The Battle of Algiers: historical truth and filmic representation

Algeria partnershipThe bitter divisions within the FLN are ignored. Instead, Gillo Pontecorvo, in his 1966 film, The Battle of Algiers, presents the war uniquely in terms of the FLN against the French paratroopers. We begin a new series exploring the many facets of this remarkable film.

The ‘Battle of Algiers’ was a pivotal event in the Algerian War of Independence.  Taking place in the tiny backstreets and alleys of the Algiers Casbah from the summer of 1956 through to October 1957, the fighting set the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) against the elite paratroopers of the French Army. 

To call it a battle, however, is a misnomer.  This was not urban warfare on a grand scale like Stalingrad in 1942 or even the Irish Easter uprising of 1916.  There was no sustained street-to-street combat.  Rather the confrontation took the form of short bursts of fighting at close quarters, interspersed with the bombing of civilians on the FLN side and mass round-ups and torture on the French side.  At the heart of this violence was one struggle: for the control of the capital’s Muslim population.

Similarly there is a debate about the exact starting point.  Did the ‘Battle of Algiers’ begin with the guillotining of two FLN prisoners, Ahmed Zabana and Abdelkader Ferradj on 19 June 1956 which provoked FLN operatives to respond with twenty-one attacks in Algiers, leaving ten dead? 

Did it begin with shadowy elements in the French police that planted a bomb in the densely populated Casbah on 10 August 1956, killing up to seventy people which led the FLN to explode bombs at two crowded French cafes in the city centre on 30 September? 

Ruins of the Casbah after its explosion by paratroopers. Wikipedia/Saber 68.. All rights reserved.

Or did it begin on 7 January 1957 when the French civilian authorities, at a loss to maintain law and order, handed police powers over to the French paratroopers commanded by General Jacques Massu? 

In contrast there is a clearer sense of an end point: 7 October 1957 when the last FLN leader, Ali Ammar alias Ali la Pointe, was cornered in a safe house near the top of the Casbah – the first sequence in Gillo Pontecorvo’s film. Refusing to surrender, he was blown up by French paratrooper bomb experts.  Then, within the rubble, the paratroopers exhumed Ali la Pointe’s corpse as the physical proof of French military victory.

With us or against us

The roots of the ‘Battle of Algiers’ must be traced back to the history of Algerian nationalism.  On 1 November 1954 the FLN launched a series of bombing attacks across Algeria.  A completely unknown new organisation, formed clandestinely just a few weeks before hand, FLN tracts, found scattered in the remote countryside, were uncompromising.  Referring to splits within the nationalist movement without naming the protagonists, the 1 November 1954 Declaration underlined that these were in the past.  Every Algerian, whatever their previous political allegiances, now had one duty: to rally behind the FLN – the new embodiment of the Algerian nation.  Significantly, violence was at the centre of the revolution and those who placed their hopes in a gradualist solution were denounced as ‘traitors’ and ‘reformists’.  FLN violence was keyed into absolutes.  There was no third way.  Algerians could only be for or against the FLN.

The FLN, therefore, had two inter-connected targets.  Through immediate military action it wanted to overthrow French colonial rule, in place since 1830.  But it also wanted to predominate over all other political rivals.  Now the FLN alone could give orders and the existing parties – the Algerian Communist Party (PCA), the Union Démocratique du Manifeste Algérien (UDMA) and Mouvement pour le Triomphe des Libertés Démocratiques (MTLD) – were told to dissolve themselves and join the FLN or else face reprisals.   

Through violence the FLN hoped to spark mass revolt.  This did not happen.  For the first ten months the conflict was restricted to rural eastern Algeria.  Thereafter it did spread to the rest of the country, and by the summer of 1956 Algeria was in the grip of a full scale conflict as the FLN was confronted with a left-of-centre government led by the Socialist Party, the Republican Front, which hoped to quell the uprising through a dramatic intensification of the conflict.  This included the granting of special repressive powers to the army and a surge in troop levels, bolstered by the recall of reservists, that rose to 400,000. 

One final surge             

By this point the dominant figure in the FLN was the thirty-six old Abbane Ramdane. A political prisoner in November 1954, Abbane Ramdane joined the FLN on his release in early 1955 and quickly rose to assume the leadership of the internal FLN; a position which set him against the external leadership based in Cairo who, he argued, had no right to give orders because they were far from the harsh realities of the war. Abbane Ramdane was the brains behind the FLN’s strategy in launching the ‘Battle of Algiers’.  With a UN vote on Algeria imminent at the beginning of 1957 he believed that victory was within the FLN’s grasp.  He was convinced that France had lost the political will to fight on.  All that was needed, he argued, was one final surge that would force the French into negotiations.  This was the thinking behind the eight-day strike, timed in advance of the UN vote.  It was also the thinking behind the campaign of urban terrorism.  Continuous violence in Algiers, the centre of French power, would demonstrate that the FLN struggle was not just pockets of resistance in the mountains but a mass movement supported by the towns and the cities.  It would create a climate of panic that would sap the French capacity to stay in Algeria.  As one FLN directive stated: ‘A bomb causing the death of ten people and wounding fifty others is the equivalent on a psychological level to the loss of a French battalion.’ Finally, by launching such co-ordinated violence, Abbane Ramdane wanted to show that it was the FLN, and not the rival Mouvement National Algérien led by the Algerian nationalist veteran Messali Hadj, which was the true representative of the Algerian nation, and the only political force that the French should negotiate with,

Abbane Ramdane.
Wikimedia Commons/Some rights reserved.

