Audio Essay

desert island movie


The Battle of Algiers

It’s a punk rock kinda question.


The Battle of Algiers: Bombs and Boomerangs

By Peter Mathews

(Jonathan Reading)


My first exposure to The Battle of Algiers was courtesy of a comrade who took me to the Multnomah County Library in Portland, Oregon to check it out (circa 1995).

The movie was part of a longer list of essential anti-fascist films that included Land and Freedom (Ken Loach) and Come and See (Elem Klimov).

I had never seen anything like it then and have never seen anything like it since.


The film has a narrow geographic scope (the Casbah or Arab Quarters in the city of Algiers) and focuses on the years 1954-1957 during which the national liberation struggle took the primary form of urban guerrilla warfare.

But, oddly enough, The Battle Of Algiers opens with the failure of the armed struggle and ends with the successful popular uprising that culminated in the ousting of the French colonialists. What does it say about armed struggle? It is deliciously nuanced about this and many other questions.

I read it as arguing this: the failure of the armed struggle was, while a failure, still a prerequisite for the success of the popular uprising.


The purity crusade references the particular cultural context of the Algerian national liberation struggle but also the lumpen proletariat and its role in revolution. Mathews understates the sequences where the lumpen tough enters a brothel and puts a pimp on notice; he later kills the pimp. The lumpen is also recruited in prison, where he is a criminal. But within an apartheid system a larger section of the oppressed population are not part of the formal economy.


Documentary feel. Non professional actors. Extending socialist realism.

The Battle of Algiers is counter cinema that implicitly undermines celebrity worship and through the crowd as protagonist and indigenous non-professionals as actors, even subverts it.

Actors are cattle.


Ennio Morricone’s score and the entire soundscape of the film are also extraordinary.