Filmmakers probe the wounds of a devastating conflict
There's savagery innate in all colonial conflicts: issues of race, religion and asymmetrical tactics demolish pretenses of "civilized" warfare. Even by these standards, the Algerian War (1954-1962) seems especially vicious. Algeria's efforts to gain independence from France caused an intractable guerrilla conflict, where terrorism, torture and massacres became the norm. At least 250,000 died in a war which left deep scars in both countries.
Consider also that Algeria wasn't a far-flung colony, but a French state with a large European population (pieds noirs). In 1958 French generals overthrew the Fourth Republic, installing Charles De Gaulle as President. But De Gaulle negotiated Algeria's independence, triggering violent backlash. Disillusioned rightists formed the Secret Army Organization (OAS), fighting both Algeria's National Liberation Front (FLN) and De Gaulle's government. The FLN responded by massacring Europeans, initiating a mass exodus of pieds noirs and harkis (pro-French Arabs) to mainland France.
For decades the war remained a verboten topic in France, sparking fierce debates on colonialism, torture and De Gaulle's "betrayal" of pieds noirs. Today aftershocks linger in resentment towards French Muslims, sure to be inflamed by this week's Charlie Hebdo attacks. Meanwhile, Algeria remains torn between nationalism and Islamism, which exploded into civil war during the 1990s. Algeria and France argue over emigration and economics, legacies of an unforgotten conflict.
French filmmakers tackled Algeria first, reflecting Frantz Fanon's and Jean-Paul Sartre's leftist outrage. Jean-Luc Godard's The Little Soldier (1960) shows a French spy (Michel Subor) betrayed by both France and the FLN. Alain Cavalier's The Unvanquished (1964) features Alain Delon as a disillusioned Legionnaire hunted by the OAS. The French government suppressed Godard's movie, while Cavalier's flopped. They made negligible impact compared to an extraordinary 1966 film.
Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo optioned a script by Franco Solinas. Entitled "Para," it depicted a French journalist disgusted by atrocities in Algeria. Pontecorvo felt this approach slighted Algerians: he turned to Saadi Yacef, an FLN leader seeking to adapt his memoirs. Pontecorvo similarly disliked Yacef's treatment, which idealized the FLN while demonizing France. Nonetheless, Yacef convinced Algeria's government to back Pontecorvo, who restaged the war on location. The result became beloved of cineastes and revolutionaries alike: the IRA, Black Panthers and Baader-Meinhoff Gang all drew inspiration.
The Battle of Algiers (1966) depicts three years of urban warfare in Algiers. Its protagonist, Ali Lapointe (Brahim Haggiag), is an Arab cardsharp radicalized in prison. Upon release, Lapoint becomes an enforcer for FLN leader Jaffar (Saadi Yacef). After a violent terror campaign, the French dispatch Colonel Matthieu's (Jean Martin) paratroops. Matthieu authorizes mass arrests, checkpoints and systematic torture to crush the FLN. These tactics prove brutally effective, yet increase resentment towards French rule.
Hailed as a classic, Algiers adopts Italian neo-realism (hand-held documentary camera, non-professional actors) to political cinema. The movie's centerpiece features three Algerian women disguising themselves as Frenchwomen, sneaking past police cordons and planting bombs across Algiers. This matter-of-fact presentation of mass murder rattles viewers expecting a heroic Resistance film. Even a colonial war has shades of gray: when FLN bombs kill a toddler, it jolts our sympathy.
Meanwhile, Colonel Matthieu becomes a fascinating villain: intelligent and self-assured, he generates respect, even sympathy. Yet his actions undercut his posturing. Matthieu's key scene has him defend torture to journalists, mocking their moral posturing. He demands they accept torture as the cost of victory - followed by a gruesome montage of French interrogation techniques. This sequence destroys French pretenses of upholding Western Civilization.
Pontecorvo shows war as a moral vortex. The FLN's murdering gendarmes and civilians encourages French savagery. Ali becomes radicalized watching an execution in prison; Algerians observe French torture, which births a hundred revolutionaries. A child, Little Omar, becomes an FLN courier and dies in combat. Yet unlike most '60s political movies, Algiers doesn't excuse the FLN's actions. Even heroes can be murderers.
Nonetheless, it's wrong to call Algiers "objective." While showing FLN brutality, it espouses Ali and his comrades fighting for a virtuous cause. While Matthieu's sympathetic, Pontecorvo has little sympathy for racist pieds noirs or brutal gendarmes. Cuts between affluent French Algiers and the squalid Casbah paint Algiers' Arabs as the underdogs. Though Matthieu defeats Ali, Algiers ends with a spontaneous Arab rising: colonialism succumbs to the tide of history.
