The Algerians fought a notoriously brutal war of liberation from 1954 to 1962.
Leftists Westerners at the time romanticized the Algerians, wanting to believe that they were fighting for liberty, equality, or even Marxism. They weren’t. The primary inspiration for the war was well-deserved hatred of their French colonial oppressors.
Early in “The Battle of Algiers,” young Arab Ali La Pointe gets tripped by a French jerk while running away from the cops. Another French jerk laughs in his face. Ali La Pointe shocks us and the Frenchmen by punching the laughing man right in the jaw.
To director Gillo Pontecorvo, this is the unvarnished truth behind the Algerian Revolution. It was essentially a vile bully being punched in the face by a vicious kid who could no longer take the abuse. No good guys, no idealism, and no mercy.
The 130 years of French colonial rule in Algeria was awful. The French mined Algeria bare and kept the loot. White plantation owners grabbed the best farmland and grew grapes to import to Europe. The Algerians were left with the worst land and the worst jobs.
Colonial Algeria was not profitable for the French, by the way. The average Frenchman had to pay for the soldiers and police that kept the colony in line.
In French Algeria, the French people lost, the Algerian people lost big time, and a handful of juiced-in businessmen got super rich. That is globalization in a nutshell.
Gillo Pontecorvo shows us how the revolutionary violence escalated with unflinching realism.
First, the National Liberation Front (FLN) guerillas assassinated French police and stole their guns.
The French responded by putting checkpoints all over Algiers and frisking all the men who wanted to pass into the white part of town. The FLN worked around this by enlisting women and children and using terrorist time bombs to blow up civilians.
Then Paris stopped fooling around. The French government sent legendary Resistance hero and notorious tough guy Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin) to annihilate the FLN.
Colonel Mathieu recognized the challenge of destroying an enemy that blends in with the civilian population. His new war plan was to capture all the Arab men in the city and torture them to get information.
So Mathieu is the villain of the movie, right? No. Not at all. Pontecorvo presents the French colonel as a reasonable man in unreasonable circumstances.
In the film’s most poignant scene, Colonel Mathieu is holding a press conference. One of the French reporters asks him about his use of torture. Mathieu responds confidently that he is just a soldier trying to win a war.
Mathieu observes that the French press and the French people are supportive of their country’s occupation of Algeria. “We are here for that reason alone. We are neither madmen nor sadists …Therefore to be precise, it is my turn to ask you a question. Should France stay in Algeria? If your answer is yes, then you must accept all consequences.”
Exactly, sir. We must reject imperialism, colonialism, militarism, internationalism, and globalization in all its forms. Until then, exploitation, terrorism, and torture are our fault, too.