People often ask the question “Are wars ever necessary?” Usually, the answer would be “no”, especially if you’re referring to the two World Wars or the American Civil War (which, in my opinion, is one of the most baseless wars to have ever occurred). But then there are times when wars are necessary, not because some monarch got executed, or because some madman is rising to power, but because a nation simply wants its freedom. And I see nothing wrong with wanting that.
The year is 1954, in the European quarter of Algeria. People are stirring. Tensions are rising. A country of strong-willed citizens are ubiquitously banding together in an attempt to liberate themselves from French colonization. The movement, known as the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), is secretly recruiting members for the cause. One by one, youngsters with a burning passion are being rallied together. This is the start of tremendous urban guerrilla warfare that will consume the country for the next six to eight years.
Yet, The Battle Of Algiers isn’t a piece of propaganda. Director Gillo Pontecorvo shows us the horror of war without letting us pick a side. Yes, the film depicts a struggling nation — and if it were any other movie we’d be led to side with the underdogs — but he frames the battle with such fairness that by the end of the movie we are glad that the Algerians have prevailed, but we’re not rubbing it in France’s nose either.
There is no use outlining the plot for this film, because there is a single overarching narrative that encapsulates everything, and the events that happen within it are merely catalysts that advance us to the next stage in combat, or to the next catastrophic bombing: Algeria wants its freedom. But it’s how Algeria earns this freedom that is the most important part to this film. Algeria’s liberation is mentioned, but only as an epilogue. Pontecorvo chooses instead to mold his film around the clandestine chess game between the colonizer and the colonized, and through this, we see war tactics that are both intelligent as well as terrifying.
Take this sequence for instance. Three women are shown getting dressed in a room somewhere. They put on Western looking clothes and prettify their faces with make up. Could they be prostitutes? Yes, they certainly could be. I thought they were. But then they are visited by Jafar (Yacef Saadi), one of the leaders of the FLN, who wishes them luck, and at once we know their purpose. With baskets in their hands, they pick up their bombs and head to their respective targets. They’re Algerians who now look French, and the guards at checkpoints let them through without question and with cheeky eyes. Almost simultaneously, a pub, a dance bar, and the airport are reduced to rubble. Missiles are no longer launched from tanks or ships; bombs are now hidden among the most casual of people. You don’t know where they are, and you don’t know who they are. Who can we trust if not innocent passer-bys?
Such tactics have transcended the decades and influenced countless of urban wars in multiple countries across the world. Bombs strapped to women, bombs strapped to children, bombs planted in cars and buses, on trains and planes, bombs delivered as innocent packages, guns concealed in clever places on the body. This is how the Iraq War was fought, and while it took place in a jungle instead of a city, the Vietnam War was waged with similar methods. They are effective, not because they cause widespread damage (which they do), but because they make the enemy faceless, and a faceless enemy is one that lurks in the shadows.
This is the horror Pontecorvo is trying to convey with Algiers. He films it like he would a documentary; it looks and feels like one. But everything is a reenactment and, combined with Ennio Morricone’s memorable score, has the same immediate and almost visceral effect that a documentary would. He aims to bring us to Algeria and plop us right in the heart of two warring nations, and he succeeds by telling us that war is bad, but both France and Algeria are not. There is a certain sympathy resonant with each nation; both are shown killing, both are shown dying, both are revealed to have humanity, even if that humanity is expressed in different ways. There is a scene where the French colonel (Jean Martin) and Jafar share the backseat of a car. These are not children bickering about the fate of a nation. These are matured individuals, both unhappy with the bloodshed they’ve caused, yet they will continue to fight in the name of what they believe to be right.
And for me, that’s the strongest point about Algiers. Yes, guerrilla tactics are interesting if not haunting, but it’s how and why these two nations resulted to using such tactics that really gives the film a third dimension. It’s both inspiring and discouraging to see how defeat and failure prompts more deadly attacks, attacks that will ensure success, but it’s also sad to see the lengths one has to go to just to gain independence. The Battle Of Algiers is a masterful war film, one that is ripe with war, but even riper with human perseverance and the realisation that humanity can exist even in the most desperate of times.
Best Moment | I personally relished Ennio Morricone’s “Algiers November 1, 1954” being played towards the beginning of the movie, but that’s only because I immediately recognised it from Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. The best moment overall would have to be at the end, when a French soldier asks an Algerian crowd shrouded by smoke “What do you want?” And after a pause, we hear “Independence! Our Pride! We want our freedom!”
Worst Moment | A journalist asking the French colonel a question in English. Sorry dude, bad acting.