film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Battle Of Algiers (1965)

This film was first and foremost made for a European – and predominantly French – audience, who would all have been very familiar with the events depicted in the film. So it’s a bit miraculous that not only did I understand the story, but that it was handled as fairly as it was.

The Algerian War for independence from France was more of a guerilla action at the beginning, with the group Front de libération nationale, or FLN, leading the action. Their campaign in the city of Algiers in 1956 and ’57 amped up the hostilities, calling international attention to the war and bringing the French a good deal of criticism, both at home and abroad, for how it handled the crisis. Filmmakers Franco Solinas and Gillo Pontecorvo focus the film on the FLN’s actions, particularly on one of its leaders Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag, a non-actor like much of the cast). La Pointe began as a petty criminal but joined the FLN while in prison, quickly rising up the ranks and helping to secure the Casbah section of Algiers for FLN control, spurring France to send in a platoon of paratroopers lead by Colonel Philippe Mathieu (Jean Martin) to suppress them.

A part of me wished there were more scenes of the everyday Algerians trying to cope with the chaos, but on the other hand, that might have felt a little too much like a docu-drama, and those can often feel too exaggerated. One exception concerns the under-the-table marriage of a young Algerian couple – the leader of the FLN presides, stating that they are on purpose excluding French government involvement from the proceedings. Otherwise, Pontecorvo takes a page from the Italian Neo-Realist movement for this – using non-actors, and a sort of television-news-piece approach to give things the feel of a documentary.

The film makes no bones about the fact that both the French and the FLN fought dirty. One lengthy sequence concerns three FLN women smuggling bombs into French-controlled Algiers and then leaving them in bars or cafes to ensure civilian casualties. But another depicts the torture French soldiers used on captured FLN members in an effort to track down and capture its leaders.

Now – I may not have grown up knowing about the Algerian War, but I’ve heard of the lengths that the CIA went to when tracking down Osama Bin Laden, and so I was probably most affected by the torture scenes, which pitched my sympathies to the FLN. But we’d also just seen the FLN committing terrorist actions, and I’ve had some familiarity with that as well (I have lived in New York City since 1988, let’s just say that). Still, it comes as no surprise to me to learn that the Pentagon screened it for a small audience of officers as a sort of cautionary tale about mis-steps to avoid in the upcoming war in Iraq. (I can only assume that they weren’t really paying attention.) But that’s just one of a long line of such “cautionary screenings”, warning people about what might happen in Vietnam…or El Salvador…or Nicaragua…or…Ultimately, the film celebrates Algeria’s ultimate victory in 1962, but I was satisfied to see it being honest about the cost.

1 thought on “The Battle Of Algiers (1965)”

  1. As soon as a you get a bit involved in these conflicts, it gets really difficult. No side is entirely right or entirely wrong and both are guilty of awful things. I also have some first hand experience from living six years in Israel and running with a toddler to find shelter from a rocket attack is not not fun.
    There is a very good series on Netflix called Fauda which is a good parallel to Battle of Algiers. Fauda means a mess and holy crap it is.


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