The Battle of Algiers (1966)

 

 

 

Director:     Gillo Pontecorvo

Starring:     Yacef Saadi (Djafar), Jean Martin (Col. Mathieu), Brahmin Haggiag (Ali La Pointe), Ugo Paletti (Captain), Samia Kerbash (One of the girls), Fusia El Kader (Halima). 

Countries:  Italian, Algerian film

Pseudo-documentary style used in this story of the revolt against the French by the Algerians, 1954-1962.  

 

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

Algiers 1957.  French soldiers have just finished using torture to interrogate an Algerian prisoner.  One of the soldiers comments to the tortured man that he should have given them the information earlier and they wouldn't have had to torture him so much.  The soldiers quickly drive to the address given by the tortured prisoner.  They take the prisoner along with them just in case he has given them false information. 

One of the four key leaders of the FLN (the Algerian National Liberation Front) and a group of his operatives are hiding behind a false wall.  Colonel Mathieu tells Ali la Pointe to come out of hiding.  It is all over for he says.  He is the only one left of the four FLN leaders.

Flashback.  Algiers 1954.  The National Liberation Front (FLN) issues a call to arms to in the fight for their independence.  Ali la Pointe is running a kind of shell game with playing cards.  His real name is Ali Omar and he was born in 1930 in Miliana.  He has a long criminal record.  He is caught and imprisoned.  In the French prison holding many independence fighters, a prisoner is executed using the guillotine. 

Fives months later and Ali is out of prison.  He wants to fight for independence.  They give him a small job.  He will be given a pistol at the last minute and he will kill the French policeman who gets information about the FLN from an Algerian police informer.  Ali is given the pistol, but when he fires at the police officer nothing happens.  It's just click, click.  Ali knocks down the policeman and runs for his life.  He demands to know why he was "set up".  Leader Jaffar says it is the way they test their new recruits.  If the testee actually pulls the trigger, the FLN knows they can trust him because the French would never permit the killing of one of their own.

April 1956.  The FLN puts a ban on all drugs, alcohol and prostitution among the Algerians. 

June 10, 1956.  The French have occupied Algeria for some 130 years.  The FLN marries a couple 

June 20, 1956.  A policeman is killed with a knife. This kicks off a wave of killing.  A police station is attacked and the policemen inside killed.  The French respond by applying tight police control.  They close off the streets and seal off the Arab quarters.

July 20, 1956.  The FLN shoot a French police officer while he eats at a sidewalk cafe.  Later a FLN bomb is detonated killing and maiming a lot of French men and women.  Other French men pick out an anonymous Arab and start shouting that he did it, he did it and the Arab is arrested. 

The police decide to strike back.  They plant a bomb at a dwelling where they think FLN members are hiding.  The bomb completely destroys the entire building with many deaths.  The Algerians launch a spontaneous protest led by Ali.  But Jaffar stops the demonstration because he is afraid that the French troops will fire on them. 

The FLN strikes back.  They give three bombs to three Algerian women and they plant them at various locations in the French quarters.  The bombs go off killing many French men and women.  The French respond.

January 10, 1957.  French paratroopers arrive in Algiers.  Jean Charrot is the Inspector General.  He will organize the fight against the FLN.  General Carelle is in charge of the 10th Airborne Division.  It is his job to maintain order in Algiers.  Lt. Colonel Philippe Matthieu (born 1907) will carry out the day to day attacks on the FLN.  Matthieu explains to his officers that there are 4.2 FLN attacks each and every day.  Their main target will be the 400,000 Arabs in Algiers.  He says that it has been very difficult to break the organization of the FLN because it is arranged in such a way that any given member only knows two others that they themselves have recruited.  But Matthieu has a secret weapon:  grab as many FLN members as they can and torture the information out of them one after another to enable the French to draw the organizational chart of the FLN and then eliminate the leadership.

