SYNOPSIS: "The Battle of Algiers" is about the Algerian independence movement set in the capital of Algiers. It chronicles the guerrilla warfare tactics and the French counterinsurgency efforts. Terrorist bombings lead to torture interrogations and a surge by the French Army.
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.
TRIVIA: wikipedia, imdb
1. The director brought in Ennio Morricone (who scored all of Sergio Leone’s films) to collaborate on the score. Pontecorvo had a melody in mind for use in the film and was humming it when he went to see Morricone in his home. When he arrived, before he could make his suggestion, Morricone proposed a very similar melody. Pontecorvo was elated at the coincidence and only later was told by Morricone that he had heard him humming the melody and had pranked him.
2. The only professional actor was Jean Martin (Col. Matthieu). He had been in the French Resistance in WWII and then was a paratrooper in the Indochina War. As an actor, he was dismissed from the Theatre National Populaire for signing a manifesto opposing the Algerian War.
3. The movie was banned from France for the first five years. The director received death threats.
4. It supposedly inspired the Black Panthers, IRA, and PLO.
5. The movie was screened at the Pentagon in 2003 in relation to counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq. The invitation mentioned “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas”.
6. It is one of the rare films to get Oscar nominations in separate years. It was nominated for Best Foreign Film in 1966 and Director and Screenplay in 1968.
Belle and Blade = 5.0
Brassey’s = 5.0
Video Hound = 4.4
War Movies = 4.4
Military History = #24
Channel 4 = #64
Film Site = no
101 War Movies = yes
Rotten Tomatoes = #3
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 4th 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.
OPINION: I was not too impressed at first, but the movie builds nicely. It does not take long to realize you are watching something special. The style is very similar to “Rome, Open City”, but it is more polished. Both come from the neo-realist school popular in Italy at that time. “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). 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.
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.
“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. It’s a pity it was not required viewing at the Pentagon in 1968 during the Vietnam War.
In conclusion, “The Battle of Algiers” is justifiably lauded by critics as a classic movie. It reminds of movies like “Battleship Potemkin” and “Rome, Open City” in that respect. Normally, I don’t put much stock into the term “classic”. In this case, I think the movie holds up well. I especially give it credit for being an accurate account of a military event that is not well known, at least not in the U.S. I would not have it as high as #22, but it belongs in the top 100. There is no better movie on insurgency versus counterinsurgency.