Terrorism on Screen: Lessons from The Battle of Algiers Perspectives on History (2023)

Terrorism on Screen: Lessons from The Battle of Algiers Perspectives on History (1)In Hollywood thrillers Islamic terrorists often replace the Soviet espionage agents of the Cold War era as cinematic villains. In the polarized post 9/11 political environment, however, neither Hollywood filmmakers nor American policymakers have paid much attention to the conditions that foster terrorism. The George W. Bush Administration’s answer to the rhetorical question “why do they hate us” was simply that terrorists were envious of American freedom and prosperity. In his University of Cairo address, President Barack Obama displayed greater sensibility to the concerns of the Muslim world. Nevertheless, the arguments offered by President Obama for escalating the war in Afghanistan appear to offer little hope for winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, not to mention their neighbors in Pakistan. Termed the graveyard of empires, Afghanistan is perceived by many in the Middle East as a target of Western imperialism. This legacy of imperialism is an issue which American filmmakers and politicians often ignore. Interestingly, though, many intriguing questions about the legacy of Western colonialism in the Middle East are engaged in an epic film of 1966, The Battle of Algiers, which was directed by Gillo Pontecorvo.

In this cinematic examination of the Algerian struggle for independence from French colonialism during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Pontecorvo exposes the ambiguous legacy of imperialism in Western efforts to combat indigenous resistance and terrorism. In light of the controversies regarding “extreme rendition” in undisclosed locations and American employment of torture in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, considerable attention has been given to Pontecorvo’s message. The Italian filmmaker suggested that French counterinsurgency tactics such as torture may have won the Battle of Algiers but eventually led to the failure of the French to maintain their colony in Algeria. Thus, an August 2003 Battle of Algiers screening at the Pentagon was interpreted by the news media as raising questions regarding the efficacy of torture as a means for combating terrorism.

The Battle of Algiers is, however, much more than a film that is relevant to contemporary policies of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is also an important primary source in which an interpretation of the legacy of Western colonialism may serve as a stimulus for thinking about the roots of discontent with the West in the Islamic world. Consequently, The Battle of Algiers ought to find a place in the history curriculum of the schools and universities because of its usefulness to link the past and present and for telling a story of colonialism from the perspective of people that Frantz Fanon termed the wretched of the earth.1


Pontecorvo’s film is a product of the global anti-imperialist response in the 1960s which linked the struggles in Algeria, Vietnam, and Angola as well as in Latin America. Many alienated Western youth identified with this insurgency against capitalism and colonialism. Some joined radical organizations such as the Weather Underground in the United States, the Red Brigades in Italy, and the Red Army Faction in West Germany. A 1968 alliance between students and workers almost toppled the government in France, and that same year the “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia challenged the Soviet Union, an “empire” that many radicals perceived as even more reactionary than American “imperialism.” In the words of Bob Dylan, it did, indeed, seem the times were “a-changin.’”

With the gift of hindsight, it is easy today to dismiss the young people as naïve for hoping that world revolution could be achieved in the 1960s. Yet those who were caught up in the excitement of that era genuinely believed that radical change was possible.

Pontecorvo’s film about anti-imperialist resistance in the Algerian Revolution inspired some viewers with thoughts about challenging political authorities, an effect that created a good deal of controversy in the 1960s. Screenings for The Battle of Algiers were often perceived as fostering domestic insurrection and providing tactical instructions for revolutionaries. The film was initially banned in France, while in the United States the Algerian rebellion was equated with the black liberation struggle and the actions of the Black Panther Party. Bosley Crowther, the film reviewer of the New York Times, saw a connection with the protests of African Americans. “Essentially, the theme is one of valor,” wrote Crowther, “—the valor of people who fight for liberation from economic and political oppression. And this being so, one may sense a relation in what goes on in the picture to what has happened in the Negro ghettos of some of our American cities recently.”2

(Video) The Battle of Algiers -- What Makes This Movie Great? (Episode 38)

Pontecorvo and his screenwriter Franco Solinas wanted to portray the struggle of the National Liberation Front (FLN) to gain independence for Algeria and free the Algerian people from French oppression. Pontecorvo was a member of the Italian Communist Party who left the political organization following the 1956 Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution. He sympathized with the Algerian revolutionaries.3 The director perceived the Algerian Revolution as part of a larger global anticolonial historical movement which he wanted to support with his filmmaking.

