Algerian films about the national liberation war generally conform to the rule that war films are implicitly or explicitly propagandist in nature. But the most celebrated film about the Algerian war, Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers, is a striking exception. Not only does it depict both sides of the war with objectivity and detachment, and both its Algerian and French victims with equal sympathy, it also refuses to moralise about the methods used by the French in suppressing the terrorism of the FLN. Given the particular circumstances in which the film was made, and the degree of Algerian involvement in its production, this aspect of the film is remarkable. The explanation suggested is that the political content of the film reflects the real outlook of the wartime FLN, which was not liberal but revolutionary in character.
In his discussion of the way in which the painful experience of the Algerian war has been handled in literary and artistic production in both independent Algeria and post-1962 France, (1) the historian Benjamin Stora considers how the protagonists of this war have been depicted in the various French and Algerian films which have been produced, and expresses considerable dissatisfaction with this. Writing of the image of the French army in the Algerian war promoted by various French films - notably René Vautier's Avoir Vingt Ans Dans l'Aurès (1971), Yves Boisset's R.A.S. (1973) and Laurent Heynemann's La Question (1977) - and one American-produced one - Mark Robson's Les Centurions (1966), he remarks that:
"Jusqu'aux années quatre-vingt, dans tous les films, le soldat est donc un «anti-héros», incapable de vivre des situations complexes, contradictoires. L'Algérien est absent, ou sa présence ne sert qu'à réveler les «passions» du soldat français." (2)
"...autant de titres-programmes qui, sur le front des images, dessinent le rapport que les autorités algériennes veulent entretenir entre le cinéma «avec le peuple en marche». Ces films souvent manichéens (l'héroique combattant se dressant face au vilain colonialiste) se trouvent estampillé par le label «propagande»." (3)
Now it cannot be denied that Algerian films about the war have had a propagandist dimension. It would be surprising were this not the case. One cannot help being struck by the inclination of French (or French-based) commentators on Algerian affairs to be scandalised by the discovery that the Algerian state behaves in many spheres...just like other states, including the French state. Were it the case that French war films did not represent the French resistance fighters as heroic and the German occupiers as villains, one might well concede Stora's point. But it is not the case, any more than it is the case that British and American films about the Second World War have refrained from caricaturing the German and the Japanese enemy. 'Our' heroes and 'their' villains are the staple dramatis personae of war films everywhere, and as a rule it is only when the issues at stake in the conflict have long been transcended and the scars have healed that it becomes possible for non-propagandist scenarios for war films to find commercial sponsors and a more realistic and sympathetic treatment of both sides of the conflict to reach the cinema screens.
However, it is not the case that all the films about the Algerian war have had the faults which Stora notes, nor did we have to wait until the 1980s for a film which is not vulnerable to these strictures. While I do not for a moment disagree with Stora in respect of the empirical accuracy of the generalisation he is advancing as a general rule, it so happens that there is an exception to this rule, and one which he appears to have overlooked. This is Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers. In this film, the colonialists are by no means presented as villains, and the French soldier is by no means presented as "incapable of confronting complex or contradictory situations." On the contrary, the film presents a very different, and extremely interesting, image of the French army which merits fuller consideration.
Stora refers to Pontecorvo's film in passing, and notes that
"Le film s'appuie sur des faits réels, l'assaut donné, dans l'hiver 1957, par le colonel Bigeard à la Casbah d'Alger. Les officiers coloniaux sont décrits comme des «professionels» froids de la lutte anti-guérilla, tortures y compris." (4)
This is more or less true as far as it goes, but it does not begin to do justice to the film. Of course, Stora is not undertaking to provide detailed treatments of the numerous films he discusses, and cannot be faulted for not doing so. But a reader unfamiliar with Pontecorvo's film could be forgiven for inferring from Stora's comment that the film is unsympathetic to the position of the French army and tends to caricature it, and that it includes a denunciation of the French army's resort to torture in particular. In fact, The Battle of Algiers is (and does) nothing of the kind, and the image it presents of the French army is exceptionally complex and exceptionally interesting, from numerous different points of view.
Portraying revolutionary warfare
The Battle of Algiers is an intensely and profoundly political film. But to say this is not to say that it is a film with a 'message', let alone an overtly propagandist one. It does not grind a political axe in any obvious way at all. What it does is to portray the reality of a revolutionary war.
The film is neither fiction nor documentary, but a dramatisation of real events, the historic Battle of Algiers from its beginnings in mid-1956 to its conclusion with the defeat of the FLN organisation in Algiers (the famous Zone Autonome d'Alger, ZAA) in the autumn of 1957, to which is appended a coda in the shape of a brief but powerful depiction of the popular rising of December 1960 in which the people of Algiers, with apparently little in the way of political leadership or organisation, demonstrated their support for the independence struggle in the most emphatic and unanswerable way.
