THE BRITISH INTELLIGENCE FILM REVIEW
'THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS' (1966)
1st November, 2020
I didn't fight against French Algeria to accept an Algerian France
Brigitte Bardot (2018)
A portentous statement by the 1960’s screen icon who has lived long enough to observe the fanaticism of the fellagha transfer from the former French colony to metropolitan France. Where teachers are now beheaded in the street for allegedly insulting The Prophet, Catholic churches are desecrated by followers of bearded imams funded by the Saudis and mosques bristle with automatic weapons. A predictable outcome of De Gaulle’s cowardly betrayal of the Pieds-Noirs settlers to Ben Bella’s ghoulish gang of head-cutters at Evian in 1962 and the liberal left’s romanticization of the Algerian liberation army (FLN) in movies like The Battle of Algiers (1966). With the lingering accusations of torture in Henri Alleg’s book La Question (1958) and Jean-Luc Godard’s film Le Petit Soldat (1960) forever inhibiting an effective response to the violent Koran-inspired insurgency we have witnessed in Europe for over half a century.
Directed by former communist Gillo Pontecorvo and shot by Roberto Rossellini in a grainy black and white newsreel style, with an accompanying soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, The Battle of Algiers is often compared with Italian post-war neorealist cinema productions like Rossellini’s own Rome, Open City(1945) and Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves (1948). Cinematography that uses documentary style editing to give the appearance of historical authenticity and non-professional actors to add credibility to the ethos of compassionate sensibility that critics claim infuses such productions with pathos while steadfastly refusing to make facile moral judgments.
Franco Solinas’ sparse but taut screenplay, indebted to the Saadi Yacef’s book Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger (1962) which borrowed heavily from Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961) as well as the Algerian War trilogy of novels by Jean Larteguy entitled The Mercenaries (1954), The Centurions(1960) and The Praetorians (1961), blends perfectly with Rossellini’s clever use of telephoto lenses and hand held camera imagery to achieve a heady cocktail filled with a real sense of intimate immediacy and mounting tension set to the rhythm of fizzing fuses and exploding gelignite.
The movie opening:
VILLA HEADQUARTERS. INSIDE. NIGHT.
inside a three-story villa, just built, with whitewashed walls.
An elevator shaft is empty, the large cables dangle.
On every landing two apartments. The front doors are wide open.
Whitewash on the floor of the halls, swirls of whitewash on the
windowpanes, naked light bulbs hung from electric wires. The rooms
contain hardly any furnishings.
The kitchens are still without sinks and stoves.
An agitated bustle, a rhythm of efficiency. Paratroopers go up and
down the stairs, pass along the halls, enter and leave the rooms.
The sounds in the background are indecipherable.
SHOUTED ORDERS, CRIES, HOWLS.
SHOUTS, HALF-SPOKEN REMARKS, LAUGHS.
SOMEWHERE A GRAMOPHONE IS PLAYING AT FULL BLAST.
The scene is tense. No pauses.
When the paras are tired, they move to another room.
They sit down, stretch out on the floor, drink coffee or beer, and
smoke cigarettes while awaiting the next shift. Suddenly, the rhythm
of this routine, the timing of these images is upset. A para rushes
down the stairs, and asks cheerfully while running:
The colonel. Where's the colonel?
Why? What's happening?
We know where Ali la Pointe is. One of
them "spoke" ...
His voice echoes through the corridors, on the landings, from one
floor to another. The excitement is contagious. Many crowd around
the door of the kitchen.
The film, from that point on, concentrating on the revolutionary fighter Ali la Pointe during the years between 1954 and 1957, the leader of the guerilla groups that were coalescing in the dusty Casbah, the crenelated old citadel of Algiers. Pontecorvo’s use of fictional realism, through the medium of a western news reporter, is so consciously and sophisticatedly constructed that it succeeds in addressing two very different audiences, whilst depicting the struggle from the middle ground somewhere between the French police cordons and the protesting crowds.
CASBAH ROAD BLOCKS. OUTSIDE. DAY.
The Casbah is being closed off. Every point of entrance, every alley,
every street that joins the Casbah and the European quarters has been
blocked off with wooden horses and with barbed wire nine feet high.
There are also workers, policemen, and soldiers who are working at the
Beyond them, on the other side of the barbed wire, the Algerians seem
to be encaged.
VIEWS OF THE CASBAH. OUTSIDE. DAY. NOVEMBER 1, 1954.
The Casbah: compressed humanity, swarming in the alleyways, on the
steps, in the cafes, in the Arab baths, in the mosques, and in the
markets; a tangle of voices, gestures, faces, veiled women, eyes.
Someone is putting up a handbill, another distributes them.
"National Liberation Front! Algerian
brothers! The time has come to break
loose at long last from the bonds of
misery in which one hundred and thirty
years of colonial oppression has kept us
chained. The moment of struggle is near;
our goal -- national independence ..."
