“The Battle of Algiers” through the lens of identity

In the paper” Reclaiming the city: changing urban meaning in Algiers after 1962,’ author H.S Graber writes about changes in the Algerian city’s physical appearance since 1962. “The attempt to impress post-colonial symbols on the architecture of Algiers provides a rich record of Algerian nationalism in some of its barest, most confrontational moments engraved in stone, etched in marble, cast in bronze, and frozen in time. But those differences, though flush with FLN — brand nationalism, never escape lingering colonial meaning,” Graber writes. This “lingering colonial meaning,” affecting the identity of the newborn nation, is nearly ineradicable. Graber also mentions that there is no doubt that European apartments, cafes, parks, restaurants, cinemas, and walking spaces introduced new ways of being to new residents. ‘The built environment is a lingering and insidious symbol of power and one of the hardest legacies of colonialism to appropriate and adapt.’ Hence, the question of Algerian identity unavoidably remains, both tangibly and intangibly, throughout Algerian society. The question of identity is dynamic and complex, especially in a post-colonial scenario. Examining the pre-independence operation on identities through the movie ‘The battle of Algiers’ is the core agenda of this paper.

The movie ‘The battle of Algiers,’ an overview.

Gillo Pontecorvo’s ‘Battle of Algiers’ was filmed in 1965 as a co-production between the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) government of Algeria and an Italian creative team. Saadi Yacef, an Algerian revolutionary who worked for Algerian freedom, produced the film and stars as the character Jaffar. This devastating account of the freedom struggle was filmed in black and white, and is difficult to categorize into a particular style. The movie documents the Algerian revolt against the French from 1954 to 1962, with a focus on the events of 1956 to 1957.

After being recruited into the National Liberation Front (FLN), a guerrilla group led by Saari Kader, Ali La Pointe (played by first-time actor Brahim Hadjadj) becomes actively involved in the group’s armed insurgency against the French colonial powers in Algiers. Both sides are lured into a long-term confrontation, with violent attacks and retaliatory acts lasting for months. After capturing Kader and other leaders and killing La Pointe, French Colonel Mathieu gradually but successfully dismantles the FLN. However, a new rebellion erupts, and the movie closes with Algeria’s declaration of independence in 1962.

The film score, by late Italian composer Ennio Morricone, evokes the violent and tense situation in the Casbah, elevating the viewer’s anxiety and anguish. Non-professional actors played the characters, which gave a raw touch to the movie from an audience’s perspective. These two important but subtle components of the movie bring its scenes onto a deeper emotional level.

The film focuses on a mixture of fictional and historically based characters. The roles they carry and how one action leads to the other within multi-layers of identities are evident throughout the film. Colonel Mathieu, a former leader of a French paratrooper squadron, is a composite character based on several historical French officers. He is in charge of counter-resistance to the Algerians’ increasing insurgency against French occupation. Ali La Pointe is based on the real-life historical figure Ali Ammar, a guerrilla warrior in Algeria’s revolutionary resistance to the French occupation. Jaffar, the leader of the National Liberation Front (the terrorist organization in charge of the attacks) is based on (and played by) Saadi Yacef, a real-life character (the movie is based on his memoirs). Omar is a little boy who plays a crucial role in the National Liberation Front’s hierarchy and its ability to remain concealed from the French for so long. He has the ability to transmit messages amongst members while remaining undetected. Like Ali, Halima is less an individual than the face of the collective; in this case, she is the film’s primary representative of the means by which the resistance was able to use women’s identities. Each visual representation of people and places in the movie is worth examining to understand the subtle themes of identity and power in the movie.

To limit the scope of this paper, I acknowledge the possible biases and limitations in the movie, though the purpose of the paper is to trace the narrative lines which sketch the trajectory of the identity-play in Algeria during the pre-independence years. For this reason, the scenes are discussed in terms of five major themes: architectural identities and the interaction of the characters with their environment, identity plays between Algerians and the French army, tensions between Algerians and French settlers, representations of FLN and French colonial power, and female identity in Algeria.

