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The Battle of Algiers Movie Review

Thesis Statement of Purpose: Verbatim report of research assignment.

The Battle of Algiers: Movie Review

Description of the movie

The Battle of Algiers is a classic 1965 year movie based on the events of the Algerian War (1954-1962) and filmed by the Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo by the sketchy screenplay written by the former Algerian political leader Saadi Yasef with a script co-written by Franco Solinas, the Italian writer. In the original movie version there was a disclaimer: “Not one foot of newsreel or documentary film has been used.”(Johnson), however, the movie has a perfectly documentary nature. It was made black & white to increase the viewer’s impression of facing the reality and not the choreographically set scenes. The movie was filmed in the natural sceneries of Algiers of 1965 and most of the cast were chosen from the non-professional Algerians picked up for their typical appearance and emotional effect. The language of the film is French and Arabic, and its latest release with English soundtrack and English subtitles was issued by Criterion Collection in a 3-disc DVD set, including interviews with the members of FLN and the discussion of Battle of Algiers's depiction of terrorism and guerilla realities by the USA counter-terrorism advisors and film directors.


The movie opens with the scene of French soldiers brutally torturing an aged Algerian man and finally forcing him to agree to show them the location of Ali la Puente , the last alive member of the General Staff of FLN, the rebellion movement they are determined to destroy. The tormented man is trembling of pain and shame; the tears are running down on his cheeks, suddenly he rushes to a window trying to escape, but the soldiers catch him and force to follow them.

The next scene shows the occupation of the house where Ali la Puente found refuge, soldiers drive out men and women to the hall, and the tortured traitor, dressed in the French military uniform, shows the place where La Puente is hiding with three of his companions-in-arms, one of who is a teenage boy. French soldiers are convincing them to surrender, but they stay silent and are waiting for death. The camera shows their faces – a very young man, a woman with a dark and resolute face, a boy and finally Ali la Puente himself, his eyed flashing with rage and bitter contempt. In this moment the vision becomes blurred and the film retraces to the past of the Algerian revolution and history of FLN formation, showing the viewer some random realities of treatment of Arabs by pied noirs: several French young men trip running Ali just for having fun of seeing him to fall, of French commissar provoking FLN activists by setting a bomb in one of the sleeping quarters, pied noirs enraged after the explosion attacking a small Arab child in a street and so on.


The Battle of Algiers is based on true events; nevertheless, there are used composite characters together with those depicting historical personalities. One of these composite characters is “Colonel Philippe Mathieu”, commanding the 10th Airborne Division that arrived to Algiers on the 10th of January, 1957 to organize the fight against rebel activity. He participated in campaigns in Italy and Normandy, was a member of an anti-Nazi resistance movement, and took part in the Indochina war. This character is a composite of several French officers, especially Jacques Massu and Marcel Bigeard (Maxey). This character is played by the only French actor in the cast, Jean Martin, who, ironically, was fired from the French theatre for signing a manifesto against Algerian war. Colonel Mathieu seems to be a decent soldier who is performing his duty (“We are soldiers, our duty is to win”), dissecting a problem into structural parts and trying to solve it in the most rational way, isolating and destroying the active minority of rebellious Arabs. Though disliking the police aspect of fight against the revolution, he introduces the measures of total investigation and “exhausting” interrogations, that is to say, tortures. He states that the success is in the result if these methods. The FLN members are allowed to disclose the secret data only in 24 hours after arrest, which enables FLN to make any data irrelevant by this time. That is why the soldiers have to use other methods than common civil law procedures. Colonel Mathieu, though elegant and noble, seems to be a person who cut off his human qualities and turned into an icy machine to perform his duty. 

The key character of the movie is Ali La Puente, one of the leaders of FLN, played by Brahim Haggiag, an illiterate Algerian selected for his character heroic appearance of a strong and passionate personality, and several times in the movie an accent is made on his eyes. Ali La Puente was imprisoned several times for minor crimes and vandalism, and upon his release was recruited by FLN. To ensure that he was not a spy or a traitor, he was ordered to assassinate a French policeman. In the recollections of Saadi Yasef (a prototype and a performer of the role of Jaffar) Ali La Puente appears a person of extraordinary courage, but also precise, practical and just. “After each of … actions he was conscious of having carried out a doubly useful task. In fact, on one hand he eliminated a slyly effective enemy of the organization; on the other he increasingly liberated the inhabitants of the Casbah — they who were also daily victims of the often brutal conduct of these auxiliaries of the police — from fear”. (History of Algerian Independence).  Ali is a personification of thousands Muslim people crying for liberty and rights, in his eyes there is the unforgettable sharp feeling of rage and suffer, here he is truly a hero of his time. 