Pontecorvo filmed on location in the marketplaces and narrow streets of the Casbah, the traditional Muslim section of Algiers, employing nonprofessional actors. He wanted to create a sense of realism. Cinematographer Marcello Gatti shot the film in black and white, relying upon older film stock and handheld cameras to establish the look and feel of a documentary. This impression was enhanced by his use of proclamations broadcast on the radio by both the French and the FLN. The film looked so much like a documentary that American advertisements for The Battle of Algiers stressed that no newsreel footage was actually used in the production of the picture.

The goal of Pontecorvo and his Italian filmmaking crew was to present the FLN as freedom fighters that resorted to terrorist tactics as the only means available to combat the oppression of the French colonizers. To prepare the masses for struggle against the French, the FLN initiates a program of purification to rid the Casbah of drugs and prostitution, which the French have encouraged and tolerated. Following this purification campaign, the FLN then turns to the assassination of French policemen, the most visible target of French oppression in the daily lives of the Algerian people. At this point in the film, Pontecorvo is careful to suggest that the revolutionary violence is not directed toward French civilians. It is the French who raise the stakes by placing a bomb in the Casbah, indiscriminately striking at Algerian families while they sleep. In response to this atrocity, the FLN provides three Muslim women with basket bombs. Dressed in European fashion, the women place their bombs in the offices of Air France, a cafe, and an ice cream bar frequented by young people. In depicting the death and destruction wrought by the bombings, Pontecorvo appears to be defending the necessity of such terrorist tactics without glamorizing them.

(Video) Mark Kermode reviews The Battle of Algiers (1966) | BFI Player

In reaction to the bombings, the French government dispatches paratroopers under the command of Colonel Mathieu to Algiers. After crushing a general strike called by the FLN, Mathieu wages a campaign of torture until the FLN leadership in Algiers is destroyed. A confident Mathieu declares victory in the Battle of Algiers, which is over in 1957.

But this is a Pyrrhic victory, for in the film’s epilogue the masses of Algeria arise in 1960, beginning a violent struggle which culminates two years later in Algerian independence. The film’s conclusion seems to suggest that the FLN served as a Marxist-Leninist vanguard of the proletariat by raising the consciousness of the Algerian masses. The Battle of Algiers also explores the roots of anti-colonial violence in imperial exploitation and suppression while exposing the shortcomings of torture and repression in dealing with the aspirations of colonized populations.

Although The Battle of Algiers omits several historical details by focusing only upon FLN opposition to the French and ignores problems associated with governing Algeria after independence, I have found the film to be a valuable teaching tool in my college preparatory classes. The Battle of Algiers provides a useful vehicle for the discussion of colonialism, wars of national liberation, and leftist politics, as well as contemporary issues regarding terrorism, torture, and the American military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Pontecorvo clearly perceived his film as supporting the cause of the revolutionary FLN, it is interesting to note that many young people view The Battle of Algiers as more even-handed, deploring the terrorist tactics of both the French and FLN. Students recognize the valid aspirations of colonized people, but they want to find a path toward a more just world short of romanticizing violent revolution. The message which enticed many young people in the 1960s gets a different reception in our time.

(Video) Algerian War of Independence 1954-1962 - Cold War DOCUMENTARY

Ron Briley teaches history at the Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is also assistant head of the school. A recipient of the Beveridge Family Teaching Prize from the AHA, he has several publications on film, politics, and sports. He is currently a member of the AHA’s Committee on the John E. O’Connor Film Award.


1. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1966).

2. Bosley Crowther, “The Battle of Algiers,” New York Times, September 23, 1967.

(Video) The Algerian War for Independence

3. Carlo Celli, Gillo Pontecorvo: From Resistance to Terrorism (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2005).


What argument is the film The battle Algiers trying to make? ›

What relevance does The Battle of Algiers hold today, 55 years after it was first released? The message of the film is ultimately one of hope: the oppressed multitude will eventually triumph because their cause is just.

How historically accurate is The Battle of Algiers? ›

The Battle of Algiers debuted in 1966, reconstructing events that had taken place just a few years earlier. Generally regarded as a historically accurate and balanced film, Director Gillo Pontecorvo nonetheless considered his work to be politically motivated.

What was the significance of The Battle of Algiers? ›

Beginning in the late 1960s, The Battle of Algiers gained a reputation for inspiring political violence; in particular, the tactics of urban guerrilla warfare and terrorism in the movie supposedly were copied by the Black Panthers, the Provisional Irish Republican Army, the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the ...

