabouts of a most-wanted and they are now solicitous to him.  They dress him up as one of their own so he can lead them to the hideout.  This scene will be mirrored later when Algerian women dress as European women to infiltrate the French quarter.  As the credits roll, an apartment building is surrounded with the target Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) hiding in a safe-room.  It’s flashback time!
SUMMARY:  We are now in Algiers in the year 1954.  The setting is the Casbah (the quarter that was the epicenter of the uprising ).  A street grifter named Ali is picked up by the police after a random European jerk trips him simply because he is running.  This subtly implies the racism of the colonizers.  Ali is politicized in prison.  He witnesses guillotinings (but I didn’t in my edited version).
                Five months later, Ali is free and recruited by Djafar (Saadi Yacef) of  the FLN (the National Liberation Front).  His initiation is to murder a policeman.  Surprise – there are no bullets in the gun.  It was test to see if he was a plant.  (Don’t ask why pulling the trigger on an empty gun proves more than on a loaded gun.)  Ali has found his calling as a terrorist bad-ass.  One of his first tasks is to gun down an Algerian who does not want to join the FLN.  Ali’s an amateur, but he has potential.
                The uprising begins with an attack on a police station and a drive-by.  The French seal off the Arab quarter with barbed wire and checkpoints.  The tit-for-tat escalates (as it tends to do).  French soldiers are gunned down (sans blood).  A group of Frenchmen (apparently part of a militia-type organization) set off a bomb in an apartment building.  The aftermath is stunning.  Uncovering the corpses in the debris (including children).  Mourning survivors.  Solemn music.  No dialogue.  The solemnity morphs into a chaotic revenge mob scene.  We are in the thick of it with Ali.  The FLN intervenes with a promise to get even.  Did I mention the movie has absolutely no sense of humor?
                In the movie’s best scene, three Algerian women change their appearance to pass as Europeans.  They breeze through the checkpoints without having to show identification.  Your typical Arab, especially the men, are harshly treated.  Each of the women has a bomb to plant in a location frequented by French civilians.  The movie serves as a good tutorial for terrorist bombers.  The suspense builds to an explosive conclusion (get it?)  The results mirror the earlier bombing (and pictures I have seen of Viet Cong bombings in Saigon).  This scene makes me glad to be living in America, more empathetic to citizens living in countries like Israel, and concerned that the same thing could happen here
                The French government reacts to the bombings with a surge.  French paratroopers led by Lt. Col. Matthieu arrive to cheering French crowds.  Matthieu establishes martial law.  His policy is to isolate and destroy the insurgents.  Now the tutorial is on counter-terrorism.  Matthieu coolly lectures his officers on how rebel organizations work.  They create cells.  Intelligence gathering through “enhanced” interrogation is the key.  “Humane considerations can only lead to despair and confusion.”  He is hoping for an incident that will give him an excuse to further crack down.  The Arabs provide this in the form of a general strike.  Matthieu launches Operation Champagne.
                The French begin by kicking down doors in a scene replicated in Spielberg’s Krakow ghetto scene from “Schindler’s List”.  The French press is now on the story.  They remind Indochina veteran Matthieu about Dien Bien Phu, but he is not concerned.  He feels the end justifies the means as the strategy is working.  A montage highlights the means – water boarding, blow torches, ropes, electricity.  Thank goodness these methods are no longer used!
CLOSING:  We are back full circle from the opening as the French paratroopers closes in on Ali.  He and three comrades (including a boy and a woman) are hiding in a no-longer-secret room.  Since it is unlikely they will give up without a fight, Matthieu has the room rigged with explosives.  Ironic, eh?  Matthieu is confident the war is over, but it is a pyrrhic victory. 
                The post script takes us to 1960 when the “Algerian spring” erupts.  Newsreel-like footage of mobs effectively previews the success of the independence movement.
Acting =  B
Action =  6/10
Accuracy =  A
Plot =  B
Realism =  A