Faced with this challenge the Republican Front government effectively gave the French paratroopers a free hand to destroy the FLN in Algiers by any means possible and what followed was a cycle of violence and counter-violence.  In the alleyways, cellars, sewers and tunnels of the Casbah the paratroopers and FLN played out a deadly game of hunter and hunted. The army resorted to torture on a systematic scale to extract information that included the ‘disappearance’ of some 3,024 prisoners.  Yet, there is no doubt that this repression strengthened support for the FLN.  Out of the Casbah’s total population of 80,000, between thirty and forty per cent of its active male population was arrested at one stage or another, and in truth this had always been part of the FLN’s strategy.  In pulling the trigger and letting the French react, it was unleashing a process of violence that would force the Algerian population full-square behind the FLN. As the Le Monde journalist Jean Lacouture later admitted, France had won militarily but lost politically because the methods of victory turned international opinion against the French cause.

The consequences for the FLN were equally far-reaching.  The severity of French repression meant that the leadership were forced to leave Algeria.  Henceforth the FLN leadership would reside in exile.  Cut off from the population and the realities of the war, its power structures would develop outside of a country riven by power struggles, where the military came to predominate over any form of civilian power: a fact exemplified by the death of Abbane Ramdane at the hands of Algerian officers in Morocco in December 1957. 

Black and white   

Gillo Pontecorvo’s film was made on location in 1965. Talking to participants and using for the most part non-professional actors, the film, shot in grainy black and white, has a newsreel quality which means that it is often mistaken for a documentary.  Much of the film’s narrative follows the facts outlined above as Pontecorvo depicted, in a brutally honest manner, the effects of both French and FLN violence.  Yet the film also diverges from the facts.  On the French side, Colonel Mathieu, played brilliantly by the French actor Jean Martin whose anti-Algerian War stance had led him to be blacklisted in France, is a fictional character, albeit one clearly based upon the two actual military leaders – General Jacques Massu and Colonel Marcel Bigeard. It is also highly selective.  There is nothing of the role of the Algerian Communists, who supplied the bomb making expertise to the FLN, or the rival MNA, still an important political force in early 1957.  Equally, the bitter divisions within the FLN are ignored, as in the case of Abbane Ramdane who is absent as an historical figure.  Instead Pontecorvo presents the war uniquely in terms of the FLN against the French paratroopers. 

Finally, the importance of Frantz Fanon for Pontecorvo must be underlined.  Born in 1925 in the French-ruled Caribbean island of Martinique, a veteran of the World War Two Free French, Fanon studied psychology at Lyon University in the late 1940s, before arriving in Algeria in October 1953 as a psychiatrist in a hospital just south of Algiers.  In 1956 Fanon resigned in protest at the Algerian War and made his way to Tunis to join the FLN where, in books and articles, he became a leading voice of the Algerian Revolution. Above all Fanon extolled the virtues of mirror violence, justifying this as a liberational act against the inherent violence of colonial rule.  Fanon died in 1961, but his arguments infuse Pontecorvo’s film, in particular the film’s depiction of the role of women in carrying out bombing attacks on French cafes.  This remarkable sequence was framed by Fanon’s 1959 book L’An cinq de la revolution algérienne (published in English under the title A Dying Colonialism ), which stressed how the actions of these Algerian women, either using the veil for hiding weapons, or discarding it to pass themselves off in a decoy function as sexually available French females, were challenging traditional values.

Yet, in terms of understanding the war between 1954 and 1962 as a whole, this reliance on Fanon can lead to misunderstandings, especially if it is seen to encapsulate the Algerian historical experience.  The Algerian women bombers from the ‘Battle of Algiers’ were urban, educated and more middle class; in other words a minority, because most of the women involved in struggle were rural and, in many cases, illiterate.  Similarly, until the final few months of the conflict in 1962, the ‘Battle of Algiers’ was the one moment of sustained urban guerrilla warfare. Instead the Algerian War was overwhelmingly a rural war, fought in the mountains and the countryside.


This article is part of the Algeria and the Arab Revolutions: Pasts, Presents and Futures partnership, funded by the Universities of Portsmouth and Sussex. Read more about openDemocracy's editorial partnerships programme.

About the author

Martin Evans is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sussex.  He was formerly Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Portsmouth. He is the co-author (with John Phillips) of Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed (Yale University Press: 2007) and the author of Algeria: France’s Undeclared War (Oxford University Press: 2012).