The Battle of Algiers (1966)

the battle of algiers poster

A man has electrodes attached to his ears and is shocked until he names names, and gives vital information about the revolution. A band of children shouts at an old man “drunkard” as they beat him and send him tumbling down a flight of stairs. A bomb explodes in a café, killing women and children. These are just a few of the horrific images seen in The Battle of Algiers, the 1965 film concerning the Algerian revolution against French colonization. From the start, we are told that no documentary footage was used in the making of the film and that it is all staged. It is an important piece of information, for it looks and feels all too real. The filmmakers used newsreel film stock, existing light, and actual locations to make the movie. This succeeds in sucking the viewer straight into the trenches. We feel as if we were there, plotting with the revolutionaries, struggling with the French army.

While watching this film in 2005 it is easy to think about the war in Iraq. There are many similarities including a large nation occupying a smaller, Muslim country; small bands of revolutionaries who have created an underground network of revolt. Even the methodology of the Iraqi insurgents is similar to the violent acts of the Algerian revolutionaries.

It is a disservice to the power of the film, though, to allow it to only serve our current political landscape. It is, in fact, important to realize that a film about an Algerian revolt against French oppression over 40 years ago, can serve as a springboard to a discussion about US involvement in Iraq. It is a film, that is specifically located, and time capsuled and yet its message is so universal that it can be applied to any war, insurgency, or revolution.

Though the filmmaker’s sympathies clearly lie with the Algerians, no side comes off as humane. The revolutionaries think nothing of bombing innocent people, some of them their own, to further their cause. There are multiple shots of the Algerians shooting policemen at point-blank range.

The French fight dirty as well. In a particularly grueling montage, we see them hideously torture the Algerians to get information. The French leader, Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin), at one point, mentions that the only way to fight off this type of revolution is by using such brutal tactics.

Ultimately, the film left me not with a feeling of rightness for either the French occupation, or the Algerian revolution, but rather despair over the horrendous acts we are capable of as humans.

It is a moving, often gut-wrenching picture, but an undeniably important one. Gillo Pontecorvo has made a film that needs to be watched. Not only to understand the Algerian revolution but to get a better understanding of any form of violence and revolt.

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