The substance of the film deals with the events of 1956-1957, however, and depicts the reality of urban guerrilla warfare from the point of view of both its protagonists, the clandestine FLN on the one hand and the French authorities and military commanders on the other. It shows how the FLN engaged in carefully targeted, discriminating, terrorism at first, with attacks on gendarmes and other members of the colonial security forces, how this prompted an unofficial resort to indiscriminate counter-terrorism on the part of the French police with the placing of a massive bomb in the Casbah, as well as the official resort to executions of FLN prisoners, the subsequent resort to indiscriminate bomb attacks by the FLN in order to "prendre en charge" the anger of the Muslim community and thereby preserve its political control of this community, and the consequent resort by the French authorities to the French army in place of the normal police forces to deal with the problem, and this army's systematic resort to torture as the key method of destroying the source of the problem, the FLN's organisation in Algiers.
It thus shows both the spiral of violence and its logic, how one thing led to another in an infernal chain of cause and effect, and does so in a way which is both faithful to historical fact and devoid of any political propaganda or moralising. While the film unquestionably presents a sympathetic vision of the Algerian national revolution, and enlists the unprejudiced spectator's sympathy for this without difficulty, very little of the film's politics is explicit. In particular, there are only eight or nine scenes where the actual political character and outlook of the FLN are portrayed:
- the scene early in the film where the petty criminal Ali la Pointe is approached by the FLN represented by the urchin Petit Omar, who overcomes Ali la Pointe's prejudice against a mere boy and simultaneously conveys to him his (Petit Omar's) true representative standing in his opening phrase: "men have two faces"; the nature of the FLN as a clandestine movement that is omnipresent but invisible is conveyed in a few words, which are immediately understood by Ali la Pointe;
- the scene where Djaafar, the head of the FLN's organisation in the Casbah, explains the strategy and tactics of the FLN's revolutionary war to Ali la Pointe;
- the scene where the FLN, represented by Ali la Pointe, establishes its monopoly control over the Casbah of Algiers by physically eliminating the Muslim gangster, Hacène el Blidi, who had previously controlled a part of it;
- the scene showing a group of children mercilessly attacking a drunkard after the FLN had announced a ban on alcohol;
- the scene where a representative of the FLN conducts a Muslim marriage service in the Casbah (clearly, if unemphatically, portraying the Islamic dimension of the FLN's nationalism);
- the scene where Ali la Pointe leads a march of angry Muslims, beside themselves after the European bombing of the Casbah, only to halt the march at Petit Omar's pleadings and enable Djaafar to reassert the FLN's control over the Muslim population by sending everyone home with the promise that 'the FLN will avenge you';
- the scene where the most senior FLN leader shown in the film, Larbi Ben M'Hidi, reflects on the revolution in a brief conversation held on a Casbah roof-top and insists that the war is only the beginning of the revolution and, in fact, the easy part of it;
- the scene where Ben M'Hidi, after his arrest, is paraded at a press conference and is taxed by a French journalist with the 'cowardice' involved in sending out women with bombs in their shopping baskets, to which he replies by asking whether it is not also cowardly for the French to send aeroplanes to bomb defenceless villages, adding memorably "give us your planes and we shall readily give you our shopping baskets".
These brief scenes convey something of the particular character of the FLN as a revolutionary nationalist movement, and in doing so express an aspect of the politics of the film. But as such they are spare, elliptical, austere in the extreme. There are no diatribes against French colonialism, no explicit, let alone emotive, statement of the nationalist case, at all. We need to look deeper if we are to see the real politics of this film.
While The Battle of Algiers was directed by the Italian Gillo Pontecorvo, and is justly held to his personal credit, it was in fact an Italian-Algerian co-production. The production company involved on the Algerian side was Casbah Films. The managing director of Casbah Films was a certain Yacef Saadi. Yacef Saadi's name appears on the credits of the film, but not as co-producer; it appears among those of the actors. It is Yacef Saadi who plays the role of Djaafar. But 'Djaafar' is the nom-de-guerre of the leader of the FLN in the Casbah who, in historical reality, was none other than...Yacef Saadi. Yacef Saadi plays himself. This needs to be borne in mind when considering other aspects of the film.