What does the Pentagon see in The Battle of Algiers? ›

The Pentagon's showing drew a more professionally detached audience of about 40 officers and civilian experts who were urged to consider and discuss the implicit issues at the core of the film -- the problematic but alluring efficacy of brutal and repressive means in fighting clandestine terrorists in places like ...

Who is to blame for the bloodshed depicted in The Battle of Algiers? ›

2) Who is the blame for the bloodshed depicted in the movie? actually the actions of the FLN, including bombs and gunfire. The bombings of the milk bar, homes, and other areas resonated with me the most, and they were all due to the FLN.

What happens at the end of Battle of Algiers? ›

Eventually, French Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin) succeeds at methodically dismantling the FLN, as Kader and other leaders are captured and La Pointe is killed. Three years later, however, a renewed uprising breaks out, and Algeria finally wins its independence in 1962.

Is The Battle of Algiers biased? ›

Despite giving the illusion of impartiality, the film is biased towards the FLN's struggle; Pontecorvo admits it to be "anti the French permanence in Algeria" (Solinas, 1973: 166).

Should we remain in Algeria If you answer yes then you must accept all the necessary consequences? ›

Mathieu : Should we remain in Algeria? If you answer "yes," then you must accept all the necessary consequences. Col. Mathieu : We aren't madmen or sadists, gentlemen.

What caused the war in Algeria? ›

The conflict began in December 1991, when the new and enormously popular Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) party appeared poised to defeat the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) party in the national parliamentary elections.

What kind of war was The Battle of Algiers? ›

The Battle of Algiers was a campaign of urban guerrilla warfare carried out by the National Liberation Front (FLN) against the French Algerian authorities from late 1956 to late 1957.

Why did Algeria fight the war for independence? ›

Algerian War, also called Algerian War of Independence, (1954–62) war for Algerian independence from France. The movement for independence began during World War I (1914–18) and gained momentum after French promises of greater self-rule in Algeria went unfulfilled after World War II (1939–45).

What were two important outcomes of the Battle of New Orleans? ›

The American victory in the Gulf region forced the British to recognize United States claims to Louisiana and West Florida and to ratify the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war. The Battle of New Orleans also marked the state's political incorporation into the Union.

Why was the Algerian War so violent? ›

The Algerian War was very violent as hundreds of thousands were killed. The rebel National Liberation Front (FLN) heavily contributed to the barbarism of the war, for they often targeted and killed those who disagreed with them, regardless of their civilian status, as they sought to secure Algerian independence.

What lies were revealed in the Pentagon Papers? ›

The Pentagon Papers revealed that the United States had expanded its war with the bombing of Cambodia and Laos, coastal raids on North Vietnam, and Marine Corps attacks, none of which had been reported by the American media.

How accurate was the D Day scene? ›

Perhaps most importantly, D-Day veterans say the opening scenes depicting the landing are realistic, in terms of what it felt like to be a soldier on the beach during the invasion. It's basically “100% accurate,” says Dominic Geraci, who was a 20-year-old Army medic tending to the wounded on June 7.

Who won the Algeria war? ›

This Happened — November 1: A War Begins That Would Change Two Nations. Starting in 1954, the Algerian War was fought between France and the Algerian National Liberation Front, and ultimately led to Algeria winning its independence in 1962, ending more than a century of French colonial rule.

Why did the French decide to invade Algeria? ›

The conquest of Algeria began in the last days of the Bourbon Restoration by Charles X of France. It aimed to put a definite end to Barbary privateering and increase the king's popularity among the French people, particularly in Paris, where many veterans of the Napoleonic Wars lived.

Who won the battle of Algeria? ›

So who ultimately won the Battle of Algiers? No one. The French won the battle, but in 1962 they lost the war. French soldiers, most of whom hated the idea of torture, were tainted by the association.

What kind of war was The Battle of Algiers quizlet? ›

The Battle of Algiers was a campaign of urban guerrilla warfare carried out by the FLN against the French Algerian authorities from late 1956 to late 1957.

What did Nelson Mandela say about Algeria? ›

On his arrival at Houari Boumediene International Airport in Algiers on May 16, 1990, Nelson Mandela said that it was the Algerian army that had made him a man.

What human rights are being violated in Algeria? ›

Algerian authorities continue to arrest and imprison peaceful activists, human rights defenders, and journalists for their critical expression. Some of them face terrorism-related charges based on an overbroad term definition of terrorism.