Another prominent character of the movie is El-Hadi Jaffar, also the member of the FLN General Staff. This is a fictional character, based on the personality of Saadi Yasef, who himself also performed this role in the movie. Jaffar is presented as an intellectual inspirer and tactic organizer of all rebellious actions, including the 8-day strike in Casbah. The real Saadi Yasef was an organizer of the military wing of the Algeria National Front (Roth) and he physically conducted and led all the events that are depicted in the movie. The Battle of Algiers is based on his notes that he wrote on an envelope when he was imprisoned and spent five years in jail. (Roth). Saadi Yasef states that under those circumstances there was no another way either for French soldiers than to imply tortures, and no way for Algiers population than to react by violence to violence. Besides, french tortures caused in massive recruitment of Algerian people, which produced a strong impact to the destabilization of France.

Larbi Ben M’Hidi, who is now considered a National Hero in Algeria, is also an important character in the movie. He was a prominent Algerian leader, one of the headquarters of FLN, and was captured, tortured and executed by the French paratroopers in 1957. In The Battle of Algiers he is depicted as a strong personality, a political and war leader, possessing invincible will and charisma. In the scene of the press conference with Ben M’Hidi in the 4th of March, 1957, he behaves with a sense of incredible dignity and is even able to make bitter jokes, which surely causes respect towards the moral fiber and courage of this man, so strongly devoted to his ideals and his people.

In the ranks of the Algerian revolutionaries there were women as well as men. In the movie veiled Muslim women hide in their wicker baskets guns for the assassinators performing hit-and-run attacks on policemen and soldiers. One of the strongest scenes on the film is the scene where three women, Djamila, Zohra, and Hassiba (one of those who joined in death to Ali La Puente), change their traditional clothes concealing all the face and body according to the Muslim laws and religion to the European skirts and blouses and even flippant trousers to pass French checkpoints unsearched, carrying bombs. One of these women even cuts her long black hair and dyes it light, another takes her son with her. They leave their handbags with bombs in a cafe, full of people, in a bar, where dozens of young people are drinking and dancing, and in the office of Air France. They see people - all civilian, practically innocent people - passengers awaiting their planes, aged people drinking coffee and talking, teenagers dancing, a diffident boy who is afraid to invite a girl to dance, and - as a culmination - a small child licking ice-cream - all this to be blown up in several minutes. One can only guess what might these three women feel - but nevertheless, they leave the bombs and go away, and there are dozens of victims, and blood, and fear.

Petit Omar is a small hero of the Algerian War, a street urchin and a FLN messenger, who then becomes one of the most devoted fellow-soldiers of Ali La Puente and is executed by the French soldiers together with him. He is probably an embodiment of all Muslim children of Algiers of that time, maybe not understanding political motives and reasons, but strong in their hate to the enemy who killed their loved ones, and that is why devoted to the cause of the revolution.

Analysis of the movie

Plot Lines and Themes

The film, subsidized by Algerian government, was originally intended as a part of propaganda for anti-colonialism. In 1965, the time of the movie filming, the Algerian War was still fresh for pubic, as Algerian independence was proclaimed only three years ago, in 1962, after 8 years of struggle. The movie that began as a sketchy screenplay written by Saadi Yasef in prison nowadays became one of the so-called training films for Pentagon officers for them to understand the regularities and rules of partisan war and ways of struggle against world terrorism. However, Saadi Yasef himself in his interview to Diplomatic License states that “the style, the urban guerilla style, the Chinese style, the Latin American style, South American style, did not have the same human elements, geographic elements or social elements. There is nothing comparable. So Algeria really has nothing in common with all of that”. (Roth).