The film was shot on location in Algiers, in the Casbah itself and in other parts of the city, in the summer of 1965. (5) The project was begun and carried out in the last months of the presidency of Ahmed Ben Bella. It clearly had the permission and consent of the Algerian authorities. Given the central involvement of Yacef Saadi (who had supported the Ben Bella-Boumediène alliance in the factional struggle within the FLN in July-September 1962), it is virtually certain that there was a consensus within the Algerian government of the day in favour of the making of the film. And it is improbable, to say the least, that the Algerian authorities allowed the film to be made without having a clear idea of its political content.
In the light of these considerations, it is striking that the portrayal of the Algerians protagonists is an entirely objective one. The depiction of the French security forces is not merely objective, it is even sympathetic. While the brutality of the French soldiers breaking the FLN strike in January 1957 is shown very fully, we are also shown a remarkable scene of decency and moral as well as physical courage when, at the Hippodrome the following month, a French gendarme intervenes to rescue a Muslim youth from a lynch mob of Europeans maddened by the bomb attack which has just occurred. Moreover, far from glorifying the FLN's fidaïyyin, the film shows them, among other things, shooting French gendarmes in the back at an early stage in the drama and firing indiscriminately at Europeans from a speeding van at a later point.
Even more striking is the even-handedness of the film's depiction of indiscriminate terrorism and its human consequences.
The film contains two major episodes portraying bomb attacks, the first being the European terrorist bomb in the Casbah, which caused massive destruction and scores of Muslim victims, the second being the FLN's terrorist reprisals in bomb attacks on two European cafés and the office of an airline company. The first is longer, but the shorter duration of the second episode is compensated for by the fact that the victims are individualised. The numerous Algerian victims of the European bomb are not shown at all prior to the explosion; they are thus entirely anonymous: all we see are bodies, distraught relatives, and grim-faced men carrying stretchers or digging desperately into the rubble. In contrast, the (considerably fewer) European victims of the FLN's bombs are shown at length before the bombs go off, and are shown as ordinary people, not as card-board cut-outs or caricatures, but as human beings, flesh and blood:
- a middle-aged man having a drink at the bar of the café chosen as the target for the woman terrorist Hassiba Ben Bouali who, mistaking her for a European, tries to chat her up in a perfectly courteous manner and, when she leaves (having deposited her lethal handbag beneath her bar stool), remarks wistfully "Vous partez, mademoiselle? Dommage";
- young people having normal youthful fun dancing to pop music from a juke-box in the second café, whom we observe at length because the camera shows us the second woman terrorist (Zohra Drif) observing them at length, with a wistful expression on her face suggestive perhaps of her own wish to be able to join them - a wish made impossible by the racial barrier between Europeans and 'Arabes';
- even a baby, in one of the two cafés, the quintessence of human innocence.
In this context, I disagree with Schulte's claim that "it seems impossible to find a single favourable depiction of pied noir civilians in the film." (6) Perhaps it depends on precisely what one means by "favourable". But there can be no doubt that the depiction of European civilians instanced above is at least sympathetic, and that this ensures that the human consequences of the FLN's terrorism are brought to the attention of the spectator in a way which is almost unbearable but which makes evasion of the issue impossible: these people do not deserve to be blown to bits, but they are about to be. The same elegiac and extremely moving music is heard on the sound-track after the explosions on both occasions. The European victims are shown as no less innocent than the Muslim victims, the spectator identifies with them more, and they are mourned as the Muslim victims are mourned. In a film which is unmistakably supportive of the FLN's cause, and which was made with active Algerian involvement and official Algerian approval, this treatment of the FLN's terrorism is remarkable.
Which brings me to the film's treatment of the French army.
The honour of Lt. Colonel Mathieu
Although The Battle of Algiers is a dramatisation of a real event, it does not pretend to be pedantically faithful to historical fact in every point of detail, and certain scenes are clearly invented, while nonetheless defensible as being faithful in spirit to the reality of what happened. Nonetheless, it is a remarkably realistic film in many respects. In particular, the personages of Djaafar/Yacef Saadi, Ali la Pointe, Petit Omar, Hassiba Ben Bouali and Larbi Ben M'Hidi are all real historical figures accurately portrayed. This realism has one major exception, however, on the French side. The commander of the paratroopers called in to take on the FLN, Lt. Colonel Philippe Mathieu, is not a real person at all, but a composite.
Mathieu is certainly shown to be a professional, but there is nothing particularly 'cold' about him and he certainly is not a bogey man or a monster at all. On the contrary, he is given some very good lines, and no bad lines, and is arguably the most complex and rounded character in the entire film. At the very outset, when he is first seen leading his men as they march into Algiers to the relief and applause of European onlookers, a voice-over gives his biography in which his heroic role in the French resistance to Nazism is emphasised. Thereafter, he is presented as a crisp, efficient, no-nonsense professional soldier, sure of himself but not arrogant, highly intelligent, with a sound appreciation of his FLN adversary and a measure of respect for it, an attractively dry, laconic, way of speaking and a nice line in irony, and a total absence of hypocrisy.