Inflammatory rhetoric that inspires terrorist actions:
BOULEVARD BRU. OUTSIDE. DAY. 8:40 A.M.
A group of zouaves on patrol, three soldiers and an officer. The street
is sloping; on the right there is a high fence covered with advertising
signs and cinematographic posters, all of them torn and full of holes;
the emptiness on the other side is visible through the holes.
The soldiers are chatting among themselves and looking at the posters.
A soldier stops because he sees something moving on the other side of
He points to it and shouts, but not in time.
MACHINE-GUN FIRE INTERRUPTED BY SINGLE SHOTS…
RUE MARENGO. OUTSIDE. DAY. 9:45 A.M.
Another police station. Two policemen are chatting in front of the
A black Renault is passing by at a walking speed, then slows down
almost to the point of halting completely.
The right door opens and there is a burst of machine-gun fire. One of
the policemen has been, hit, and grabs the other so as not to fall.
Another burst of MACHINE-GUN FIRE.
The two policemen fall down together…
MILK BAR. RUE D'ISLY. OUTSIDE. DAY.
The ambulance sirens on Rue d'Isly, one car after another.
At the Milk Bar, the people go to the doors to look at the ambulances
which are racing toward Place Bugeand. The sirens fade in the distance
and move away. The jukebox is again loud: "Brigitte Bardot, Bardot ..."
The people re-enter the bar, chattering, to have their apéritifs. It is
six fifty: the explosion.
MILK BAR. EXPLOSION. OUTSIDE. DAY.
The jukebox is flung into the middle of the street. There is blood,
strips of flesh, material, the same scene as at the Cafeteria; the
white smoke and shouts, weeping, hysterical girls' screams. One of them
no longer has an arm and runs around, howling despairingly; it is
impossible to control her. The sound of sirens is heard again. The
crowd of people, the firemen, police, ambulances all rush to the scene
from Place Bugeand.
The ambulances arrive at Rue Michelet.
They are already loaded with dead and wounded. The relatives of the
wounded are forced to get out. The father of the child who was buying
ice cream seems to be in a daze: he doesn't understand.
They pull him down by force. The child remains there, his blond head a
clot of blood.
Violence that immediately leads to retaliation from the white Pied-Noir population who have already suffered the sadistic torture and murder of women and children in Philippeville in the summer of 1955:
How long do you want the timing device?
Five minutes. Give me a match ...
Arnaud takes the cigarette lighter from the dashboard.
The other man has opened the car door. He takes the lighter and touches
it to the fuse which ignites immediately. The door of number eight is
very near, almost directly opposite the car door.
The man places the package in a shady area and returns to the car at a
run. Arnaud has already changed gears, releases the clutch, and the
automobile shoots forward.
RUE DE THÈBES. EXPLOSION. OUTSIDE. NIGHT. AUGUST 11, 1956. 12:20 A.M.
The explosion is very violent. The fronts of buildings number eight,
ten, and twelve explode and collapse.
The inter-ethnic bloodshed resulting in the tumultuous reception given by the Pied Noir to the arrival of the paratroops:
SEA-FRONT. OUTSIDE. DAY. JANUARY 10, 1957.
The European crowd applauds, their eyes aglow, their mouths wide open,
shouting and yelling, their teeth flashing in the sun. Clapping of
applause on the sea-front of Algiers. Children, are held up to see,
waving small flags. The paratroopers of the Tenth Division march past.
"In particular, it has been decided to recall the 'Tenth'
Division of paratroopers to Algiers that,
until now, has been employed in the
antiguerrilla operations on the Cabiro
plateau. The Commander General of the
Tenth Division will assume responsibility
for the maintenance of order in Algiers,
and will have at his disposal in order to
achieve this goal, all civil and military
means provided for the defense of the
The paras are marching, their sleeves rolled up, their faces sunburned.
Machine guns, bazookas, crew-cuts, the eyes of singing boys, silent
steps, one battalion after another.
The dragon "black berets" pass by ...
The "red berets" of the 2nd Regiment of colonial paratroopers ...
"Les casquettes" of the 3rd Regiment parade by; "les hommes-peints,"
A scene that introduces us to the character of Colonel Mathieu played by Jean Martin:
Colonel Mathieu is at the head of the regiment. He is tall, slender,
over fifty. He has thinning gray hair, a lean face, blue eyes, and a
wide forehead. His face is lined with many wrinkles. Were it not for
the uniform, the weapons, his tanned skin, his manner of walking, and
his energetic voice when giving orders, he wouldn't seem a soldier, but
The 3rd Regiment colonial paratroopers are now before the Commissioner.
Mathieu turns his head slightly and:
3rd Regiment! Attention à droite ...
The image of Mathieu in sunglasses setting the tone for the dual of wills between the stern and efficient Colonel and Ali la Pointe. East versus West. Civilized France versus the Mohammedan mob. With Mathieu’s appearance at a briefing proving pivotal:
“Should we (France) remain in Algeria? If you answer yes, then you must accept all necessary consequences!”
