In war there is a thin line between what are considered honourable tactics and what are considered acts of terrorism. The problem is trying to decide where to actually draw? Is it when bombs are dropped from the sky from airplanes? Or is it when young girls are used to plant bombs in public places at the expense of ordinary citizens? This is the dilemma that is presented in Gillo Pontecorvo’s powerful film The Battle of Algiers.
Pontecorvo’s film recounts the events surrounding the Algerian war in the 1950s. Seeking independence from France, the National Liberation Front (FLN) starts a guerrilla movement that quickly escalated into an all out war with the French army. The capital city of Algiers soon becomes a vicious battleground where no one is safe. Average citizens become both causalities and pawns for both sides in the battle. The FLN enlist the assistance of women and children to plant bombs and shoot French soldiers at close range. The French army frequently raid homes and businesses in an attempt to locate insurgents. They even resort to using torture to extract any information they can about the FLN movement.
While there were many people who ultimately played an important role in the Algerian war, the fictional retelling in The Battle of Algiers primarily focuses on two individuals. One is Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), a petty criminal who eventually moves up the ranks to become the leader of the FLN. The other character of note is Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin), a French colonel who admires the FLN’s determination, but will not hesitate to use whatever method he can to bring them down. Though Pontecorvo briefly highlights other characters, it is this juxtaposition between these two men that he is most interested in.
Through Ali and Colonel Mathieu, Pontecorvo shows how each man inherently believes that they are fighting on the right side. It is this belief that makes the Algerian war both important and devastating at the same time. As each side resorts to more ruthless tactics, it is the civilians who become increasingly expendable. While The Battle of Algiers clearly sides more with the FLN, Pontecorvo makes a point on several occasions to highlight that both sides were in the wrong in regards to how they went about doing things.
The Battle of Algiers is a film that is not only captivating from a story standpoint, but it is a technical marvel as well. Shot in a pseudo-documentary style, the film plays like an old newsreel documenting key moments in the war. This format is especially effective when Pontecorvo incorporates several bomb explosion scenes in the film. It is a wonder how Pontecorvo managed to pull off those scenes as well as he does. He really gives the film a realistic feel which makes the events depicted in it even more chilling.
Despite being released in 1966, The Battle of Algiers is a film that is extremely relevant today. In many ways the film could be a template for many of the conflicts that currently exist in the world. It is a sobering reminder of how little the world has changed in regards to people’s fights for independence and the lives that are lost as a result. The Battle of Algiers is a powerful film that proves that the line between honour and terror is a thin one indeed.