To make the events of the Battle of Algiers more personal and to create a single plot line, the creators of the movie concentrate the attention on Ali La Puente as the personification of the rebellious spirit, and partially the story is told as witnessed by his eyes. The camera focused on his face, as if carved out of stone, and his short biography of an ordinary street criminal is told, but nevertheless it is clearly felt that he is deemed to play the great role in the story of Algerian revolution. 

After the stories of Ali La Puente, Jaffar, Larbi Ben M’Hidi and three women who carried bombs, another subtle plot line is a story of a young Algerian couple, both of them belonging to FLN. The scene of their wedding ceremony comes shortly after the scene of Algerian children kicking and mocking the alcoholic, as due to FLN propaganda alcoholism, prostitution and selling drugs in Casbah were considered illegal and such that undermine health and fighting capability of Algerians. The wedding ceremony is conducted by Larbi Ben M’Hidi himself and the marriage is registered by FLN. The bride, Fatiha, is very young, almost a girl, and so young is her chosen one, Mahmud. He will be one of those who will join Ali La Puente in death, blown up in their hiding place. There is a short prayer, the newly married sign their names, and then - another prayer, the voices of many people standing not only in the room where the marriage took place, but also in the yard, on the roofs of houses, join into a rhythmic choir, This prayer flows over the dirty and ragged walls of Casbah to the lighted streets and rich white houses of the European quarters. Despite its seeming simplicity, it is a very strong scene, showing the viewer the connection between FLN and civilian people of Algiers, unanimously determined to win their freedom and their right for own culture and religion.  

Propaganda and Tortures

Constant attacks on policemen and police stations keep French population of Algiers in terror. The Government is trying to introduce measures to control terrorism, such as reporting about people with gunshot wounds in hospitals and blocking entrances to the Muslim quarters of city at night and installing there police checkpoints in the daytime. Then women start carrying guns under their veils, guns can be hidden in the fruit baskets and can appear in a hand of an Algerian teenager. Yes, this is terrorism, but after the explosion of the bomb set in a Casbah sleeping quarter by French, when a viewer sees Algerian man carrying the mutilated bodies of children out of the ruined house, the crying and screaming women searching for their loved ones in the ruins, after that it is easier to apprehend the motives of FLN members setting bombs in public places.

Either in guerilla or in civil war propaganda is one of the most effective ways of influence on the society and public opinion. As The Battle of Algiers is a reconstruction of the real events, this movie can be chosen as an example of such influence. Really, propagandistic appeals to the Muslim population of Algiers sounding from the megaphones in the casbah streets are a part of the natural background of these years’ city life. Such appeals have destructive strength that is hard to exaggerate, because they are intruding into thoughts of each single person, changing opinion and causing doubt in what they used to believe, especially if such propagandistic appeals were competently composed. French radio emissions in casbah contain nothing except lists of names of those who were recently arrested and killed, but considering the structure of FLN, it could be one of the best ways to convince people that hear familiar names of that the organization is on its last legs and to persuade them to collaborate with police. One can never say now how well this worked; taking in account that fact that the police still had to imply the most severe tortures to force the arrested to disclose their fellow-soldiers. Later appeals become more persuading and non-compromising, directly stating that FLN is disorganized and the battle is lost, and convincing Muslim citizens to step under the protection of French army. In the movie these words sound in the background of frightening scenes of Algerian people standing with their faces to the walls and searched by the policemen, dead bodies lying in the streets and – there is a tear-stained Muslim child, watching a soldier to search a killed man. Propaganda can work only if it is supported by real actions, at least partially, but never if it fully contradicts the reality. Besides, people are always more likely to believe propaganda that corresponds their convictions and that is issued by someone from their own side. The strong scene of the movie is when Petit Omar steals a microphone from a police officer in the checkpoint on the 6th day of the strike. The officer was reading the text stating that FLN impedes normal prosperous life of casbah people and that France is their real motherland, all this in the background of Algerian women searching their probably arrested or killed sons and husbands in the rows of men coming back from work in the European quarters. No one believes this French propaganda, no one listens to it. But then Omar steals the microphone, and his ardent appeal to his compatriots sounds above the rows of the exhausted and despaired people – an appeal to resist and to believe in their future freedom, and this is met by the immediate furious support of people, a frightening scream of women, sending shivers down the spine, and this can not be stopped by fear of guns and arrest. This proves once more that propaganda, despite its obvious effectiveness, can not work well if it meets strong resistance of the antagonizing population.

