BATTLE OF ALGIERS
By Dennis Meyers
Relevant experience: U.S. Army, 1974-1980, BA & MA Economics, Economist for over 30 years for State of
California, Community College Adjunct Faculty
The Algerian War, 1954 to 1962
Immediately after WWII, France faced a prolonged and off times violent decolonization period. There were tragic anti-colonial demonstrations in Algeria in May 1945. This was followed by unrest in French Indochina in November that started the First Indochina War which ended in 1954 with the French withdrawal following the defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phủ. Following this loss, France was determined not to lose Algeria, its oldest and nearest major colony, which it considered to be a part of France rather than a colony. The struggle to retain Algeria resulted in severe political repercussions for France both internally and internationally, including the fall of the Fourth Republic, two attempted French army coups and multiple attempts to assassinate Charles De Gaulle, the President of France.
The Algerian anti-colonial nationalist movement began during WW2. The path to the Algerian War began with massacres in May 1945 at the Algerian towns of Sétif and Guelma carried out by French colonial authorities and European settlers in retaliation for demonstrations and riots (which ironically began amidst a celebration of the surrender of Nazi Germany). The initial unrest resulted in about 100 deaths. The retaliation, which included summary executions, lynchings, aerial bombing and shelling by a French cruiser, killed somewhere between 6,000 and 30,000 Muslims. This was a major turning point in the relations between France and the Algerian Muslim population, which included Muslim soldiers in the French Army who had just fought for France in WWII.
The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu prompted the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) to launch armed revolts and issued a call for a sovereign Algerian state in November 1954. The FLN was created in 1954 to reconcile and organize various nationalist faction to wage war against the French colonial control. By the 1956 almost all the Algerian nationalist organizations had joined the FLN. Following the war, the FLN became Algeria’s sole legal and ruling party. This single-party rule ended in 1990.
The battle of Philippeville in August 1955 was major shift by the FLN which previously attacked only military and government-related targets. A large mob of thousands of civilians lead by FLN regulars launched a general assault on the city to kill Europeans and take the police station's weaponry. The brutal attacks resulted in the deaths of 117 European civilians, 42 Algerian civilians and 47 law enforcers. The subsequent disproportionate and extremely violent French retaliation lead to between 3,000 and 5,000 deaths including as many as 2,000 executions. This ended any hope for a negotiating a compromise solution and drove most Algerian Muslims to support the FLN. All-out war had begun.
The Battle of Algiers
To increase international and domestic French attention to the Algerian cause, the FLN brought the conflict to the cities by calling a general strike and planning bombs in public places. The the Battle of Algiers, which began on September 30, 1956, when three women placed bombs at three sites including the office of Air France. The FLN carried out shootings and bombings in the spring of 1957, resulting in civilian casualties that sparked a brutal response from the French authorities.
The 10th Parachute Division under the command of General Jacques Massu was sent to Algiers to subdue the FLN. (Massu was one of several French senior officers that was the basis of the film’s fictional Col. Mathieu). He was allowed to use whatever methods necessary to restore order and eliminate terrorists. Using torture, strong movement control and curfew, the strike was broken as well as the FLN infrastructure in Algiers. However, the French brutality—particularly the use of torture—and the demonstrated strength of the FLN to strike urban areas and its support among the Muslim masses created doubt in France about its role in Algeria.
Despite the victory in Algiers, ongoing guerrilla attacks radicalized the pieds-noirs (ethnic French born in Algeria). In May 1958 a mob of pieds-noirs, angered by the French government’s attempt to negotiate with the FLN, stormed the offices of the governor-general demanding, with the support of the military, that de Gaulle be made the leader of France. On May 24, members of the French military in Algeria invaded Corsica. General Massu and the other coup leader believed that the paratroopers could take Villacoublay Airfield, just outside Paris.
The threat of this coup along with growing public unrest brought about the collapse of the Fourth Republic. Charles de Gaulle, who was popular with both the pieds-noirs, Muslim Algerians and the military, assumed power and rewrote the constitution which founded the Fifth Republic.
