6 February 2018



'It's hard to start a revolution, even harder to keep it going, and hardest of all to win it. It's only then, when you've won it, that the real difficulties start.'
Saadi Yacef, revolutionary.

Wow. This is an epic historical war film which, as it was shot in a grittily realistic black-and-white documentary style, has the appearance sometimes of actual news-reels, but the film-makers are adamant that there isn't a single reel of real news footage in the whole movie. So there, lol. It's astonishingly realistic, though, as it was shot in the very places it's portraying in the film and it uses indigenious Algerians in it too.

Let's start at the beginning, shall we, a place at which I've always been told is a very good place to start. In general, we're talking here about the Algerian War of Independence from France but, in particular, about one of its most important milestones... The titular Battle of Algiers, from 1956 to 1957...

How can I explain in a few sentences a situation so complex? Well, the Algerians were sick and tired of being bossed around by the French, for a kick-off, see? I can't say I blame them. I've never understood the notion of colonialism, or why one country, usually bigger and more powerful, would want to go into another country and take it over.

It seems a bit rude, doesn't it? It'd be like me going into the people next door and telling them that I want their house, even though I've already got my own house and it's perfectly comfortable and adequate. 

It doesn't make any sense, which is why the Algerians formed the FLN or their own Liberation Front and tried to get rid of the French soldiers stationed in their narrow, cramped little streets. I love their streets, by the way, the white-washed old houses and the endless, endless steps, steps everywhere. God help you if you were pushing a pram...!

In the film, the French send in a real Army big shot called Colonel Mathieu to solve the problem and flush out the FLN, which were almost impossible to find as they had hiding places everywhere, literally everywhere, and the native Algerians would often help to hide them in their own homes. 

Like the scene where the pregnant woman, devastatingly poor and practically living in a hovel herself, hides the two fleeing Algerian lads inside a well in her little house. She hugs the men too, even though she doesn't know them personally, because she knows that they're fighting for her freedom as well as their own.

Colonel Mathieu is confident that he can do the job. He likens the FLN to a tapeworm of all things, one of Mother Nature's lowliest subjects. I'm sure the lads from the FLN loved that, not. You can kill as many segments as you like, Colonel Mathieu argues, but unless you chop off the head, the bloody thing will just keep re-generating itself. Mathieu sets out to cut off the head of the organisation he's been sent in to squash. To do this, he'll need knowledge...

He figures out that, in the revolutionary cells that have been set up, each revolutionary knows only three people, the man who recruited him and the two men he is tasked with recruiting himself. This way, if a revolutionary is captured, you can torture him as much as you like but, at the end of the day, he only has the names of three people at best.

In fact, the French did disgracefully torture revolutionaries who fell into their hands, and there are several scenes of torture in the film which are distressing to watch. The FLN hit back though, by bombing areas in which French soldiers and civilians were known to congregate, and they often used women to carry the bombing machinery in their shopping baskets or under their robes.

The French soldiers were discouraged from touching or searching the Algerian women as
no-one but their own Algerian men were supposed to do that. Therefore, women became more and more likely to be the ones to carry the bomb through the checkpoints on the crowded streets and into the jam-packed restaurant, depositing the bag with the bomb in it discreetly under a chair before walking quickly away while waiting for the almighty bang.

We see several examples of womens' involvement in the guerrilla movement in the film. I don't know whether to cheer for the sort of equality they have with men or to be appalled that women could be involved in any bombing that killed children as well as men and women. The film is famous for fairly portraying the bad behaviour on both sides, however, so for every shameful and inhuman Algerian action there was a corresponding French one and vice versa.

The story begins and ends with the capture of Ali La Pointe, a young man with a reputation for being something of a petty thug-slash-criminal before he becomes converted to the cause while in prison. Well, I suppose that, in there, you're what's known as a captive audience, lol.

Anyway, Colonel Mathieu runs Ali to earth in a small house in the Casbah, where he's hiding with several others behind some fake tiling in a bathroom in a manner reminiscent of the Jews hiding from the Nazis in World War Two. They'd construct the most ingenious hiding places for themselves with the aid of a few boards and nails and sometimes, sometimes, they'd get away with it.

Ali La Pointe is discovered in his hiding place, however, where he's lying low with a woman, a young boy they'd used as a messenger and also the man who recruited him in prison, an FLN commander called Jafar.

Jafar is based on and played by real-life Algerian revolutionary Saadi Yacef, who gives a very interesting interview in the extra features in which he says that: 'The bomb was a despicable weapon, but it would help us to celebrate our independence.'

Colonel Mathieu was nearby, shouting to Ali and his comrades-in-arms on his loud-hailer to give themselves up. Come on, he wheedled, I'll be your friend. Haha, no, I'm only kidding. He promised them a so-called 'fair trial' if they came out with their hands up type-of-thing.

What could he promise them if they didn't turn themselves in? Well, he was gonna detonate his bomb thingy and blow them up, probably taking half the street with them. So what did Ali and his chums choose to do? You know I can't tell you that. For shame, haha.

You probably know already that, while the French won the Battle of Algiers, Algeria, the poster-boy for colonialism as it were, ultimately won the war. They gained their independence from France in 1962 though not, as we now know, without dirty tactics and unforgivable acts of destruction on both sides. See the way there that I'm not blaming any one country for being meaner than the other? I'm being fair and even-handed, like the film itself, lol. Go, me.

The film is so realistic and important, by the way, that it's actually used by military organisations, including the Pentagon (holy fuuuck, the actual Pentagon...!), to offer insights into guerilla strategy and the effects of foreign occupation. 

That last bit came out of the promotional material, by the way, so it's gotta be true, lol. PRs have to swear an oath, a bit like the Hippocratic one, yes, to always tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in their press releases. They'd never lie just to big up a fillum, as we call them here in Oireland. It wouldn't sit well with their code of honour.

The brilliant new 4K restoration of THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS is for sale now, with a whole host of superb extra features, including the interview I mentioned earlier, from CULTFILMS.

The restoration involved the participation of the director's son, Marco Pontecorvo, and it was nominated for BEST RESTORED VERSION AWARD at the 2016 Venice Film Festival. It's a must-have for fans of well-made war films. I strongly advise you to watch this one.


Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger and movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens' fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra's books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:


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