France Wages a Successful Counter Insurgency in ‘The Battle of Algiers’
The classic film shows how France won the war then lost the peace in Algeria
The day Germany surrendered in World War II thousands of Muslims in the French colony of Algeria took to the streets. They were celebrating — both Muslim and European Algerians had served during the war and helped to beat back the Nazis — but they were also protesting colonial French rule.
The Algerian nationalist movement had been fomenting long before the outbreak of war, and the war with the Nazis accelerated everything. Anti-colonial movements increased across the world. Old empires crumbled and the Algerians, who had fought and bled as much as anyone, wanted to rule themselves.
Paris disagreed and the French authorities violently suppressed the protests. The French military killed thousands, French settlers lynched protesters and French planes bombed Algerian villages.
The nationalist movement receded but didn’t die. The Algerian National Liberation Front fought a bloody insurgency against French rule throughout the 1950s. Paris killed off the FLN and suppressed the insurgency, but in winning the war it lost the country. In 1962, Algeria successfully shook off French colonial rule and became independent.
Just four years later, in 1966, two Italian filmmakers created one of the greatest war movies of all time. The Battle of Algiers dramatizes the insurgency of the 1950s, shows the violent tactics used by both sides and continues to influence guerrilla and insurgent movements to this day.
I’ve never seen anything like The Battle of Algiers. It’s a powerful film grounded in reality. Broadly, war movies tend to come in two types — the gritty romanticism of The Green Berets and the horribly tragedy of Platoon.
The Battle of Algiers is different. It feels objective and removed like a news reel shot during the war instead of after it ended. The characters rarely interact in a way that reveals their motivations, goals or feelings. It’s shot on the streets of Casbah, where the actual battles took place. The music — composed by master of the Western Ennio Morricone — is sparse, jarring and beautiful.
Both the FLN and the French authorities committed atrocities during the battle and the film doesn’t shy away from depicting either. The FLN murder civilians and the French military torture Algerians.
It’s as if director Gillo Pontecorvo and screenwriter Franco Solinas wanted to make a documentary after the fact. That attempt at objectivity made the film a classic and has vaulted it into a weird place where both governments and militaries fighting insurgencies and insurgents themselves look to the film for lessons in how to win.
Prison radicalized Ali La Pointe.
Police arrest him in the European Quarter of Algiers for busking and assaulting a French settler. As the authorities lead him away, the camera focuses on his face. “Omar, Ali. Alias Ali La Pointe. Born January 15, 1930 in Miliana,” a matter-of-fact narrator intones. “Illiterate. Occupation: laborer, bricklayer, boxer. Currently unemployed.” The narration continues, going over the litany of La Pointe’s criminal history. It’s a long list.
The prison is a panopticon with an execution yard waiting in the middle. La Pointe watches as a men in black hoods lead a Muslim man to his doom. They lift him up and slide him on his belly to the waiting blade of the guillotine.
The edge comes down. La Pointe stares in horror. The camera lingers on the cell windows as seen from the yard. The tiny black holes look like the judging eyes of La Pointe and his fellow prisoners.
A sloppier film would put La Pointe at the center of romantic anti-colonial movement. Instead, the justified grievances of the Algerian people and the atrocities of the French military stand next to the brutal tactics of the resistance movement.
“The organization’s getting stronger, but there are still too many drunks, whores, junkies, people who talk too much, people ready to sell us out,” an FLN tells La Pointe at one point. “We must win them over or eliminate them. We need to clean house first, organize the country. Only then can we take on our real enemy.”
Moments later we watch as a group of children descend on a stumbling wino, beat him to death and drag his body down the stairs of Casbah.
The violence increases. French authorities establish a border cutting off the Arab quarter of Algiers, but the FLN is able to sneak agents through … with bombs intended for civilian targets. The 15 minute sequence depicting three Muslim women transforming themselves, crossing the border and planting bombs in cafes and airports is one of the tensest scenes ever filmed.
The Battle of Algiers doesn’t shy away from French atrocities either. After the aforementioned bombings, the French military takes charge. Lt. Col. Mathieu — a fictional composite, unlike La Pointe — enters the country and immediately pursues an aggressive counter insurgency campaigns.
“ID checks are ludicrous,” he explains during an early briefing with his soldiers. “If anyone’s papers are in order, it’s the terrorist’s.” An important lesson we could all stand to remember as fears of foreign refugees moves through the Western world.
“The military aspect of the problem is secondary,” he continues. “More important is the policing aspect.” He understands the FLN’s system of independent and barely connected terrorist cells and he’s got a plan to break them. Capture individuals, extract all they know and work up the chain. “In our situation, humane considerations can only lead to despair and confusion. I’m sure all units will understand and act accordingly.”
Mathieu is an incredible character. He delivers both the plans and justifications for the French counter insurgency with a wry grin. At one point, a reporter asks him what would an escalation of violence might mean.
“What it always means,” Mathieu explains. “An inevitable phase in revolutionary warfare. After terrorism comes armed insurrection. Just as guerrilla warfare leads to warfare proper.” Then he asks the reporters for help.
“It’s not warriors we need,” he says. “Political will. Which is sometimes there and sometimes not. Sometimes it’s not enough.”
After Mathieu captures one of the FLN leaders, he parades him before the press to answer questions. A reporter asks the leader if he considers using women to carry bombs to civilian targets cowardly.
“Isn’t even more cowardly to attack defenseless villages with napalm bombs that kill many thousands of times more?” he responds. “Obviously, planes would make things easier for us. Give us your bombers, sir, and you can have our baskets.”
“Should France stay in Algiers?” Col. Mathieu asks the reporters. “If your answer is ‘yes,’ then you must accept the consequences.”
A series of unflinching scenes depicting the brutal torture of Algerians follows. French soldiers waterboard suspects, hit torsos with blowtorches and string up one in the macaw’s perch stress position.
The Battle of Algiers was critically acclaimed upon its release, won countless international film awards and three Oscar nominations. French authorities banned screening the film for five years. Algerian independence was just four years old and the real battle less than a decade in the past. It was a sensitive subject.
Both radical revolutionaries and counter insurgents still look to the film for inspiration. The Black Panthers and Irish Republican Army frequently screened the film and adapted the tactics into their training manuals. It was German left-wing militant Andreas Baader’s favorite film.
In 2003, the Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict at the Pentagon screened the film for a small audience. “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas,” began a flyer for the screening.
“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.”