Overall =  B

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  It would help if they are a cinephile.  The movie is not a hard-core war movie.  There is no bloodshed or graphic violence.  There are strong female characters, even though they are terrorists.  It’s an interesting movie for both sexes.
HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The movie is set in the Algerian War of Independence which lasted from 1954-1962.  Algeria had been a French colony since 1830.    The FLN (National Liberation Front) was created in March, 1954.  It consisted of socialists, anti-colonialists, and Islamists.  The movie was inspired by the memoir “Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger” by an FLN commander named Saadi Yacef (he basically plays himself as Djafar in the film).  The war began with the Toussaint Rouge (“Red All Saints’ Day”) incident when the FLN launched thirty attacks on military and police targets.   French colonists (colons) demanded retaliation.  Colons conducted ratonnades (rat-hunts) to kill suspected FLN members and collaborators.    In August , 1955 the FLN reacted with the massacre of French civilians in the town of Philippeville.  Previously, the FLN had limited itself to military and police targets.  The gloves were off now.  A classic guerrilla war was underway.  Tit for tat.  Torture for torture.  The French army attacked villages deemed sympathetic to the FLN.  Villagers were relocated to strategic hamlet-like locations.  Meanwhile, the FLN was conducting kidnappings and performing ritual murder and mutilation of French soldiers.
                The Battle of Algiers began when members of a French militia planted a bomb in a Casbah apartment building resulting in the deaths of 73 Algerians.  This is the incident depicted in the film.  This led to the other historical depiction.  Three Algerian female militants planted bombs in a milk bar, a cafeteria, and a travel agency. 
                The French government started a counterinsurgency campaign with a large increase in troops deployed to Algeria.  The total peaked at 400,000 (including 170,000 loyal Muslim Algerians).   Gen.  Massau (the inspiration for Matthieu) was allowed to operate outside the legal barriers which means he could use torture methods to interrogate.  The movie accurately portrays the success of his methods.  The terrorist cells were rooted out and the insurgency collapsed in Algiers.  Ironically, this victory sowed the seeds of the eventual French defeat as the French public began to question involvement in Algiers.  This had some similarities to the aftermath of the Tet Offensive.
                The French used search and destroy methods and raised units of loyal Muslim irregulars.  You can guess what methods they used in what was essentially a civil war inside the war of independence.  Sound familiar?  The movie chooses not to reference the civil war aspect of the conflict.
               In May, 1958, the colons and French army officers overthrew the Fourth French Republic and De Gaulle returned to power.  To their chagrin, DeGaulle decided to seek a peaceful solution to the quagmire.  Eventually a referendum was held that allowed the Algerian people to vote in favor of independence.
CRITIQUE:  I was not too impressed at first, but the movie builds nicely.  It does not take long to realize you are watching something special.  Ironically, I saw this soon after “Rome, Open City”.  Both come from the neo-realist school popular in Italy at that time.  See my summary of that style at "Rome, Open City" .  “The Battle of Algiers” has all the bells and whistles.  Hand held cameras, grainy film, use of nonprofessional actors, the newsreel look, prominent roles for kids.
                The acting is surprisingly good considering there is only one professional actor in the cast.  Jean Martin plays Matthieu with gravitas.  He is played as a reasonable villain.  His lectures on counterinsurgency to his officers and his condescending interplay with the press are very military.  He’s a charismatic Westmoreland (the U.S, commanding general in Vietnam).  Interestingly, Martin was a veteran.  He had been a paratrooper in Indochina.  The actor supported Algerian Independence.  One strength of the acting is you would not know that he was the only professional.  The other main actors do not come off as amateurish.  There are strong female characters and the boy Petit Omar is depicted as a valuable member of the FLN.  He is very reminiscent of Marcello in “Rome, Open City”.
                The music is cool.  It uses a variety of sounds.  Most notably, the crucial scene with the three female bombers is dominated by African drums which effectively build the suspense.  Other sounds are used metaphorically.  Gunfire, helicopters, and truck engines symbolize the French army.  Bomb blasts, chanting, and wailing background the Algerians.
                The cinematography is solidly in the neorealist school.  The most standout feature is the camera taking us into the middle of crowds.  Pontecorvo also likes to shift from medium range shots to long range vistas.  We get a lot of facial close-ups.
                The themes are instructional on guerrilla warfare.  The movie clearly portrays the escalation that is inescapable in a guerrilla war.  Anyone conversant with the Vietnam War or the Filipino War for Independence will not be surprised with the dynamics of the film.  The suffering of innocents caught in the middle of the conflict is another theme.  Guerrillas being faces in the crowd and blending into the populace is another.  Matthieu represents the “end justifies the means” approach often taken by conventional forces faced with an insurgency.
CONCLUSION:  “The Battle of Algiers” is an important film that lives up to its billing.  It supposedly inspired guerrilla and terrorist groups like the Black Panthers and IRA.  In 2003, it was screened at the Pentagon during the Iraq War.   The invitation mentioned “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas”.  It’s a pity it was not required viewing at the Pentagon in 1968 during the Vietnam War.  The movie can be viewed by both insurgents and counterinsurgents because it is admirably even-handed.  Although clearly favoring the FLN, Gen. Matthieu is depicted as a reasonable and worthy adversary. 
                The film is excellent in bringing attention to the Algerian War for Independence and the Battle of Algiers in particular.  I knew virtually nothing about the conflict before watching it and doing my requisite research.  I have a good friend whose father fought in the conflict as a French soldier so I was especially looking forward to reviewing it and learning more about the war and its effects on the participants.  This movie makes you empathize with both sides.
                Although ranked just ahead of “Rome, Open City”, “The Battle of Algiers” is a better film.  This is partly because it is more historically accurate and informative.  Made twenty years after, it benefits from the evolution of neorealism and lack of difficulties in filming compared to “Rome, Open City”.  It’s ranking at #24 is the rare case of Military History getting the quality plus importance right.
POSTER:  Kind of weird.  A pastiche of styles.  Does not clearly convey the jist of the film.   Grade = C  
TRAILER:  Excellent.  Great juxtapositioning of the two sides.  Grade = A