VILLA HEADQUARTERS. INSIDE. DAY.
In a villa in the military headquarters, a reception room is visible
through a large window on the first floor. There are about twenty
officers seated in rows of chairs as if for a lecture. Mathieu is in
front of them and he is speaking while standing next to a desk. At his
back there is a blackboard, and near it, a large map with pyramid
graphs, cells, arrows, crossmarks, and, above them, the title:
STRUCTURE NLF AUTONOMOUS ZONE OF ALGIERS.
Mathieu's voice has nothing of the military and traditional. His tone
is neither harsh nor cold, but rather kind and pleasing; from it
emanates a superior authority imposed by reason and not by position.
He is an adversary who shifts his
position above and below the surface with
highly commendable revolutionary methods
and original tactics. ... He is an
anonymous and unrecognizable enemy who
mingles with thousands of others who
resemble him. We find him everywhere: in
the alleys of the Casbah; in the streets
of the European city, and in working
Juxtaposed to Ali la Pointe:
Omar Ali, known as "Ali la Pointe" born
in Miliana, March 1, 1930. Education:
Illiterate. Occupation: Manual laborer,
farm hand, boxer, presently unemployed.
Former convictions: 1942 -- Oran Juvenile
Court, one year of reformatory school for
acts of vandalism. 1944 -- Two years of
reformatory school for theft. 1949 --
Court of Algiers, eight months for
compulsory prostitution and resisting
arrest. Habitual offender…
Suddenly Ali turns, lifts his
arm as if to push his way through, and then stretches out his hand with
the revolver aimed.
The policeman stops; his eyes are wide with fear. Instinctively he
lifts his arms and opens his palms.
Terror paralyzes him.
Ali glances about him. Many people are moving away hastily, but others
stand still in a circle and watch fascinated. Ali speaks to all of
them, in a loud voice. His eyes are alight.
Don't move! Look at him. You're not
giving any orders now! Your hands are up,
eh! Do you see him, brothers? Our masters
aren't very special, are they?
A sharp, metallic click. Ali tries a second time, presses the trigger
SEVERAL CLICKS. REVOLVER EMPTY.
Ali acting as the very role model for the feckless young Muslims living in the Parisian banlieues today, migrants who make up 70% of the country’s prison population and are significantly over-represented in all statistics relating to criminal offences. With the French magazine Contemporary Values reporting as far back as 2014 that there were 750 ‘no-go-zones’ where Muslims had effectively occupied parts of the nation’s urban conurbations and Giles Kepel , a political scientist and a specialist on Islam at the institute Montaigne, concluding in a 2,000 page document that Sharia had replaced French civil law in whole districts.
Imitations of Pontecorvo’s docu-drama movie reels being replayed over and over before our very eyes. But this time for real, as a cast of feral youths torch cars, rape girls and sell drugs on the Rue de Rivoli, while Jihadi terrorists conduct operations like the Bataclan Massacre, The Charlie Hebdo shootings and the attack on the Stade de France. A virtual theatre played out with live ammunition and sharp serrated knives by an imported army of young males with the connivance of both Brussels and the Elysée Palace.
All of which could have been avoided if the French state had backed General Raoul Salan’s Organisation armée secrète (OAS) instead of imprisoning him; being supportive of, rather than persecuting and judicially murdering Roger Degueldre, who led the OAS Delta Commando Unit during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, or indeed have heeded the words of men like Jean Louis Tixier Vignancour, Président du Rassemblement National, Dominique Venner, a historian, journalist , essayist and veteran of the OAS who committed a symbolic suicide before the altar of Notre Dame de Paris to protest what was happening to his country and Jean Marie Le Pen who had himself served as a lieutenant in Algeria and who led the French National Front throughout the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s.
So the question remains was The Battle of Algiers, known to be the infamous Andreas Baader’s favourite film and the inspiration for various anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist groups like the Black Panthers, The Weather Underground, The Angry Brigade, the Provisional Irish Republican Army, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, Black September and the Red Brigades, as well as being the winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, The International Critics Award and three Academy award nominations back in the swinging sixties , merely a piece of celluloid art? Or was it as the Pentagon perceived it when they used the movie as part of their training programme for counter-insurgency after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a clear message presaging what was to come?
VOICE OF ENGLISH JOURNALIST (off)
This morning for the first time, the
people appeared with their flags -- green
and white with half-moon and star.
Thousands of flags. They must have sewn
them overnight. Flags so to speak. Many
are strips of sheets, shirts, ribbons,
rags ... but anyway they are flags.
Thousands of flags. All are carrying flags, tied to poles or sticks, or
waving in their hands like handkerchiefs. Waving in the sullen faces of
the paratroopers, on the black helmets of the soldiers.