However, by September 1959 de Gaulle was convinced that French control of Algeria was untenable, and he offered Algeria self-determination. Pied-noir radicals were appalled. Senior army officers attempted a second military coup, this time against de Gaulle. On April 21, 1961, French paratroopers took over important locations in Algeria while French General Maurice Challe called on all other troops in French Algeria follow him instead of Paris. Challe said he, “reserved the right of extending the action to metropolitan France to reestablish a constitutional and republican order.”
In response, the popular de Gaulle successfully called on the people of France and Algeria to oppose the coup. Workers showed their support for de Gaulle with a symbolic, hour-long strike to show that they could shutdown industry if the coup continued. Citizens rallied and prepared to occupy the airfields around Paris with cars and bodies to prevent any planes from French Algeria landing. In Algeria many more soldiers supported de Gaulle than supported the coup. After a few days, it was clear that the coup attempt had failed. Many coup leaders fled. General Challe surrendered and was eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison.
In 1961 and 1962 there were two rounds of negotiations between the French government and the FLN were conducted in Evian, France. In March 1962 the French government declares a cease-fire. Meanwhile, disgruntled pied-noirs mounted terrorist attacks against both Muslim and French civilians. In a July 1962, six million Algerians cast ballots to approve the Evian Agreements and independence from France.
Despite at one point achieving a tactical victory over the FLN, France withdrew from Algeria with her honor stained and with 25,000-30,000 military deaths.
Torture and brutality turn the French and international public opinion against the war.
In the Battle of Algiers, France used torture, extrajudicial killings and illegal detentions. Up to 40% of adult Arab men (55,000) in the city were detained in brutal conditions. Between 3,000 and 4,000 Algerians died in custody and during interrogations.
Gradually the scope of French atrocities became more widely known in France. As support for the war diminished, the government took steps to silence the press and punish anyone that criticized the government. Basic democratic principles that France had supported for generations were being forsaken in France proper in order to retain dominance of Algeria. Ultimately, the French public would not support continued fighting, even if successful, if it cost their country’s democratic way of life.
According to French Failure in Algeria: A Public Relations Disaster, “The results of torture were a loss of moral authority by the very nation that had placed itself on the pedestal of western thought as the home of liberty, self-determination and anti-despotism. The advantages of intelligence gained by torture were totally negated by the plethora of strategic dangers arising from the methods used, including military and political cohesion, moral superiority, and national legitimacy.”
In August 1962, a group called the OAS (Secret Army Organization) plotted to assassinate de Gaulle for giving up Algeria. On August 22, de Gaulle and his wife were riding from the Elysee Palace to Orly Airport in his black Citroen DS traveling at 70 miles per hour when 12 OAS gunmen fired at the car. The hail of gunfire killed two of the president’s motorcycle bodyguards, shattered the car’s rear window and punctured all four of its tires. Thanks to the car’s superior suspension system, De Gaulle’s chauffeur was able to accelerate out of the resulting skid and drive to safety. De Gaulle and his wife were unharmed.
French actor Jean Martin, who played the fictional Colonel Mathieu, was the only professional actor in the film. Martin was a French Resistance veteran and an acclaimed stage actor known for his anti-militarist, leftist views. In September 1960 Martin signed the Manifesto of 121 which denounced the Algerian War, called on French men to desert and supported a group of French people who were going on trial for opposing the war. Signing the manifesto was disastrous to Martin’s career. He was black-listed and, even after Algerian independence, he found it very difficult to find work in film, television or theatre.
Martin was cast as Mathieu because he had little screen experience. Ultimately, Martin continued working on stage and on screen, playing a variety of supporting roles in French films and television productions. He died from cancer in Paris on 2 February 2009, aged 86.
Saadi Yacef was a revolutionary leader who fought French rule in Algeria. He joined the FLN at the start of the Algerian War in 1954. After orchestrating bombings and other guerrilla attacks, he was captured and sentenced to death in 1957. However, he was pardoned after de Gaulle's return to power in 1958. His memoirs, “Memories of the Battle of Algiers” published in 1962, was the basis of the script of the film. Mr. Yacef lead the effort to produce the film. He also played a character in the film largely based on himself. He died on Sept.10th, 2021 in Algiers, the capital at age 93.