January 28, 1957.  The United Nations debates the Algerian question.  There is no agreement to do anything against the French occupation.  There is a week long general strike in Algiers.  The French resistance to the strike will be called Operation Champagne.

Ali takes spokesperson Ben M'Hidi to the Maison des Arbres.  The influential man tells Ali that the general strike will have some negative effects. Any one who joins the strikers will become a known enemy of the French. 

A whistle blows and French soldiers just start banging on Algerian doors, shouting "everyone out" and grabbing all the males.  They carry out a mass round-up. 

Day 4 of the strike.  There is not much activity in the city.  The French philosopher Sartre writes articles protesting against the actions of the French police and soldiers in Algiers.  The army starts torturing Algerian captives.  The organizational chart starts to be filled in with names of FLN members.

February 5, 1957.  The Executive Bureau is at the top of the FLN organization.  The four key leaders are Si Murad, Ramel, Jaffar and Ali La Pointe.  These men are to be caught and imprisoned. 

In response to the French manhunt, Jaffar advises his fellow leaders that they should split up and reorganize.  The first section of their organization is dead, they have lost contact with the second section and the third is reorganizing.  The fourth section is the only one left in good shape.  Jaffar says it is enough with which to start over. 

February 25, 1957.  A bomb detonates at a race track killing and maiming many French people.  French men start beating and kicking a young Arab boy who had nothing to do with the actual bombing.  The French police have to save the boy from serious damage. 

March 4, 1957.  At a French press conference, the now captive Mr. Ben M'Hidi answers the questions of the press.  The press also asks Colonel Matthieu some questions.  They are especially interested in learning about the use of torture in Algiers.  The Colonel denies that they are using torture even though the French soldiers have used blow torches to the skin, hanging hog-tied people upside down, using the water torture and electric shocks.  The Algerians respond with drive-by shootings of French men and women. 

August 26, 1957.  Leaders Ramel and Si Murad are captured.

September 24, 1957.  The French paratroopers corner Jaffar and another FLN member in a building.  Jaffar says he will surrender rather than have the French blow up the entire building.  He says he will send his weapons down to the French in a basket.  He lowers the basket but it does not contain the weapons.  Instead it has a bomb that explodes next to the French soldiers waiting to grab the basket.  Colonel Matthieu decides to blow the building and he does, thereby killing Jaffar and other Algerians. 

Ali is the last of the four FLN leaders in Algiers.  He together with Hassiba, Mahmud and a young boy plan to bomb some French sites. 

End of the Flashback.  Back to the present.  Colonel Matthieu and his paratroopers demand that Ali and his henchmen and woman come out of their hiding place.  They refuse and the paratroopers set up the explosives.  They give Ali another chance to surrender, but he refuses.  The French detonate the explosives killing Ali and his small group and bringing down the whole building.

The top staff of the French resistance to the FLN celebrate.  They say that the FLN has now been decapitated.  Someone mentions:  "We won't hear any more about the FLN". 

December 11, 1960.  There has been two years of relative quiet in Algiers.  But in the mountains disturbances suddenly break out.  The French don't really know why the disturbances are breaking out in Algeria, but it is a big problem and is having a negative effect on public opinion back in France. 

December 21, 1960.  Last day of the demonstrations followed by two more years of struggle.

July 2, 1962.  France grants independence to Algeria. 

 

Very good movie.  You get a real feel for the city of Algiers (with its crowded housing and extremely narrow streets in the Arab quarter) and the struggles for independence in Algiers.  There is a lot of action in the movie with FLN actions and counter-actions by the French and vice-versa.  The Algerians were using the weapons of terrorism to bring down the French.  But they also used such methods as the general strike and public demonstrations.  The really upsetting part of the movie was the use of torture as the main French weapon against the FLN.  The French felt they had to torture FLN members and completely innocent Algerians in order to discover who were the FLN members.  My wife said:  "The French should be ashamed of themselves."  Apologists for the use of torture would say that the Algerians also employed torture, but this still would not excuse the French.