Do you have to cover up in Algeria? ›

Women dress in a wide variety of styles in Algeria, including European, and don't have to cover their head unless visiting a mosque. To avoid unwelcome attention, women may wish to dress modestly, particularly outside of the main towns.

Does the US have good relations with Algeria? ›

Bilateral Economic Relations

The United States is one of Algeria's top trading partners, and Algeria is one of the top U.S. trading partners in the Middle East/North African region.

What were the effects of colonization on Algeria? ›

The consequence of colonial policy was to concentrate the lands in the hands of a small colons. The mechanization of agriculture left the smaller colons indebted to the banks; artisans were ruined, and massive unemployment ensued among Algerians, who were forced to seek exile in France.

What crimes did France commit in Algeria? ›

The history of French colonisation in Algeria is infamous for its horrendous war crimes. On 8 May 1945, up to 45,000 Algerians were killed for demanding independence for their country, according to Algerian official figures. The massacre marked the largest carnage committed by France in a single day.

What was Algeria called before 1830? ›

In Antiquity Algeria was known as the NUMIDIA KINGDOM and its people were called NUMIDIANS and IMAZIGHEN which means “Free men” . At the turn of Europe and Africa, over the centuries, people came. Some have taken root, others left their imprints.

What is Algiers Algeria known for? ›

Algiers, (Arabic Al-Jazāʾir), the capital city and chief seaport of Algeria is known for the "Casbah of Algiers" with the remains of the citadel, old mosques and Ottoman-style palaces. Albert Camus, a French philosopher, author, and journalist, born in Algeria, is probably the most famous personality of the country.

What country owns Algiers? ›

With a population of 44 million, Algeria is the ninth-most populous country in Africa, and the 32nd-most populous country in the world. The capital and largest city is Algiers, located in the far north on the Mediterranean coast.

Was the decolonization of Algeria peaceful? ›

An important decolonization war, it was a complex conflict characterized by guerrilla warfare and war crimes. The conflict also became a civil war between the different communities and within the communities.

Why was the fight for Algerian independence such a violent and protracted struggle? ›

The war was fought brutally on both sides, but the need for a violent independence struggle was deeply rooted in the violence French imperialism had imposed on Algeria for over a century.

What do you believe is the historical significance of the Battle of New Orleans? ›

The resounding American victory at the Battle of New Orleans soon became a symbol of American democracy triumphing over the old European ideas of aristocracy and entitlement. The battle was the last major armed engagement between the United States and Britain.

What was the most significant effect of the Battle of New Orleans? ›

The victory vaulted Jackson to national stardom, and foiled British plans for an invasion of the American frontier.

What is the summary of the Battle of New Orleans? ›

The Battle of New Orleans was fought on January 8, 1815 between British troops led by General Edward Pakenham and American forces led by General Andrew Jackson. Despite being outnumbered 2:1, the Americans, who had constructed sophisticated earthworks, won a decisive victory against the British assault.

Why is Morocco and Algeria enemies? ›

However, the opposition over the Western Sahara issue is actually a fixation point of tense relations between Algeria and Morocco. The real source behind the tensions stems from a struggle for leadership in the region and an unresolved colonial-era land dispute, which led in 1963 to a swift yet still resented war.

Is Algeria a violent country? ›

Exercise increased caution in Algeria due to terrorism and kidnapping. Do not travel to: Areas near the eastern and southern borders due to terrorism and kidnapping. Areas in the Sahara Desert due to terrorism and kidnapping.

Did Morocco help Algeria in war? ›

Egypt even began sending troops and defense hardware in late October to bolster the Algerian military. Morocco's Western allies provided assistance, after Morocco's formal requests for military aid.

What was the name of the person who leaked the Pentagon Papers? ›

Daniel Ellsberg (born April 7, 1931) is an American political activist, and former United States military analyst.
Daniel Ellsberg
Ellsberg in 2020
BornApril 7, 1931 Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
EducationHarvard University (AB, PhD) King's College, Cambridge Kingswood School
EmployerRAND Corporation
13 more rows

Which president started the Vietnam War? ›

The major initiative in the Lyndon Johnson presidency was the Vietnam War. By 1968, the United States had 548,000 troops in Vietnam and had already lost 30,000 Americans there.

Who ended the Vietnam War? ›

Finally, in January 1973, representatives of the United States, North and South Vietnam, and the Vietcong signed a peace agreement in Paris, ending the direct U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War.

