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The Battle of Algiers (1966)

November 4, 2010

7/10 Freedom Fighters

Unbiased, uncompromising and unfortunately pertinent over four decades later.

The Battle of Algiers follows a violent band of Algerian insurgents from 1954 – 1960 as they use guerrilla tactics to spark a revolution and ultimately gain independence from the French government that’s been occupying their nation for over a century. But since these are guerrillas we’re dealing who tend to bomb first and ask questions later (followed up by more bombing), a paratrooper regiment from the French army is sent in to fight fire with fire and take down the Algerian National Liberation Front by any means necessary.

As usual, I knew nothing about the history behind this story going in. For years I actually thought this was a documentary and didn’t realize it my mistake until the movie actually started, but whatever, the good thing is that you really don’t need much of a history lesson anyway. Doesn’t take long to pick up on the volatile relationship between the Algerians and the French, and even without a whole lot of back story to work with, the struggle is awfully familiar.

Directed by one Gillo Pontecorvo, the reason this movie stands out at all goes back to the way he presents both sides of the battle. In Algiers, there are no “good guys”, there are no “bad guys”, and just as one might be able to point the finger as a passive observer, it’s damn hard to say who, if anyone, is in the right. Because it ain’t right to oppress an entire nation of people, then again, it ain’t right to shoot a French officer in the back of the head as a way to fight back. And just as it ain’t right to use the terrorist tactics that result in the mass deaths of men, women and children, it ain’t right to retaliate by torturing and bombing the said terrorists with their own methods. The thing is, one side can just as easily “justify” their actions as the other. Regardless of the collateral damage and lives taken, they’re all just a means to an end.

And hasn’t that always been the story?

This is just the Algerians and the French, but I’m sure the Axis powers thought their mission was just as “right” as the Allies, and the same probably goes for us Americans breaking away from the Brits back in the day. And from the viewpoint of someone with no involvement in the affair and no invested interested outside of something new to write about for his blog, it’s impossible to get behind either cause. It’s devastatingly ugly through and through, it’s the wrong way to go about a revolution and it’s the wrong way to go about suppressing one. But at the same time, I’m not part of the conflict and I could easily imagine myself singing a different tune were the circumstances different. It’s complex stuff, but Pontecorvo does a impressive job of putting us in the mindset of both the French and Algerians. Not something I typically find in a war movie, and that’s worth praising.

But as much as I admire Pontecorvo’s approach to such a difficult subject, I still didn’t find much of an emotional connection. It’s not that I couldn’t empathize with what the characters were going through (because I wasn’t exactly living in a state of constant fear growing up in Suburbia, NY), it’s more the characters themselves that I couldn’t get on board with. The face of the Algerians is represented by Ali la Pointe – an illiterate hothead who spends his days in and out of prison before being recruited for the FLN. And as for the French, our guy in charge is Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu, a decorated strategist who masks his ruthless tendencies with a calm demeanor. Their backgrounds couldn’t be any more different, and that just adds to their opposition as a whole, but I really didn’t care about either of them. La Pointe in particular is just an asshole and he never convinced me that he actually gave a crap about his cause outside of being a hired gun. And even though Mathieu isn’t quite as unlikable and it’s his job to strike down any resistance, he’s a tough guy to warm up to. Doesn’t help that they only show up on-screen every twenty minutes or so, and maybe this all goes back to how damn grim the story is, but their presence only seemed to distance me from their efforts.

Poor audio, too. Lips hardly ever match up with the words.

But in terms of how the subject matter is handled without villainizing either side, The Battle of Algiers lives up to acclaim surrounding it. It’s easy to paint one side of the picture without painting the other, the hard route seems to be painting both. But the tragedy of it all is that, in essence, The Battle of Algiers is still going on to this day. The US government can demonize Al Qaeda and their ideals ’til kingdom come, but just as we can justify the steps we’ve taken and continue to take in terms of suppressing them, so can they. And the kicker of it all is that Algeria finally gained independence by way of constant protest and rioting two years after the FLN fell and without the use of terrorist actions. Shows to go ya’. Makes me wonder why Americans never follow suit in that regard.

In subtext and context, it’s a tough movie to process, but as much as I initially thought I’d forget about it once the credits rolled, it’s been on my mind like crazy for the last two days. The times may be different but the story’s the same, and until we all start taking a step back to understand the mindset of our “enemies”, I don’t exactly see any revisions on the horizon.

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