With the at times nearly constant attacks on the French, it was only a matter of time before they did the old "cut and run".  Along the way, however, they killed millions of Algerians and tortured hundreds.  The disc set I have has two other discs with lots of information on the movie and Algerian history.  The movie is definitely worth watching. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 

 


Historical Background:

642-1830  --  Islam and the Arabs rule in Algeria, in chronological order:
Fatimids, Almoravids , Almohads, Zayanids, Marabouts, and Ottoman Rule.

1827  --  the French say the dey insulted the French consul in Algiers and blockade Algiers for three years.

1830  -- with the revolution of 1830, the restored French monarch seeks to boost his domestic popularity.  Saying the Algerian blockade was ineffective, France launches a military expedition against Algiers.

1830-1962  -- France rules Algeria.  

1945 (May)  --  celebrations broke out to celebrate the defeat of Germany in WWII.  But soon the celebrations were changed into pro-independence rallies.  In the eastern town of Setif, French soldiers opened fire on the Algerians.  The French say 15,000 to 20,000 were killed, while the Algerians claim that the number is closer to 45,000.  

1954-1962 --  Algerian War of Independence.

1954  -- establishment of the FLN (National Liberation Front or Front de Libération Nationale).

1954 Nov 1  --  FLN guerrillas attack various military installations, police posts, communications facilities, and other facilities in Algeria. They call for independence from France.

Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist from Martinique, become the FLN's leading political theorist when he justifies the use of violence to achieve national liberation.

1955  --  Jacques Soustelle becomes governor general of Algeria and begins an ambitious program to improve economic conditions among the Muslim population.

1955 August  --  the rebels of FLN escalate their activity when they massacre 123 men, women and children in the town of Philippeville. The government responds with force killing guerrillas and others.  All-out war begins in Algeria.

1956  -- Algerian FLN leaders, among them Ben Bella, jailed. 

1956 September 30  --  beginning of the Battle of Algiers with the explosion of bombs planted at three locations.  An average of 800 shootings and bombings per month occurred through the spring of 1957.

1957  -- general strike.  By the use of force, including torture, General Jacques Massu breaks the strike.  The French response calls into question the legitimacy of their position in Algeria.

1958 May 13  --  an army junta under General Massu seizes power in Algiers. General Salan becomes head of  civil authority.  The junta demands that de Gaulle be named to head a government of national union. 

1958 June  --  De Gaulle becomes premier and given carte blanche to deal with Algeria.  De Gaulle visits Algeria and recommends reforms for a French Algeria.  The FLN responds with a government-in-exile headed by Abbas.

1959 February --  de Gaulle elected president of the Fifth Republic.  His calls for a cease-fire in Algeria rejected.

1959 -- by this time the French army wins military control in Algeria. But it was all down hill for them from here, as growing political pressure mounted on the French.

1959 September --   de Gaulle relents and calls for "self-determination" (but with Algeria still closely linked with France).

1960 January  --  feeling betrayed by de Gaulle, the colons (colonists) and parts of the army take over the government in Algiers, but their plans quickly fall apart.

1961 April  -- parts of the French army and the colons carry out another power grab, this time to not only seize power in Algeria but also to topple the de Gaulle regime. The Secret Army Organization (OAS) aids the vigilantism of the colons. The revolt ends after four days.

1961 May -- talks begin with the FLN at Evian.

1962 March  -- cease-fire in place.

1962 March-June   -- OAS begins a terrorist campaign causing the worst carnage yet in Algeria.

1962 June  --  the French electorate approves the Evian Accords (91%) in a referendum. Later OAS and FLN agree to a truce.  Around 1.4 million westerners and others leave Algeria, mainly headed to France.  The Algerians claim 1.5 million Muslims were killed in the years of the fight for independence.

Source: History of Algeria website:

http://www.countryreports.org/history/alghist.htm

 

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