For over 130 years, the French occupied Algeria. Their enduring occupation led to an underground resistance front that carried out forms of terrorism and guerrilla warfare against the French Algerian government, which after years of bloodshed concluded /with Algerian independence. Between 1954 and 1957, the National Liberation Front (FLN) carried out a series of attacks which led to a crackdown by the French forces and were the subject for the striking 1966 film from director Gillo Pontecorvo, The Battle of Algiers, an enduring piece of cinema that is now subject to a 4K restoration from Rialto Pictures. 50 years after it first landed on screens, The Battle of Algiers is still startling relevant in its examination of an ongoing war between an occupying power and a loosely assembled force without uniforms.
The Battle of Algiers was banned in France for five years due its perceived sympathies to the Algerian rebels, though the film is very evenhanded in portraying both sides of the conflict. The film opens with Ali La Pointe (Brahim Hadjadj) cornered by the encroaching French forces in 1957 before flashing back to Ali’s origins in joining the FLN back in 1954. At first, the FLN is orchestrating its attacks to target the French police and military that patrol the streets of Algiers, a form of guerrilla warfare that has yielded successful revolutions in Ireland and, for that matter, the United States. As the attacks persist, the French institute a crackdown on the Muslim neighborhood of Algiers known as the Casbah, a program of religious and ethnic profiling.
The crackdowns yield few results, and the FLN takes up new tactics to evade these new crackdowns. One of the most haunting scenes in The Battle of Algiers illustrate the futility of such profiling. A trio of young women abandon their hajibs, dye their hair, and dress themselves in fashionable clothes. Smiling as they easily pass through a checkpoint, the trio then assembles bombs in their handbags and place them in three separate locations all populated by French nationals. This is the moment when the guerrilla warfare crossed over into outright terrorism, and the realism of the explosions captured on film is genuinely disturbing. But it also serves as a reminder that when away from the battlefield of conventional warfare, an enemy without a uniform can do whatever it takes to elude detection and obtain their nefarious goals.
As the violence continues, the French call in Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin), an officer with an impeccable record of fighting the Nazis. He’s a shrewd tactician and a soldier through and through. Not only does Mathieu battle his foes on the streets, but he’s also keen on playing the press to his advantage. Despite his duty as a solider, he doesn’t seem to downright dismiss and dehumanize his opponent. However, his methods of interrogation are questionable at best, including forms of torture in order to figure out the chain of command of the FLN in order to break quest for independence. When it comes to fighting his enemies, Mathieu has no qualms of using brutal techniques that mirror his enemies; but he’s a man who takes great exception to being referred to as a fascist due his history in fighting with the French Resistance in World War II. Mathieu is a fascinating a figure in the context in the film, a solider of the past fighting a form of war that represents the future.
Though Mathieu’s campaign against the FLN does deliver results in the form of capturing or killing ranking members of the organization, in the end Algeria is still able to carry out its mission for independence. Even more, it brings forth the question if the moral sacrifices carried out by the French through torture and other forms of abhorrent forms of interrogation were worth the temporary victory. These are questions that Americans should be asking themselves daily about the ongoing tactics in the never-ending War on Terror, be it the now abandoned techniques of waterboarding, which there are many who lament that this practice has been abandoned (including the current nominee for the GOP), or the aggressive escalation of drone strikes. The relevance of The Battle of Algiers is startling, as 50 years later the film speaks to inform the present – we’re long overdue to listen.
The Battle of Algiers has a visceral verisimilitude that is rarely encountered in movies, especially war movies. Legendary French director François Truffaut famously said that “There’s no such thing as an anti-war film.” His reasoning that the dramatization that occurs when bringing battle to the screen comes across glorious despite whatever the intentions of the filmmakers. In a way, The Battle of Algiers refutes this statement by Truffaut, because the way with which Pontecorvo highlights the questionable tactics on both sides of the conflict. It’s nigh impossible to root for the FLN against the French as they bomb dance clubs and bars occupied by innocent civilians. It’s also impossible to root for the French as they institute a program of racial and religious profiling, and their raids against FLN members conclude with indiscriminate bombings of the homes of the impoverished citizens of the Casbah.
Adding a sense of urgency to The Battle of Algiers is the music by Ennio Morricone, the legendary composer most famous for his spaghetti westerns. Most people will recall the opening music of the film from Quentin Tarantino’s use of it in his own Inglourious Basterds, a form urgent military marching music with piano marching up and down the scale. As with most Morricone scores, the music adds its own memorable layer to the action; it’s as much a part of the tension as the visceral images of violent guerrilla warfare.
It’s rare for a movie to feel as urgent and relevant as The Battle of Algiers does today. It’s a story of a moment in history, but the parallels to the current global climate of terrorism feel as if this movie was culled from today’s headlines. It’s frustrating within The Battle of Algiers to see the mistakes that French made in trying to battle the FLN, and seeing that these failed military tactics are often called for from the most hawkish corners of the American political spectrum. Though it’s a dramatized version of historical events, The Battle of Algiers has a level of realism rarely seen in the cinema. It’s a movie that comes across as living history, there to remind us of the errors of the past so we don’t dare repeat them. This restoration of The Battle of Algiers is haunting because it serves as a reminder that so many are far too eager to recreate the mistakes of the past, and we can’t let that happen all over again.
The 4K restoration of The Battle of Algiers opens October 7th at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles and the Film Forum in New York City. For more theater listings go to the Rialto Pictures website.
The Battle of Algiers
A visceral piece of historical dramatization, The Battle of Algiers is still a strikingly relevant tale of revolution against colonial forces, and even more a portrait in the questionable tactics employed on both sides of the conflict with numerous parallels to the modern world.