1. Architectural identities or the background of the movie characters

The streets and buildings of the Casbah and the French quarters have stark visual separations. The Casbah is an apparently ‘un-organized’ urban arrangement of skewed lines, as opposed to the ‘organized’ modern, solid, and clean French quarters. The Casbah’s overcrowded streets are cramped, with buildings closely abutting the roads and muddy cobblestone walkways flooded with drugs, alcohol, and prostitution. The streets of both areas, filmed in black and white contrast, show the evident power play of the French rule in Algeria. From the upper to the lower Casbah, the streets descend to the brothel, contrasting visually with the broad linear streets of the French settlements. The division becomes deeper when the French government blockades the Casbah with wooden horses and barbed wire fences nine feet high. Access to the French quarter becomes restricted, with border crossings require Algerians to produce valid documents for entry. Here, the tangible symbolic expression of colonial power gives a concrete base for uplifting Algerian identity in the fight for independence. In other words, these representations of identity become a tool for protest in the fight against French colonial rule.

2. Identity conflicts between Algerians and the French army.

In the opening scene, Ali’s[1] hideout is revealed by an Algerian in French army custody. The Algerian is forced to dress in a French army uniform, and one of the French soldiers alternately tries to convince and force him into the colonial costume: “We’re trying to help you. We’re going to the Casbah. Dressed like this, they won’t be able to recognize you. Understand? We’re going to see the place; then you’ll be free and under our protection. “ This is an attempt to overwhelm Algerian identity with French power, forcing a French identity in its place. The Algerian wants to take his own life, but instead, camouflaged as a French soldier, he leads the French army to Ali’s hideout. From the French colonial perspective, they acted for the Algerian’ s ‘safety,’ considering the political unrest that existed then. But, from the Algerian’s perspective, the imposition of a foreign colonial identity has led him to betray his countrymen. Eventually, the helpless situation leads to the obvious end where the man helps the French army identify Ali’s hideout.

During the FLN strike (to show the real picture of the struggle to the UN), the French army arrests Algerians who cooperate with it. The French, in all their actions, oppress through violence. Mathieu, through torture, gets the answers he wants from the captured Algerian people during the strike. These incidents later leave the strike futile and counterproductive in one sense. The powerful colonial rule covers up Algerian identities and degrades them to second-class citizenship, as viewed through the lens of a European colonial worldview.

Oppressed identities cannot always be sealed. A condemned man, being taken for execution, screams “Tahia el Djez-ar! (Long live Algeria!)” to his fellow prisoners. The prisoners repeat the cry, and those words become the driver of an aggressive reaction of Algerian identity towards French colonial rule.

3. Tensions between Algerians and French settlers

Ali’s introduction scene is one among the many instances which show the self-proclaimed superiority of French settlers over Algerians. A blond young youth stretches out his foot across Ali’s way on a footpath. Ali stumbles and falls, and the youth laughs at him. Ali strikes him on the nose, spurting blood everywhere. The police put him in handcuffs. The scene reveals the superior elite identity attached to the French settler population. This black and white understanding and the sense of colonial superiority persist even beyond independence in the post-colonial world.

Another instance comes when an Algerian is ‘trapped’ in the French quarter, heckled and hounded by the French settlers. French women scream ‘Murders!!’ as they point to this man on the street from their literally elevated balconies above him, accusing him of the actions of the FLN, though he was not actively taking part in the violence. The visual device of the French on their balconies looking down at Algerians on the streets is a representation of superiority and the dynamics between the colonial powers and the colonized. On the streets the Algerian people are in the grime and dust as the French, from balconies or on higher ground, look down. These visual dramas underscore the power-play between both Algerians and the French settlers, which in a way clarifies the distinctions in identity and the rise of these identities as tools in the Algerian freedom struggle.

French clothing styles and the delineation of each colonial-settler identity are crucial in the film. These clothing styles and mannerisms are used by the FLN to their own advantage. To camouflage himself in the crowd, Ali dresses up in European clothes, wearing trousers and pullovers right after a narrow escape from a failed attempt to kill some policemen. Also significant are the transactions at the checkpoints separating the Arab quarter from the French quarters. At these checkpoints, soldier ask for documents of passage only from people wearing scarves on their heads, ‘Ill-fitting’ clothes, or veils over their faces. With these dynamics in action, a crucial infiltration planned by FLN plays out well, as women who are dressed like the French are allowed to pass.

