Saturday Matinee # 003: The Battle of Algiers

So here with this Saturday Matinee, we take a step into the past, into events from fifty years ago. The Battle of Algiers is a dramatization of a true-life insurgency in the 195os and early 60s. While the English gave up their Empire voluntarily after World War II, the French did not (they still hang on, for example, to French Guiana). But the wave of nationalism and decolonization worldwide was not going to take “no” for an answer: indigenous people revolted.

Most Americans know the story of France in Indochina, and their withdrawal after defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Fewer know the story of independence wars in French North Africa. Like all Wars of Identity, there are only three possible outcomes: one side defeats and exterminates or expels the other, one side defeats and assimilates the other, or the war reaches an equilibrium of violence that is acceptable to both sides. The first was the goal of the revolutionaries, the second the goal of the French, the last the state the war was in for years, with periodic spikes of escalation. One of the things the movie depicts is, how suddenly the war can swing from equilibrium to disequilibrium to rout.

At the time, the great spirit motivating the Arabs was not Islamism, but rather pan-Arab socialism; Communism with plausible deniability of adherence to Soviet control.This film by Cillo Pontecorvo was an explicitly Communist film, sympathetic to the revolutionaries (they even were involved in the film’s script and development) without making the French into the usual caricatured villains of didactic film.


The film was a huge critical success, particularly with critics of a certain political tendency. Pauline Kael (best remembered today for her puzzlement at the election of Nixon, which turns out to be somewhat of a misquote) was typical of the armchair revolution buffs that Tom Wolfe would ridicule in Radical Chic; she loved it. The Battle of Algiers won several prizes in Europe and was nominated for not only foreign film but best screenplay and best director Oscars, although it didn’t win. France responded typically, considering the abuse of Frence amour-propre: they banned the movie before its release.

It had a long afterlife in Special Forces: we studied it on grainy 16mm prints, and then studied it on grainy bootleg Beta videotape taken from somebody’s war-weary print. It was shown to many Special Forces Qualification Course classes (and the separate Officers Course classes, during that era) as part of their introduction to guerllla and insurgent warfare. The film may be from 1975, but the methods of both insurgent and counterinsurgent: planting bombs, mapping and taking down cells — are still bloodily current in an age of ISR drones and cyberwarfare.

For decades the film was unavailable legally in the USA, but thanks to some commie on the staff of the Criterion Collection — or maybe, just, some avid fan of forgotten films — it was reissued on DVD in 2003 and has stayed in print since then; there’s also a Blu-Ray version.

For the modern¬† American, civilian audience the hurdles of foreign film, foreign language, unknown cast and black & white cinematography all must be overcome. But the movie’s so good that if you give it a chance, this isn’t hard. The film is fast-paced, at times even frantic. Pontecorvo has his actors show, not tell. The actors erase the illusion of film and become their characters, whether a death-bef0re-capture revolutionary or a coldly professional French colonel.

A particularly affecting scene shows a young woman planting a bomb among innocents. With rapid cuts, and without her saying a word, we see both her horror at the suffering she is about cause to innocent people, and at the same time, her determination to carry her mission out. A perfect montage shows French progress against the insurgents by showing their link chart of the insurgency as they roll the cells up. And the speech by French officer Lt. Col. Phillippe Mathieu to his officers, introducing his more aggressive counterinsurgency tactics, is a classic of the genre. Pontecorvo’s greatness shows here: he is clearly on the side of the revolutionaries, but he shows the complexity, the cruelty and the decency, of both sides. In one scene, French policemen protect an Arab boy from a mob of angry French bomb victims.

The weapons in the film are correct, with respect to small arms: French and old American arms on both sides, mostly; but weapons play a very small role here. Because it was shot on location in North Africa, the larger weapons like armored vehicles aren’t right. French second-line troops in 1962 were still equipped with WWII Lend-Lease US gear, but by 1965 nations like Algeria were arming with surplus WWII hardware from their new Russian pals. Likewise, the bomb built by the Algerian terrorists are rather Hollywood. — don’t take this movie as an instructional video.¬† But weapons, again, play a tinyl part in this drama, it’s really all about people. Just like a real insurgency that way: “Humans are more important than hardware.”

The movie is great entertainment, and great study material for students of insurgency. One of the most profound lessons is, an insurgency may look beaten, but as long as the resistance potential in the population is strong, it’s poised for a roaring comeback.

Interesting notes: most black and white war films of this era padded their run time and increased their action level by splicing in documentary war and newsreel footage. There is none in Battle of Algiers: despite the film’s documentary vibe, every scene, even every frame was composed and shot deliberately. And the score was composed by Ennio Morricone, who would later do all those Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns. (Once you know that, you listen more actively to the excellent score).

(MAT-49 photo @2008-2009 MPM, used by permission).