Foxtel World Movies showed one of the great films about war last night. It was Gillo Pontecorvo’s La Battaglia di Algeri known in English as “Battle of Algiers”. It tells a dispassionate story of the Algerian War of Independence from France which lasted from 1954 to 1962. The film was shot on location in Algiers in 1966 and because the wounds were still raw, it was banned in France for many years after. The war itself was one of the bloodiest seen in Africa. More than 1.5 million Algerians died in the struggle. The French lost over 27,000 soldiers, and over 4,000 civilians.
In the 1950s France was reluctantly divesting itself of empire. They lost Vietnam at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. The North African protectorates of Tunisia and Morocco both gained independence in 1956. However, Algeria, sandwiched between them, was more important than a protectorate. It was legally considered to be a department of the French Republic. It had a large population of French settlers, mainly in the coastal towns. So when the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) started a guerrilla campaign against the French in 1954, it was met with fierce resistance. The then interior minister François Mitterrand rejected peace talks with the FLN and said "the only possible negotiation is war”.
Initially the FLN campaign was restricted to country areas where the army presence wasn’t as strong. Many refugees fled to the capital Algiers to escape the violence. Eventually the war followed them. I say ‘war’ but it was not a match of equals and the conflict more properly resembles what would now be called an ‘insurgency’. The tactics on both sides were brutal and terrorism was a vital part of FLN’s strategy as well as that of the French response.
The film Battle of Algiers covers the conflict from the time it hits the capital until 1960 when Algeria was on the verge of independence. With chilling accuracy it shows the tactics used and how the war escalated. The film is remarkably even-handed. Although Pontecorvo (a member of the Italian Communist Party) was undoubtedly sympathetic to the Algerians, he is not afraid to show the devastating effects of their bombs in French cafes as well as giving the French army a fair portrayal.
The FLN campaign had three strategies. Firstly there was the guerrilla campaign against French police and military. Secondly there was the persuasion, and in some cases coercion, of the local population to accept their leadership. The third strategy was the manipulation of international opinion. They convinced Arab League and Communist countries to lobby the UN for their recognition as the national government of Algeria. One of the film scenes show a general strike and the FLN leadership see this strike as a way of the UN gauging the strength of the revolution.
By 1957, the year of the strike, the FLN marshalled 40,000 fighting troops. As well as fighting the French they also had to deal with a rival Algerian group the MNA (Mouvement National Algérien) which had greater support among émigré Algerians in France. In the spring of 1957 there was three bombings each month and over 800 shootings. The paratroopers were brought in from Indochina to restore the peace. They were led by brigade general Jacques Massu ("Colonel Mathieu" in the film) Although the film shows him as cultured and elegant, he systematically rooted out and destroyed the FLN leadership using torture and mass punishment.
In the film, Colonel Mathieu holds a press conference where a captured FLN leader holds court. A Parisian journalist asks the revolutionary, "do you not consider it cowardly to send your women carrying bombs in their handbags, to blow up civilians?" The rebel replies "do you not think it cowardly to bomb our people with napalm?" He continued "give us your airplanes and we will give you our women and their handbags."
The power of the film is still massive. It is often seen as a textbook for emerging nations and remains a controversial dissertation on the nature of terrorism. In 2003, the Pentagon held a showing of the film for 40 officers and “experts” in order to gain insight into the nature of guerrilla warfare, insurgency and the efficacy of brutal state response.
The duration and savagery of the revolution caused major ramifications in France. The fourth republic collapsed in 1958 and De Gaulle was brought in to lead the country and reach a settlement with Algeria. Although the army had defeated the FLN, opposition grew among the Algerian population and France came under increasing international pressure to come to a settlement. De Gaulle realised the futility of continued French action and full independence was finally achieved in 1962 after referendums in France and Algeria.
Algeria was admitted as the UN’s 109th member in October 1962. Ahmed Ben Bella was elected as the country’s first premier in the same year. He declared Algeria would be a neutral country and aligned itself with Cuba. Che Guevara visited the country in occasion during these heady early days. It didn’t last. Ben Bella was deposed in 1965 and Algeria became a military dictatorship under strongman Houari Boumédienne.
The events are prophesised in the film. Two of the leaders of the revolution are talking about the difficulties of rebellion. One of them says “it is difficult to start a revolution, more difficult still to keep it going and most difficult of all to win it. And when you’ve won, only then does the real work start.” Pontecorvo is now 86 years old and although made another nine films since Algiers, none have matched this early work for its honesty, breathtaking vision and undeniable sense of history in the making.
The "Battle of Algiers" is a masterpiece.