What papers won’t tell you: “The battle of Algiers”

By Marta Musso

I would like to inaugurate film reviewing on DHP with “The battles of Algiers” by Gillo Pontecorvo, perhaps the most important film on terrorism and counter insurgency ever made. It tells the story of the Algerian war by focussing on the years 1956-1957, the period of guerrilla warfare in the capital.

The film was made soon after the events it narrates, in 1966, and it is an Italian Algerian co-production . Originally, the Algerian government wanted to make a celebratory film of the National Liberation Front (FLN) inspired by the novel “Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger”, by Saadi Yacef. Yacef wrote the novel while a prisoner of the French, and Souvenirs became a morale-boosting hymn for the FLN fighters. However, director Gillo Pontecorvo and screenwriter Franco Solinas instead re-wrote the script through their personal sensitivites and with a more objective approach.

Although the film was banned in France until 1971, the final result is nothing like a propaganda movie on the FLN fighters. On the contrary, it depicts the Algerian war in the only realistic way in which war can be portrayed: as blind brutality. The film focuses first on the sufferings of the Algerians segregated in the Kasbah, their poverty and their frustration. It then shows their warfare tactic of bomb attacks on the heart of the city in all its horror, the blood, the randomness of their victims. Finally, the arrival of special French troopers under the operational control of Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu (inspired by general Massu) provoked an escalation of violence, torture and hate that culminated in the battle of the Kasbah, where the FLN momentarily lost before later winning the war and making Algeria an independent country.

Pontecorvo emphasizes the reasons of the Algerian fighters and the life conditions of the Algerians before the war, but he makes no attempt to describe the conduct of the FLN as any better than that of the French army. He does not adopt an apathetic moral such as “everyone has his reasons” (to quote his colleague Jean Renoir), neither does he choose one side as “the good guys”. His neo-realistic style allows him to show war for what it really is, the tragedy of the peoples. At the same time, through a precise account of the events, its historical causes and consequences, he underlines the difference in rationale of the Algerians and of the French army.

The reconstruction of the events was so accurate that when terrorism surged in Italy in the 1970s, the film was accused of serving as a manual for political violence and guerrilla tactics. In 2003, in the middle of the war in Iraq, the Pentagon organised a screening with a flyer that read:

“How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.” [2]

In conclusion, following the Pentagon advice, any person working on African history and/or colonialism should watch this film; it’s as simple as that. The brutal sense of war, the tearing, the complexity of the Algerian tragedy are better explained here than in any historical essay on the period. Not for lack of talented historians (the bibliography is endless) but because only a work of art can make you feel in addition to understand, giving to the Algerian experience that universality of human nature that would lack in purely intellectual work. And “The battle of Algiers” is a work of art that remains true to History.


[1] PierNico Solinas, “An Interview with Franco Solinas”, in The Battle of Algiers booklet accompanying the Criterion Collection DVD release, p. 32

[2] http://www.rialtopictures.com/eyes_xtras/battle_times.html

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1 thought on “What papers won’t tell you: “The battle of Algiers”

  1. .
    …I mostly agree with your excellent review, however, I do find it to be a propaganda film… but probably the most brilliant one ever made. The balance that you mention is there… to the point that it almost becomes unbearable…
    … When (a couple of years later) the demonstrators pour out onto the streets (sort of like later crowds in Eastern Europe “celebrating” their regimes out of power…) the “balance” (and tension) is broken… It is almost a relief to have a positive and hopeful ending… though it means a clear cut victory for one side.
    …Most propaganda films are poorly made, ham fisted, false-to-fact and very one sided. The truth is the greatest propaganda. Both sides were victims and that is clearly shown… a tragedy.
    …Amazon.com has a boxed set… three DVDs… Five part documentary on the Algerian War. People interviewed include high ranking FLN, French and OAS participants. Also interviewed, some of the Algerian women who placed the bombs in Algiers. It’s “bonus” feature is expendable, but the five parts are both powerful and balanced.

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