  1. Very good review, I must say. I'm waiting for you to watch Intimate Enemies next. It's an additional side of the conflict, the one the soldiers fought.
    I cannot say I liked this movie but that's not the point. I don't think we should like it, we can't as both sides are shown to be relentless and unlikable and that's why I think it's a very good movie. Not sentimental.
    If there ever was a dirty war, this was one.
    I saw the torture scenes but they are understated, not like in other movies at all. It's much more explicit in Intimate Enemies. It was one of the ugliest things of that war that both parties used it extensively. Some French people still deny it but - as you know and mention - I had first hand accounts and yes, it did happen , on both sides.

  2. Intimate enemies is not readily available.

    You are right about none of the characters being likeable. The weird thing is that Matthieu reminds me as Patton in the movie Patton. Right wingers would cheer him and left wingers would loath him.

    I found the war to be intriguing in my research, but confusing. I had a hard time putting together the Historical Accuracy section.

    I didn't mention it until now, but how could France have repeated some of the mistakes it made in Vietnam? The U.S. was so scarred by its experience in Vietnam, we stayed out of El Salvador and Nicaragua.

    1. It's actually difficult to draw parallels between Indochina and Algeria.

      In 1945 Indochina was a British-style colony of 50 years, with very few metropolitan French (around 30,000). Algeria was considered by the French as an integral part of France, with around a million Europeans in 1945 and a century of common history.

      The Indochina war was mostly fought by professional French (and Algerian) soldiers, whereas a lot of people were drafted for the Algerian war. The immediate impact and later influences of these two conflicts on French society differ considerably.

      There was a 'civil war' character in the Algerian war that the Indochina war didn't possess - but that the Vietnam war showed to some extent. You probably stumbled upon the story of Paul Aussaresses teaching Special Forces at Fort Bragg in the early 60's...

  3. Thanks. That is fascinating information. I am enjoying finding out more about this war that I knew nothing about before. I did not run across Paul Aussaresses. How about saving me some time by sharing?

  4. Naturally. See this, at 20:27:

    And if you speak Spanish the whole documentary, which probably overstates the French influence, but remains nevertheless quite interesting. The english Wikipedia pages for Paul Aussaresses, Roger Trinquier and David Galula are also good starting points.

    Trinquier's main book can be found here:

    About Galula, see this:


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.