Tortures are another important theme and problem of the movie. On the part of the French headquarters, the use of tortures seems to be justified by the necessity to get information from the arrested members of FLN as quick as possible, taking in account that fact that the police can not linger and use common methods of civil investigation while bombs are exploding in the city quarters and dozens of victims die every day. And they implied burning hot iron, waterboarding, hanging people upside down and electric shocks, and for sure, they got information, figuring out members of FLN and defining its structure. After the series of such "investigations" (Webber, Chapter 3), FLN headquarters were forced to leave the capital, and this was the first victory of France.

But there was also the opposite result: these tortures completely destroyed the image of France as a democratic country and caused massive voluntary recruitment of Algerians to the ranks of FLN. Saadi Yasef says in his interview to Diplomatic License:  “I don't see how the French Army could have acted in any other way under the circumstances. We simply had to accept this fact of torture [….] Automatically there was a massive recruitment as a result […]. When you killed someone, 10 more recruits flocked to our side. So we needed this kind of torture, this brutality, to destabilize France, eliminate the 4th Republic, and everything else involved in terms of brutality and cruelty”(Roth).

Implying tortures also caused great scandal in French society, which is almost not shown in the movie. Several brochures of the re-called reservists in Algeria were published generally in 1957, disclosing for the French public the real nature of Algerian conflict, despite the veil of secrecy and censorship. The publications in journals and newspapers involved intellectuals that soon formed networks fighting against human rights violations. The significant example of the mood of certain spheres of French society could be a phrase of the anti-colonialist historian Robert Bonnaud: "If France's honor can go along with these acts of torture, then France is a country without honor."(Webber, Chapter 3).

Sometimes while watching a movie a question may appear: is the Algerian independence worth all this? Algeria had been a French colony for 130 years by that moment, so was there a reason to start a revolution? This paper is not dedicated to the reasons of Algerian War, but here is just a logical remark: people do not start rebellious actions if they have economic and cultural freedom. The obtrusive politics of France and nationalistic behavior of “pied noirs” caused indignation and insurrection, and probably there was no another way to solve the conflict except guerilla.

The movie was filmed with an attempt to show the events from the neutral point of view. In fact, in such a movie there can not be any neutrality. There are two parties fighting against each other, each applying methods that have nothing in common with humanity and morality. In fact, there is no difference, whose children – French or Algerian - are pulled out of the ruins; there is no difference, with whose blood the stones of the city streets are soaked. The thing is in that any violence has its subsequences, either fear and submission, or resistance and even stronger violence, and this second effect we actually see in the events of Algerian war.

Glossary of Key Terms

Algerian War - a conflict between France and Algerian independence movements from 1954 to 1962, which led to Algeria gaining its independence from France.

Casbah - specifically the citadel of Algiers in Algeria and the traditional quarter clustered around it.

FLN (transliterated: Jabhat at-Ta?rir al-Watani, French: Front de Libération Nationale, hence FLN)  -  a socialist political party in Algeria. It was set up on November 1, 1954 as a merger of other smaller groups, to obtain independence for Algeria from France.

Guerilla - a form of irregular warfare and refers to conflicts in which a small group of combatants including, but not limited to, armed civilians (or "irregulars") use military tactics, like ambushes, sabotage, raids, the element of surprise, and extraordinary mobility to harass a larger and less-mobile traditional army, or strike a vulnerable target, and withdraw almost immediately.

Paratroopers - soldiers trained in parachuting and generally operate as part of an airborne force.

Pieds-Noirs - a term used to refer to colonists of French Algeria until the Algerian independence in 1962. Specifically, Pieds-Noirs were French nationals, including those of European descent, Sephardic Jews and settlers from other European countries such as Spain, Italy and Malta, who were born in Algeria.

Propaganda - a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position.


1. Map of Algeria at the time of the war

2. Information about France and Algeria  

 Arabic and French

3. Algerian War Numbers: Casualties and Losses:

Algeria: 153,000 dead, 160,000 wounded, 1,500,000 dead according to the Algerian government;

France: 25,600 dead, 65,000 wounded.

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