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Film / The Battle of Algiers

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The Battle of Algiers (Italian : La battaglia di Algeri, Arabic : معركة الجزائر) 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.

Compare Outside the Law, a 2010 French/Algerian film about three Algerian brothers involved in guerilla warfare inside France. Also compare Is Paris Burning? about a different uprising (the uprising of La RĂ©sistance in Paris during World War II) filmed the same year.

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, a murderous terrorist against an oppressive government.
  • Anti-Villain: Mathieu, a soldier who uses brutal tactics to fight a terrorist threat. He notes that he and many of his men not-too-distantly were members of the French Resistance and helped save the world from fascism.
  • 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 Bad: Colonel Mathieu, the military official sent to stop the uprising.
  • 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".
  • 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.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: Three female FLN agents wearing western clothes to avoid attracting attention reach a French checkpoint that was being surveilled by Mathieu to assess gendarme performance in the aftermath of the bombing. He criticises the gendarme for wasting time harassing an old man, pointing out to several bystanders as the likely FLN agents. At no point does he seem to notice the actual FLN agents being waved through by the gendarme.
  • During the War
  • The Empire: Or rather the French Fourth Republic, struggling to control its colonies.
  • Event Title
  • 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.
  • The Hero Dies: Ali La Pointe, Hassiba Ben Bouali, and Petit Omar allow the French to blow them up to avoid capture.
  • 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. In addition they also fail to mention part of the reason French occupation got more brutal upon the end of WWII was because local Algerian rowdies were going on rampage and plundering local French villages and residencies after the Germans left but before the French could stabilize the region. Some of the FLN members participated in these acts for nearly a decade before the revolution started in 1954. Also downplayed is how not just the FLN but the Algerian side as a whole were pretty bigoted Muslims who wanted to impose restrictions on non-Muslims and more liberal Agerians upon gaining independence (and actually attempted to do so in the war within Arab quarters). The most shown is their death penalty for drug possession and ban on prostitution. In real life, pogroms and actual violence occurred in FLN-occupied locations simply because the target was not a Muslim (or not seen as "devout enough"), including the massacre or expulsion of nearly the entire European population of Algiers and Oran within a few months of independence.
  • Historical Villain Downgrade: The movie avoids portraying the oppression of French colonialism for the most part such as how abuse of resources and taxing the local populaces (and even condoning local sex market which increased a demand for sex trafficking) are the primary reasons the whole revolution started in the first place. The movie fails to show some of the unsavory French actions such as slaughtering entire villages of males and the blatant Jim Crowesque levels of racism during the war. In addition, while onscreen torture is shown as pretty horrific, in real life the French did much worse things during interrogation including gang-raping suspected women, forcing captured insurgents to torture other Algerians, hours of harming children, drugging stubborn prisoners, and many more things to horrific to post here. In particular, nothing is shown of innocent French citizens getting tortured or shot because of accusations of supporting the insurgency, or that French civilians often carried out their own murders against Arab and Berber Algerians independent of the Army.
    • Due to its focus primarily on the 1957 "Battle" there's no mention of the pied noirs' own activism (from protests to terrorism to full-scale rebellions against the French government), which deprives the film of significant context. Notably, in Real Life the climactic demonstration by Arab Algerians in December 1960 was in response both to a visit by Charles de Gaulle to Algiers and a failed assassination plot and coup d'etat by fanatical pied noirs, neither of which are mentioned in the film which treats the uprising as an entirely spontaneous action by the Algerian public.
  • 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.
  • Important Haircut: Possibly the most powerful example of this in any film: when an Algerian woman cuts her long hair and dons French clothing so she can enter a café and plant a bomb. The scene is filmed with explicit symbolic intent. The event is based on the activist Zohra Drif, who planted the Milk Bar bomb.
  • 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."
  • 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: Both sides justify their brutal tactics as necessary to gain either independence or peace.
  • 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 and justify them to the press, but he isn't particularly deplorable, having fought against the Nazis and Fascist Italy back in World War II as part of the Free French military and La RĂ©sistance. He even mentions that Algerians are good people and hopes things will remain peaceful after the FLN presence in the city is wiped out. Hell, in his first few lines of dialogue, it's clear that he wishes no ill will against Algerians themselves:
    There are over 400,000 Arabs in Algiers. Are they all our enemies? We know they're not. But a small minority holds sway by means of terror and violence.
  • 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: While the film sides with the FLN's ideals, it pulls no punches in depiction the brutal things they did to realize them.
  • 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. Historically, France lost the war, so the harsh measures failed at a strategic level.
  • Urban Segregation: The famous shot panning from the wealthy European Quarter of Algiers, to the dirt poor Casbah.
  • The X of Y
  • 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.