This comes out very clearly in his remark that, if he were the FLN, he too would use bombs. But it comes out above all in the crucial scene of a press conference at which a journalist raises the question of the methods used by Mathieu's men to obtain information from FLN prisoners. Observing that, for as long as the press employs circumlocutions, Mathieu can only respond allusively, the journalist suggests that people stop beating about the bush and that "we are talking about torture." Mathieu immediately replies "Compris" - without any evasion, any squirming, any shiftiness. Il assume.
What then follows is the most extraordinary statement of the justification for the use of torture. Mathieu explains that, in the FLN (which, as he has previously told his hearers, is structured in such a way that no FLN activist knows more than three other activists, the man he takes orders from and the two men he gives orders to) each activist is instructed to hold his tongue, if arrested, for 24 hours - the time to enable his comrades to give the alert - after which he is free to sing like a canary. Mathieu points out that the information obtained after a lapse of 24 hours would accordingly be quite useless, and that if the army is to get anywhere in stopping the bombing, it has to get FLN prisoners to talk before they are willing to do so. Acknowledging that the methods involved are repugnant, he then insists that the question of torture is not the real question; the question is, should France be in Algeria or not? Decoded, this is a clear challenge to his (French) audience: "messieurs, if you will the end, will the necessary means."
Two things are remarkable about this discourse.
First, Mathieu is shown as being entirely rational and entirely coherent, morally sure of himself. He has thought about what he is doing, and is quite clear where the ultimate responsibility lies. What he is saying is that, if the French press, French public opinion, French democracy...etc. do not like the fact that the French army is torturing FLN suspects, they must realise that the FLN cannot be defeated by other methods and must reconsider their commitment to l'Algérie française. If this outlook can be described as 'cold', its coldness is the coldness of political lucidity.
Second, at no point in the film is any attempt made by any character to refute Mathieu's argument. Its coherence and moral force go unchallenged, which means that they are allowed to stand. This in turn has two implications.
The first is that, when we link Mathieu's behaviour to that of the FLN in its resort to indiscriminate bombing of civilians, we are shown that both protagonists are committed to the struggle they are waging and are equally prepared to be ruthless, but that this ruthlessness is rationally calculated and each side is morally sure of itself. To employ the vocabulary of existentialist philosophy, neither the FLN nor Mathieu are guilty of mauvaise foi. (7) Second, and in consequence, the film demonstrates a total and consistent refusal to demonise or moralise about this character, who is virtually the star of the drama. This is all the more remarkable when we realise who Mathieu really is.
Stora rightly mentions the name of Bigeard in his reference to The Battle of Algiers. Colonel Marcel Bigeard was indeed the commander of the regiment of paratroopers to which General Jacques Massu entrusted the dirty job of destroying the FLN in Algiers. Since Bigeard had already won a solid reputation as a fine soldier, and was still alive in 1965 (indeed, he is still alive today, aged 87), it is perhaps understandable that the makers of the film should have hesitated to paint him black. Nonetheless, the device of a fictional character (Colonel Mathieu) enabled them to do so if they chose. That they chose not to is all the more interesting for the fact that the personage of Mathieu combines aspects of Bigeard's role with aspects of the role of a very different character, Colonel Yves Godard, a former French Resistance hero, (8) who by 1957 was the man in charge of military intelligence during the battle of Algiers and actually performed some of the functions which the film shows Mathieu as performing, in analysing information obtained and plotting it on organigrammes of the FLN on blackboards in ops. rooms and so forth. (9)
Now, whereas Bigeard stayed out of the subsequent die-hard politics of the French army in Algeria, and by adhering strictly to the code of the professional soldier was able to attain a triumphant fin-de-carrière as Minister of Defence under President Giscard d'Estaing in the 1970s (a point the makers of the film could not have anticipated, of course), Colonel Godard went the other way, taking an active part in the army's putsch against de Gaulle's Algeria policy in April 1961 and then acting as the principal guiding spirit of the murderous OAS. (10)
All this is bound to have been known to the makers of The Battle of Algiers, and its Algerian backers and participants in particular, many of whom had been actively involved in the FLN's efforts to control the Muslim population of Algiers in the summer of 1962 and in particular to restrain it from responding to the provocations of Godard's OAS. And yet, while resorting to the device of a fictional paratroop commander, the makers of The Battle of Algiers refused to avail themselves of the opportunity to assault the moral credibility of the chief of the torturers that they had contrived to give themselves. There is not a shred of moralising about torture in the film, and not a stain on the honour of Mathieu at the end of it. This refusal to moralise about torture or demonise the torturers even extends, as we have seen, to attributing to them a comparable philosophical attitude towards the FLN; the moral coherence of the outlook expressed in Mathieu's frank statement of the true rationale of what he is up to is attested to by his corresponding refusal to demonise his adversary and, in particular, by the tribute he subsequently pays to the moral qualities of the dead Ben M'Hidi.
