The Battle of Algiers

I have been reading Alaister Horne’s history of the Algerian War, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962. He mentioned the film The Battle of Algiers (follow this link to view the film), the first time I had become aware of it. Here is the Wikipedia (links from them) introduction to the film; it “is a 1966 ItalianAlgerian historical war film co-written and directed by Gillo Pontecorvo and starring Jean Martin and Saadi Yacef. It is based on events undertaken by rebels during the Algerian War (1954–1962) against the French government in North Africa, the most prominent being the titular Battle of Algiers, the capital of Algeria. It was shot on location in a Roberto Rossellini-inspired newsreel style: in black and white with documentary-type editing to add to its sense of historical authenticity, with mostly non-professional actors who had lived through the real battle. The film’s score was composed by Ennio Morricone. It is often associated with Italian neorealist cinema.” Steven Soderbergh said the film had “that great feeling of things that are caught, instead of staged.” That sense of reality is what I felt watching the film to the extent it is a unique cinematic experience, even if watching on a small laptop as I did.

To understand the film I will give some background. The Battle of Algiers began in late 1956 when the FLN (Front de libération nationale) decided to change tactics from guerilla warfare in the countryside to urban terrorism ostensibly after an attack on muslim civilians by the pieds noirs (European civilians living in Algeria). After several weeks of assasinations and bombings, with the police in the city being ineffectual, the government called in elite paratroop regiments. Most Americans think of an incompentent French military. The typical French paratrooper, and especially their commanding colonels, were extreme soldiers having fought in the Resistance or with the free French forces during WWII, in Indochina, perhaps in Suez, and in the Algerian war itself.

Horne describes the setting of Algiers for the battle:

With its waterfront of grand prosperous arcaded buildings belonging to the banks, big mercantile companies, the Hôtel Aletti and the Écho d’Alger, its red-tiled bourgeois villas gazing out over the bay, this could easily have been Nice or Cannes. Yet of its total population of 900,000 only one-third was in fact European. In their different enclaves the two communities coexisted closely together – which, in time of peace, was to provide Algiers with its most fascinating contrasts, and, later, its most savagely bloody collisions. The elegant, thoroughly French boulevards of Rue Michelet and Rue d’Isly, with their expensive shops and trottoir cafés thronged with chattering students, terminated abruptly in the Casbah. This, the old Turkish quarter, embraced in its compressed and nigh-impenetrable confines, redolent with all the odours of spice and oil of any Arab city and resounding with its ululations, a totally Muslim population bursting at the seams. The squalid, labyrinthine alleys often concealed ancient houses built around open courtyards of great charm. Abutting the Casbah on the other side lay the tenements of the European working class of Bab-el-Oued, so heavily impregnated with Spanish blood that its inhabitants were known collectively as the “Hernandez-and-Perez”. At the opposite, south-east, end of Algiers, in the seedier pied noir quarter of Belcourt, the boundary between the poor whites and their Muslim counterparts was still less distinct.

Both sides were viscous. Many of the French soldiers committing war crimes had those same types of crimes committed against themselves by the Germans when they were fighting in the resistance in the 40s. The irony was not lost by anyone. As the excerpt indicates, Algiers was exotic, and even the names of the people were exotic. For example, Zhora Drif was recruited by Yacef Saâdi to place bombs in public places. She easily passed checkpoints dressed like a European woman flirting with the soldiers. Her time in the war is most known in connection with the Milk Bar Café bombing depicted in the film. In the end, the French won this battle but obviously lost the war. To those who think conspiracies are only the product of the fanciful minds of conspiracy theorists; virtually every aspect of this history Horne describes was a conspiracy, wrapped within a conspiracy, except of the singular mind of de Gaulle (who became the French president in 1958) who was a conspiracy within himself that no other person could really understand.

The Battle of Algiers was the first major film produced in the new state of Algeria. What was amazing was that one of the stars “Saadi Yacef,” was also the producer called “Yacef Saadi,” who played the mastermind of the FLN during the battle, the actual role he played in real life! What is even more amazing is that even most French observers think the film is an accurate representation of the events; in spite of a pedigree that should have produced a pure propaganda piece. Jean Martin is spectacular as the brutal yet intellectual Colonel Matthieu (he is a composite of several French counterinsurgency officers, especially Jacques Massu), commander of the paratroopers. I do not know who (not a professional actor) played the prisoner tortured to divulge the hiding place of the notorious assassin Ali La Pointe, but he also is so real, in his eyes one can feel the pain and despair.

Below are screen shots from the film, the last one shows Jean Martin as the colonel with the tortured prisoner.