4. The FLN and the French army as representative of Algierian and French colonial power

The political unrest aggravates tensions and leads to murders and bombings, which later rise to a stage where the National Liberation Front leaders and the French army fight face to face. FLN, fighting to free Algerians from colonial rule, takes over a collective “Algerian” identity as tensions rise. A scene focusing on Ali’s eyes as he witnessew the brutal death penalty execution of fellow Algerian freedom fighters is one of the major visual narratives connecting emotions of common Algerian with the FLN activists. The army executing the agenda of the French colonial rulers becomes the face of the French population in Algeria. Escalation of the boiling unrest made the struggle ‘personal’ for both FLN fighters and the army.

Scenes showing the army and the FLN locking horns draw out the personal nature of these fights. The first of these occurs when the army finds Ali’s hideout. Ali la Pointe and Col. Mathieu Phillipe become representatives of each side, like knights on either side of a chess board. Ali is seen as raw and emotionally driven to defend his people, whereas Mathieu is cold, calculating, and driven to preserve the assets of his nation. He asks Ali, “Make up your mind, Ali? Do you want us to wall you in, or do you prefer that we blow you to pieces?” Ali’s failure to respond leads to complete destruction, as the entire building is blown up with grenades and explosives. Ali’s hideout, the last of the hideouts, marks the army’s apparent victory over the FLN fighters. However, within the next few years, another wave of internal war broke out, which later moved Algeria towards independence in 1962.

During the encounter at Ali’s hideout, Mathieu plays with the individual identity of the youngest boy in Ali’s group, asking Ali to at least let him go leave as he is too young for such a brutal death. The boy, with two others, chooses to abide by Ali’s decision, and that marks the end of the FLN mission at that time — an apparently successful suppression of Algerian voices.

Sequential destructions on both sides raise the personal stakes between Colonel Mathieu and the FLN leaders, as the fight becomes representative of each side’s ego. After the French army has arrested FLN fighters in their secret hideouts, Mathieu tells Jaffar, the FLN leader, “If you had let me blow you up, you would have disappointed me. “When the FLN leader asks why, Mathieu replies, “For many months, I’ve had your photo on my desk together with a dozen or so reports on you … And naturally, I am under the illusion that I know you somewhat. You never seemed the type inclined to perform useless actions.” Jaffar observes, “You seem to be very satisfied to have taken me alive, and Mathieu replies, “Of course I am.” Jaffar says, “That proves that I was wrong. Evidently, I credited you with an advantage greater than I should have,” and Mathew replies, “ Oh, let’s just say that you’ve given me the satisfaction to have guessed correctly. But from the technical point of view, it isn’t possible to speak of advantages. By now, the game is over. The FLN has been defeated.” Hearing this, an Algerian FLN worker in the front seat of the car screams, with aggressive agony and hope, that Ali is still out there, pulling up the Algerian FLN identity from within. The fire within the FLN is understood as the collective voices of oppressed Algerians. The movie, in the end, shows the death of the first wave of FLN fighters with the saddened stares and prayers of the Algerians after the destruction of Ali’s hideout. These scenes are followed by shots of the re-emergence of the independence struggle after a few years, which gave birth to the new state, Algeria.

5. Women in Algeria

Women’s identities in Algeria become a key tool in the FLN struggle at the Casbah. This complex entity is discussed here under two subcategories: the identities of Algerian women in their traditional attire, and Algerian use of of French settler women’s identities as tools in their struggle.

Veiled women with intense glances and silent women who seem to float through the crowds are common in scenes representing the ‘Algerian’ quarter. Algerian women in their traditional attire play a major role throughout the initial murders committed by the FLN. Ali pointing a pistol at a French policeman with the help of a woman is one such example. Ali approaches the girl, and they exchange glances; the girl puts down her basket filled with corn and rests it by her side. Ali and the girl follow the policeman. Then the girl plunges her hand into the corn. In a second, she places the revolver in Ali’s right hand. The Algerians also hide a revolver in a woman’s veil, an interesting element of clothing strongly proclaiming identity which turns into a major tool in the struggle. Throughout the movie veiled women are seen carrying pistols and other explosives, helping the FLN in their mission. During checkpoint security screening, an Algerian woman begins to shout while waving her arms wildly and pushes away the soldier who tries to see her face to identify her. In the second part of the movie, Ali and the leaders of FLN use Algerian women’s veiled clothing to deceive the French police. Algerian women also help secure FLN’s hideouts towards the end of the movie. Another significant scene is the role of women in the major bombings that happens in the French quarter under the direction of FLN. But this doesn’t use the traditional identities but rather uses the French identity.