It seems to me that all this is quite extraordinary. The film was made in 1965, when the scars of the war had barely begun to heal, when the most bitter and painful memories were still extremely fresh. This alone makes the film's objectivity remarkable, and a credit - along with its numerous other virtues as cinema - to its director, Pontecorvo. But while Pontecorvo's own political background and itinerary no doubt furnish a satisfactory explanation of his own sophistication, (11) this hardly explains what needs to be explained. To account for the film's political content essentially, let alone uniquely, in terms of Pontecorvo's own personal vision is to elide - indeed, deny - altogether the Algerian element of its nature. (12) Yet, as Schulte himself admits, the Algerian contribution to the film was of the first order. Not only did Yacef Saadi co-produce the film and play himself in it, not only did other former active members of the wartime FLN participate in it, playing themselves or the parts of dead comrades (one of them notably played the dead Hassiba Ben Bouali), but Yacef himself was also involved in the writing and rewriting of the screenplay. (13)
Given this degree of implication of the Algerians and, specifically, members of the wartime FLN, in the making of the film, the radical absence of any moralising about the French army's resort to torture, this willingness to present the French paratroop commander precisely as someone psychologically, intellectually and morally capable of confronting a complex and contradictory situation, calls for explanation, to put it mildly.
I cannot be sure what the explanation is. But I should like to put forward a hypothesis. This consists of two main points.
The first is that the film actually represents in this respect the true outlook of the wartime FLN. While happy to enlist the support of French liberals during the war, and willing to make the most of their opposition to the torture resorted to by the French army, the FLN did not actually share their outlook in the least, (14) and, with victory gained, felt no need to pretend to do so thereafter. For the historic FLN, the ruthlessness of the French army was not the problem; the problem was exactly as Mathieu stated it: should France stay in Algeria or not? Voilà tout.
The second is that the film was made in the early years of independence, before the Algerian state had got its act together (as it was to do under Boumediène), and at a time when cinematic production, like artistic production in general, was yet to come under strict state supervision. To my knowledge, there have been no sequels to The Battle of Algiers in the sense of co-productions involving non-Algerian partners dealing cinematically with the Algerian war. At the time the film was made, there was no ministry of culture in the Algerian government. And what this may have meant was not only that the makers of the film could enjoy a degree of freedom which later, purely Algerian productions could not aspire to, but that, in these circumstances, the outlook of the actual Algerian protagonists of the Algerian war - as distinct from the outlook of government ministers drawn from the intelligentsia with no experience of the actual fighting but militantly Zhdanovist conceptions of cultural policy - could inform the representation of their French adversary.
That outlook, on the evidence of this film, was a revolutionary and politically sophisticated one which was at ease with the moral complexities of the life-and-death struggle which had been fought, and saw a purpose in depicting these complexities honestly. And that is why the politics of The Battle of Algiers may be considered to be revolutionary, and worthy of the historic FLN, which did not need to misrepresent its French adversary, just to defeat it.
* This article is a corrected version of an
article published in Martin Alexander, Martin Evans and John
Keiger, eds., The Algerian War and the French military: experiences,
images, testimonies. London, Macmillan, 2002, 152-163, which
was itself a revised and slightly extended version of an article
first published under the same title in the Journal of Algerian
Studies, Vol. 2 (1997), pp.90-99. It originated in a paper
which I presented to a Conference on The Algerian War and
the French Army: Experience, Image, Memory, 1954-1962 held
at the University of Salford, 11-13 October 1996 before I had
learned of P.G. Schulte's essay, 'Interrogating Pontecorvo: the
continuing significance and evolving meanings of The Battle
of Algiers', (Royal College of Defence Studies, 1996 Course, 82pp., plus Appendix;
unpublished). While I do not share all of Mr Schulte's judgements
and opinions and instance two of my disagreements below, there
is evidently much common ground between our respective views
of the film, and a number of the revisions which I have made
to this article have been prompted by his paper. Return