The Battle of Algiers: a masterpiece of historical accuracy. The Guardian, 2009
FRENCH FAILURE IN ALGERIA: A PUBLIC RELATIONS DISASTER. Small War Journal, 2013
General Jacques Massu. The Guardian, 2002
Saadi Yacef, ‘Battle of Algiers’ Catalyst and Actor, Dies at 93. The New York Times, 2021
A Chronology of the Algerian War of Independence. The Atlantic, 2006
Citroen helps de Gaulle survive assassination attempt. History.com
National Liberation Front. Britannica.
When the French Army rebelled against its president. wearethemighty.com.
Wikipedia articles: French colonial empire, National Liberation Front (Algeria), Algerian War, Sétif and
Guelma massacre, Battle of Philippeville, Évian Accords.
Battle of Algiers Research
The Making of the Film
With truly unique origins and a host of unorthodox techniques and decisions, The Battle of Algiers is unlike any other movie covered on Danger Close up until this point. In 1962, with the war in Algeria winding down, Gillo Pontecorvo and his friend and co-writer, Franco Solinas, used journalism as a cover to visit Algiers hoping to find inspiration and stories to cover. They came to discuss the events with FLN senior members who directed them to people and places where they could hear tales of the conflict and even see some of the still in progress war in real time. While the original script they worked on about a former paratrooper never came to light, Pontecorvo and Saadi Yacef (FLN member and Djafar in the film) met in 1964.
Yacef had written a book, Memories of the Battle of Algiers, and was hoping to have a movie made about his experiences. Interested in the story and the proposed financial support from the new Algerian government’s Casbah Films, headed by Yacef as a producer, Pontecorvo decided to go through with the adaptation about the conflict in Algiers in the late 50s.Pontecorvo drew on the interviews, documents, accounts and photographs he had acquired to help tell the story Yacef gave him, the way he wanted to. Full creative control was given to the director and he was able to make a movie that blurred the lines between newsreel and drama, exploring the depths both sides would sink to in the bloody insurgency characterized by terror and murders rather than all out warfare.
Production began in 1965, filming in Algiers itself for around $800,000. Rather than cast professional actors, Pontecorvo chose instead to find people and faces that he wanted on the screen. Some of the actual people involved, including Yacef, were cast, even prisoners the director wanted simply for their looks. Special permission was needed to allow the man in the opening scene to be released to film him being interrogated as the paratroopers look to find the locations of all the FLN operatives. One exception to this was Jean Martin who plays Colonel Mathieu, a conglomeration of generals and other French leaders. All other parts were simply cast with people on location who were asked to join the production on the spot.
The look of the film is so decidedly reminiscent of newsreels that the US release included the phrase “NOT ONE FOOT of newsreel or documentary film has been used” was included as a caption in promotions. Use of this style was deliberate, Pontecorvo hoped to elicit a feeling of watching events as they actually happened, not in an overtly dramaticized version but one that people could imagine. Filming on location greatly lent to this overall feel, as did the use of previous footage in the scene with paratroopers considering who could have been the ones carrying the bombs at the checkpoint.
Though it portrays nobody as squarely in the right or wrong, the movie was still banned in France until 2004, clearly making that government hesitant to allow its citizens to ponder on the so called necessity of torture as Colonel Mathieu discusses with journalists in one scene. Still seen as an incredibly honest look into urban revolution, the film was screened at the Pentagon in 2004 to learn from the past as they took on a similar war in Iraq against insurgents mostly in urban locations. How much this helped in their approach is dubious at best but for the Pentagon to screen this specific movie and not a presentation on events speaks volumes to its importance as a historical document as well as a piece of entertainment.
From its strange origins as what could have easily been a propaganda piece to the lack of professional actors, it’s impressive what Pontecorvo and his Algerian counterparts were able to create. More than 50 years after its release it is still incredibly relevant as an insight into revolution no matter the setting, seeing attention from the highest of authorities to aspiring revolutionaries themselves.