‘Caged’ Algerians find ways to pass their voices through the checkpoints by the efforts of women. Three women workers in the FLN abandon their veils and transform their visual identity into a French appearance — blond hair, skirts, make-up, lipstick, high-heeled shoes, silk stockings, and shirts, along with vanity bags. One among the three women (who accepts the bombing mission) goes to the extent of taking her child along with her through one of the easiest checkpoints to distract from and hide her Algerian features, which do not remain ‘sealed.’ The three ladies successfully cross through and complete the FLN’s mission.

The identities of individual Algerian women become complex. The strength of women’s identities as Algerians is intense; this is clear through the successful completion of the bombing mission led by three Algerian women dressed as French. The flashing scenes of children in the café in between the sequence of scenes where the Algerian women leave the bombs in the designated places — the café, club, and airport — may represent the maternal facet of the female identity, affected by seeing innocent children at the bombing sites. A similar caring gesture is shown when women bless people released from French captivity after the strike.

Women have a strong place in the story’s narrative, which clearly shows how they were used in the struggle for independence from French colonial rule.

Concluding notes.

Through the above five major themes, discussion of the movie’s storyline and visual representation uncovers how identities were used as tools or as symbols of power for operation/expression by both the French army National Liberation Front. The movie ends with scenes of victory over colonial rule, an apparent success over the oppression in Algeria. However, the identity which had served as a tool before independence became a core factor in the building of the new nation (including the creation of all functional and symbolic elements like architecture) for Algerians. Thus, the question arises, what is the identity of Algeria?

If we were to say that the authentic identity of Algeria is that which existed before the colonial invasion, the question becomes even more complex. The FLN, in its initial moves, emphasizes changing the apparent identity of Casbah. Jaffar tells Ali, “But even the Casbah isn’t safe yet. There are too many drunks, pushers, whores, addicts, spies, people who talk too much, people who are ready to sell themselves, and undecided people. We must either convince them or eliminate them. We must think of ourselves first. We must clean out the Casbah first. Only then will we be able to deal with the French.” The FLN calls for the attention of the people of the Casbah, outlining their vision and the need to wake up the ‘brothers who have forgotten their dignity.’ These dialogues show the strong interest of the FLN in the creation of Algerian national identity. Building the new nation became the primary task after independence. Like all other post-colonial regions, Algeria has the confusion stemming from the colonial trauma of its society. Representations, such as architecture, remain as tangible, visible questions in the present era, seeking answers to the complex question of ‘identity’ both in an individual as well as collective fashion. In that sense, does the element of identity itself become the double-edged sword — being the ‘question’ as well as ‘answer’ at the same time?

The elite identity, which is tied to the external or incoming culture during the colonial period, remains in the society even after its official withdrawal. The trauma incited by the colonial rule and social memory remains, becoming an integral part while there is a thought of ‘building’ or ‘reviving’ the identity of the nation/state in a post-colonial time.

The question of identity is one of the most salient aspects of this film. It shows how it became a tool and a weapon for the freedom struggle led by the FLN in Algeria. The movie ends with a background of colonial buildings, with most people in ‘European’ attire in the scene of FLN leading freedom movements. This is a subtle visual representation of changing identities of Algeria, and in a way, the beginning of post-colonial confusions about ‘authentic’ identities.


[1] Ali’s introduction in the movie is as follows: “Omar Ali, known as “Ali la Pointe,” born in Miliana, March 1, 1930. Education: Illiterate. Occupation: Manual laborer, farm hand, boxer, presently unemployed. Former convictions: 1942 — Oran Juvenile Court, one year of reformatory school for acts of vandalism. 1944 — Two years of reformatory school for theft. 1949 — Court of Algiers, eight months for compulsory prostitution and resisting arrest. Habitual offender.”


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Graduate student at the University of Washington, Seattle, WA

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