Film / The Battle of Algiers

The Battle of Algiers is a 1966 film by Gillo Pontecorvo, and is a dramatization of the Algerian War of Independence. The story begins with Ali La Pointe, a card sharp in the cramped slums of Algiers, the capital city of French-controlled Algeria. Imprisoned, he joins the rebel group FLN and takes up arms against the colonial French government. After a few skirmishes with French police, reprisal killings spur ever-worse reprisal killings as the native and colonist populations are radicalized against each other. A UN vote for independence comes and goes as a general strike is called. Afterward, a French military expert, Colonel Philippe Mathieu, is brought in to pacify the region, gain intelligence, and destroy the FLN leadership.

A critical favorite, the film has attracted no small amount of controversy over the years. France banned the movie until 1971. It has been used as a how-to for many left-wing groups worldwide (notably, the Black Panthers used it as a training film in the '60s), and, conversely, was screened by the Pentagon in 2003 as a primer on counterterrorism.

The Battle of Algiers provides examples of the following works:

  • Action Girl: Hassiba Ben Bouali.
  • Answer Cut: After Mathieu's comment to the press about pro-war reporters "accepting all necessary consequences," we immediately segue to a grisly torture montage.
  • Anti-Hero: Ali.
  • As Himself: Saadi Yacef, FLN leader and one of the film's producers, plays himself in all but name (his character's named Jaafar). In particular, the depiction of his arrest comes straight from Yacef's memoirs.
  • Big "NO!": There's a loud one in the beginning.
  • Black and Gray Morality: Terrorists blowing up innocent civilians (including children), versus colonial forces who torture people and don't care about "collateral damage".
    • Not to mention the FLN's strict insistence on drug and alcohol prohibition, enforced by the death penalty.
  • Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys: Completely averted here.
  • Child Soldier: Petit Omar, more or less.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Done by the French soldiers.
  • Colonel Badass: Colonel Mathieu.
  • Composite Character: Colonel Mathieu draws on several real life French paratroopers, including Jacques Massu, Marcel Bigeard and Yves Godard.
  • The Coroner Doth Protest Too Much: Ben M'Hidi supposedly killed himself in custody, but no one believes this.
  • Cycle of Revenge: Each shooting or bombing by either side leads to increasingly violent reprisals.
  • Doomed Moral Victor: Ali.
  • Dragon-in-Chief: Mathieu is subordinate to a French General who plays little role in the actual fighting.
  • During the War
  • The Empire: Or rather the French Fourth Republic, struggling to control its colonies.
  • False Flag Operation: During the ceasefire, Mathieu tries to provoke an incident by arresting Algerian civilians. It doesn't work.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Algeria wins its independence.
  • Freakier Than Fiction: In actuality, the war was even more brutal than depicted here.
  • Gilligan Cut: A rare dramatic example. After the French declare victory in Algiers the military leaders talk about how much easier it is to deal with the people in the Algerian mountains. Cut to three years later: there's a major uprising in the mountains.
  • Glasses Pull: Memorably done by Colonel Mathieu at a press conference.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: The movie certainly doesn't whitewash the FLN, but some of their more unsavory actions (whether mutilating French corpses or fighting with other Algerian nationalist groups) go unmentioned.
  • Hope Spot: When the United Nations agrees to hear the FLN's proposal for independence, causing a temporary ceasefire. The UN decides they have no power to intervene, and violence resumes almost immediately.
  • How We Got Here: The movie starts with Mathieu's men surrounding Ali's hideout in 1957, then flashes back to the beginning of the war, three years earlier.
  • I Did What I Had to Do:
    Mathieu: Should France remain in Algeria? If your answer is "yes", then you must accept all the consequences.
  • Infant Immortality: Averted. When the first bomb is placed in the busy cafe, we see the people inside, including several small children. They all die in the massive blast.
    • The incident that that bombing was a reprisal to was the French-Algerian police setting off a bomb in front of a suspect's house. The bodies of two small children are among the many dead pulled from the wreckage.
  • It Will Never Catch On: Between Matthieu and his superior after Ali is killed.
    "The FLN is decapitated in Algiers."
    "We'll hear no more of it."
  • Kick the Dog: Oh man, where to start...
  • Line-of-Sight Name: When Col. Mathieu is asked to name the operation to defeat FLN, he steps on the balcony to give it a thought. He then spots a sign promoting champagne, and thus the Operation Champagne is born.
  • Necessarily Evil: Again, Mathieu, though mileage may vary over the "Evil" part.
    • Arguably, the revolutionaries are this as well.
  • Pet the Dog: The French gendarmes are mostly shown as brutes or faceless victims of the FLN. Yet several risk their lives saving an Algerian boy from being beaten to death by enraged settlers after a terrorist bombing at a racetrack.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Colonel Mathieu. He has to do horrible things but he isn't particularly deplorable. He even mentions that Algerians are good people and hopes things will remain peaceful after the FLN presence in the city is wiped out.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: The French defeat the FLN in Algiers, but the remainder of the country ends up turning against them.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized
  • Rotating Arcs: There is no main character, as such. Ali and Mathieu have the most screen time, but the film devotes significant amounts of time to various side characters.
  • Shell Game: What Ali is doing when he first gets in trouble with the law.
  • Taking You with Me: One FLN cell blows themselves up, along with several French soldiers, to avoid capture.
  • Torture Always Works: One of the most thorough explorations of this topic. On a tactical level it's played straight, as Mathieu gains important tactical information from employing torture. The movie's more concerned with its broader impact, generating resentment among the Arab population of Algiers, and its moral implications.
  • Urban Segregation: The famous shot panning from the wealthy European Quarter of Algiers, to the dirt poor Casbah.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Ali and Colonel Mathieu, in their own ways.
  • Worthy Opponent: Mathieu genuinely respects the FLN leaders, as military/terrorist leaders if not politically. After Ben M'Hidi's death Mathieu gives the press a long speech in praise of Ben M'Hidi's courage.