Was D-Day a secret? ›

Secrecy was critical to the success of D-Day and, ultimately, the Allied victory in World War II. Here's how the Allies were able to keep the D-Day invasion secret from the Germans — and two big reasons maintaining this secrecy would be more difficult to achieve today.

Who suffered the most losses on D-Day? ›

The 1st Infantry assault experienced the worst ordeal of D- Day operations. The Americans suffered 2,400 casualties, but 34,000 Allied troops landed by nightfall.

How many jumped on D-Day? ›

On D-Day, the Allies landed around 156,000 troops in Normandy. 73,000 American (23,250 on Utah Beach, 34,250 on Omaha Beach, and 15,500 airborne troops), 83,115 British and Canadian (61,715 of them British) with 24,970 on Gold Beach, 21,400 on Juno Beach, 28,845 on Sword Beach, and 7,900 airborne troops.

Why was the Battle of the Somme film important? ›

The Battle of the Somme is significant as an early example of film propaganda, an historical record of the battle and as a popular source of footage illustrating the First World War.

Why did the French want Algeria? ›

The conquest of Algeria began in the last days of the Bourbon Restoration by Charles X of France. It aimed to put a definite end to Barbary privateering and increase the king's popularity among the French people, particularly in Paris, where many veterans of the Napoleonic Wars lived.

Is Battle of Algiers an example of Third Cinema? ›

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

One of the pillars of Third Cinema, The Battle of Algiers was shot as a pseudo-documentary showing the Algerians fight against French colonialism. Its director, the Italian Gillo Pontecorvo, received an Oscar Nomination for Best Director for the film.

Which film is famous for its graphical portrayal of war? ›

Saving Private Ryan is a 1998 American epic war film directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Robert Rodat. Set during the Battle of Normandy in World War II, the film is known for its graphic portrayal of war, especially its depiction of the Omaha Beach assault during the Normandy landings.

What lesson was learned in the Battle of Somme? ›

The generals learnt from the mistakes of that first day, we are told. They learnt that shrapnel-casting shells don't destroy barbed wire. They learnt the wisdom of “creeping barrages”: mechanically timed, advancing artillery fire that gives cover for moving troops.

Was the Somme a success or a failure? ›

So, while the Somme was not an Allied victory in the traditional sense, it did amount to a significant strategic success for the British and French. In this respect, it was no failure.

Why was the Battle of the Somme controversial? ›

The Somme was a costly stalemate that led to harsh criticism of Allied commanders, especially Haig, and German determination to avoid similar casualties by altering their defensive systems. In the fighting of 1917, improved Allied assault tactics would face deeper, more sophisticated German defences.

What impact did the French have on Algeria? ›

History has a lot to say about the atrocious crimes committed by French colonial authorities in Algeria when it colonized the country for 132 years between 1830 and 1962. At least five million people were killed and hundreds of thousands more injured during the course of the struggle for independence.

How did the French treat Algeria? ›

The colonialist French authorities have committed abuses and torture against Algerian civilians, according to Algerian historians and victims. Electric shocks and the use of water wells as prisons were among the methods used by the colonialist authorities against prisoners in Algeria.

Who fought in The Battle of Algiers? ›

1966. 123 minutes. This film documents the armed insurgency against the French colonial powers in Algiers, showing the brutality and desperation of war. The Battle of Algiers documents the Algerian revolt against the French in 1954–1962 and the armed insurgency against the French colonial powers in Algiers.

What did the French do in The Battle of Algiers? ›

The French government sends the military forces under the command of the abusive Colonel Mathieu that does not respect the human rights and uses torture to destroy the NLF command.

What is the biggest battle scene in movie history? ›

Game of Thrones just made history with “The Long Night.” The Battle of Winterfell is the longest battle sequence in film/tv history, according to Vox. At nearly 80 minutes, it took 750 people and 11 weeks of “freezing night shoots.” But Winterfell's not the only gigantic battle.

What is the most famous movie scene in history? ›

We've compiled a list of the 10 most iconic movie scenes of all time.
  • The Shower Scene – Psycho (1960)
  • “I am your father” Scene – Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back (1980)
  • “I'm Flying” Scene – Titanic (1997)
  • “D-Day” Scene – Saving Private Ryan (1998)
  • “Bullet Time” Scene – The Matrix (1999)
24 Jun 2022

What effect did TV have on the public view of the war? ›

The dramatization of stories in the news distorted the public's perception of what was actually happening in the field. Since it was visible in their homes, Americans were able to connect and empathize with the soldiers more than ever before. This caused an outcry of public opinion against the war.


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