Film Review: The Battle of Algiers

  • MUNEEB YOUSUF
  • Publish Date: Oct 15 2018 3:21AM
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  • Updated Date: Oct 15 2018 3:21AM
Film Review: The Battle of AlgiersRepresentational Pic

The national liberation movements against colonial powers have great significance both in academia and popular media. The resistance takes different forms. However, guerrilla warfare is deemed to be one of the best strategies in rooting out foreign powers. In this asymmetrical warfare, eliminating resistance altogether for colonizers becomes a far-fetched goal, instead, the resistance pervades, every walk of life. In the colonial era, the French leaders unleashed military might against Algerian insurgents and their sympathizers, but the military stationed in Algeria never felt that they will be able to break the insurgency completely. It may seem to many readers what’s the sense of reviewing such an old film. I argue that The Battle of Algiers is of course old one but it still captures what is transpiring around the world in present times.

The movie begins with a post-torture scene of a FLN (Algerian National Liberation Front) member who is offered freedom at the cost of revealing the information of the hide-out of his leader, FLN commander Omar Ali. Omar Ali, a tall man with a chiseled face is among the top four wanted commanders for French army which forms the head of the FLN organization. The movie narrates the incidents cum developments that took place during the freedom struggle of Algeria from 1954 to 1962. 

Algeria was a French colony for a period of around 130 years. The Battle of Algiers depicts the state of imperialism in the territory of Algeria which is exclusively controlled by the French authorities. In addition, the movie shows how the French colonial administration discriminates against the colonized population, which it considers to be inferior not just in terms of power but also in racial and cultural terms of being 'dirty' and 'filthy'. I could relate here the historically incorrect but nevertheless popular Western perception of non-westerners especially Muslims being inferior in terms of civilization and culture, thus in need of a 'civilizing mission' also referred as 'white man's burden'–––a concept which came to form the moralistic basis of the Western imperialistic project in general.

Resistance against the French colonial occupation and struggle for independence is the central theme around which FLN communiqués try to consolidate the Algerian population. The plea to unite against the French is presented in both nationalistic as well as religio-moralistic terminology where in the French are termed as not just colonialists of a different nationality but also as the religious 'other' with a different set of moralistic conceptions which are incompatible with the Algerian culture and society. It could be deciphered here how in general nationalistic anti colonial struggles invoke not just nationalism but also blend it with religion and culture in struggles against 'foreign' occupation––an occupation which is projected as a threat against indigenous religion and culture. The use of arms against the French policemen in the beginning shows the resort to violent independence struggles across the globe take in order to highlight their cause and bring them to the attention of a broader global community.  The question that arises here is whether national liberation struggles should use violence to highlight their cause which sometimes leads to the death of innocent non-combatants? Many may answer No. However, those using violence are deeply skeptical of the outcomes of non-violent means.

The movie reflects the unique and meticulously designed organization of FLN in which each person at the lower level knew not more than his two immediate contacts, thus making it difficult for the French to bust the higher levels of organization even after apprehending those working at the lower levels. This motivates the newly-appointed French general to use torture as a weapon to extract information about the FLN leadership's whereabouts from the detainees. The general defends the torture as a means towards an end and not an end in itself, much in the same manner as the FLN justifies acts of violence as being just the 'start' rather than the end in itself. This brings to fore the question of using violent means towards an end - which nevertheless in the meanwhile entail human costs. 

Women can also be seen as active participants in the freedom struggle actively involved in carrying out violent attacks against the French. This brings to the fore the way in which the nationalistic struggles rely on and use the so called weaker sections of a society such as women, children, laborers etc. not just as ones who can easily slip through undetected but also in an attempt to make the struggle involve diverse sections so as to reinforce its 'collectiveness'––a feature that every nationalistic struggle envisions in order to make it more representative and thereby legitimate. However, given the way post colonial states and societies have dealt with these sections the question that arises is whether the involvement of women, for example in carrying out the bombings actually reflects their empowerment or whether they are used merely as tools against the French. For the FLN, this tactic worked well while dealing with a regime that took women for granted as ones merely restricted to the household in a conservative society ignorant of the modern enlightened and liberal Western discourses of freedom, liberty and equality. In this the French authorities represented a typical orientalist attitude towards the oriental societies––societies in which it was the male who was supposed to deal with 'public' facts of occupation while as the women stayed restricted to the 'private' matters of the household.  

In the film, there comes a moment, when the commander of the French army realizes that despite considerable strategic success against the insurgents of Algeria, he is losing the battle in the larger realm of public opinion. 

Towards the end of the movie, the hideout of Omar Ali along with three associates including a woman and a child is busted. Omar Ali declines the surrender option which later forces the general to explode the hideout with explosives. The important part here is to understand that although Omar gives his associates the option of surrendering, they skip the option and instead choose to die with Omar. With the explosion about to happen, a clear sympathy is visible among the common Algerians watching their hero trapped and about to die. Though the ''head of the tape worm” is eliminated, it emboldens and unites Algerian people in the struggle for liberation which eventually came in the year 1962.