I’ve come to realize as I have gotten older that war really has no winners, and both sides are likely in the wrong in some way. Perhaps this is why, in cinema, we are slightly obsessed with World War II. It is one of the few wars where the line between good and evil seems to be drawn with maximum clarity. It’s easy to figure out who the good guys and the bad guys are. In most wars it’s not that easy.
In the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, a rebellion is depicted with straightforward clarity showing the righteousness and evil of both sides of the conflict. Violence feels inevitable as revenge and deep conviction drive both sides forward without much consideration for the other side of the fight.
Now, I have to confess, I knew nothing about the Algerian War when I watched this film. Even so, the story is very easy to follow. We start with an Algerian native being arrested in Algiers, the capital city. He spends some time in prison where he sees how prisoners are brutally treated by the occupying French police. This starts a fire in him, and soon he is joined up with the National Liberation Front (FLN), which is a group of like-minded Arab natives organizing and planning to overthrow their French occupants.
The FLN begins to attack and kill the police in order to make their point and grow their ranks. These events are depicted in almost a documentary-type style: very observational, with minimal context or build up. It is a “these are just the facts” depiction, and the only character-building we get is watching certain characters experience something which then they respond to; we can only guess their gut motivations (although sometimes it’s crystal clear).
The police do not enjoy being the subjects of these attacks by the FLN, so a few of their officers go into the Arab Quarter of town and blow up a building. This is escalation. The FLN retaliates with their own bombings, and things continue from there until the French military gets involved, led by Col. Mathieu. He is a man with experience in warfare, and his directive is to kill the rebellion and he will use whatever means necessary to make that happen.
Terrorism and torture. I must admit that watching this film had me thinking of many current events of 2018. Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Israel and Palestine, Libya, etc. Similar battles have been raging on since the events depicted in the film, and the revolutionaries and those trying to kill rebellions have been faced with similar choices about tactics. How do you injure your oppressors? How do you get information from someone when they are willing to give their life for a cause?
I was a freshman in high school on 9/11/2001, so I vividly remember that day and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed. I have seen how our country has been an oppressive force of torture in another’s country, as well as the effects of terrorism on my own country. This film made me feel more than a little uncomfortable with the questions it raised, and its impartiality to the tactics being used. They are just tools at the disposal of those using them.
The Battle of Algiers does not pretend to have any answers. Many times in the film, your sympathies will switch between the FLN and the French. Then one will do something horrific in the name of their cause, and you will see it through the eyes of the other, and then switch your allegiance again. Back and forth. It was quite a ride, and I was not expecting it.
There is one sequence where three women are sent to bomb yjree locations in the European Quarter of the city as revenge for a previous attack by the French on the Arab Quarter. The tension builds as they reach their locations. As the audience, you feel they are justified in their revenge. Then the camera pans on the patrons of the locations before the attacks are carried out, and suddenly you hope they fail. More and more bloodshed follows, most of it of the innocent.
I am not sure filmmakers today could get away with that kind of objectivity in a war film. Audiences will revolt. And this film came out only four years after Algeria finally won their independence, so I am surprised it won such critical acclaim. But how can we have a debate about these topics if they are not shown for what they are? Terrorism and torture are both tools of desperation, so it’s easy to paint the actors as extreme without showing the extreme context of their actions. This film does a great job of that.
I am sure thinking about war, terrorism, torture and the like is your definition of an entertaining day at the movies (obvious sarcasm). But, if you find yourself wanting a little more than the black and white conflict of World War II, this film is definitely worth your time.