The same year, Hollywood produced Lost Command (1966). Mark Robson's movie draws on Jean Larteguy's novels, The Centurions and The Praetorians. It focuses on Colonel Raspeguy (Anthony Quinn), a paratroop leader modeled on Marcel Bigeard, and his adventures in Indochina and Algeria. The titles reflect the French Army's self-image, defending France from barbarians without and politicians within. Larteguy captures the mindset of soldiers frustrated with political incompetence and counterinsurgency. In contrast, Lost Command is amazingly tone-deaf.
Lost Command follows Larteguy's story: Raspeguy's troops survive Dien Bien Phu and Vietminh captivity, returning home embittered. Raspeguy earns command of a paratroop regiment in Algeria, while Arab colleague Mahidi (George Segal in brown face) deserts to the FLN. Another major character is Captain Esclavier (Alain Delon), who falls for Algerian spy Aicha (Claudia Cardinale) while growing disenchanted with the Army. Raspeguy's men battle rebels in the djebel and cities, losing sight of their mission.
Sadly, Lost Command lacks interest beyond its stars and action scenes. It's a boilerplate thriller, with Robson downplaying Larteguy's characterization and political commentary. The Centurions features Raspeguy joining the Suez Crisis of 1956, baffled by the useless diversion: Lost Command ignores this subplot. This disillusionment climaxes in The Praetorians, with Esclavier joining the Gaullist putsch. That too is elided: why bother American viewers with French politics?
Fred Zinnemann's The Day of the Jackal (1973) is equally apolitical. Based on Frederick Forsyth's novel, Jackal depicts an assassin (Edward Fox) hired by the OAS to murder De Gaulle, following his meticulous preparations. Zinnemann's film is an excellent thriller, yet reduces the context to a few mumbled lines about Algeria. In fairness though, it accurately depicts Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiery's botched August 1962 ambush of De Gaulle. And Jean Martin, Algiers' Colonel Matthieu, cameos as an OAS leader!
Succeeding decades saw only occasional films. Mohammed Lakdar-Hamina's epic Chronicle of the Years of Fire (1975) won Cannes' Palme d'Or but saw little international release. French director Pierre Schoendoerffer explored the war in 1982's A Captain's Honor. Jacques Perrin plays a French soldier posthumously accused of war crimes. Honor becomes a courtroom drama, with the man's widow (Nicole Garcia) suing his accusers. Interweaving flashbacks and court testimony, Schoendoerffer explores the French Army's attempts to preserve honor during and after Algeria.
After decades of uneasy submersion, Algeria resurfaced in 2001 when General Paul Aussaresses published a memoir defending France's use of torture. These disclosures re-sparked the controversy: Jacques Chirac's government stripped Aussaresses of his rank, yet in 2003 admitted to torture. Despite Aussaresses's censure and public outcry, other veterans (including Marcel Bigeard) defended him, invoking a fresh debate.
Meanwhile, 9/11, America's invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and resultant arguments over insurgency and "enhanced interrogation," led policymakers to revisit Algeria. Richard Clarke screened The Battle of Algiers for Pentagon officials in 2003, while General David Petraeus made The Centurions required reading for his staff. No longer the province of historians, Algeria assumed fresh relevance.
In 2007, French director Florent Emilio Siri made Intimate Enemies. It shows Lieutenant Terrien (Benoit Magimel), a young officer posted to the Kabylie mountains. He soon clashes with Sergeant Dougnac (Albert Dupontel), an Indochina veteran who advocates execution and electrocution as panaceas for rebellion. Disgusted, Terrien loses not only his ideals but sanity fighting the FLN.
Intimate Enemies is a bitter riposte to Lost Command. Its plot's familiar, yet laces the shavetail-versus-Sergeant Rock conflict with violent insanity. Battles are reckless melees replete with friendly fire and civilians in the crossfire. The French troops aren't elite paratroopers but scared conscripts. Aside from some token harkis, Algerians are faceless villains or cowering victims: they don't really matter, with torture and executions taking a backseat to Terrien's disillusionment. Yet Enemies' harrowing violence and character derailment make it powerful, if not entirely satisfying.
Algerian filmmaker Rachid Boucherab responded with Outside the Law (2010). This movie focuses on FLN activities in France, with three brothers forming the nucleus of a revolutionary cell. Abdelkadr (Sami Bouajila) is a humorless didact; Said (Jamel Debouzze), a petty hustler; and Moussaud (Roschdy Zem), an ex-soldier. The brothers argue over tactics while attacking rival nationalists and police. Soon they're targeted by the Red Hand, a French paramilitary force headed by Colonel Faivre (Bernard Blancan).
As Intimate Enemies reframes Lost Command, Outside the Law deconstructs Battle of Algiers. The FLN spends more time fighting the rival Algerian Nationalist Movement (MNA) than Frenchmen; their actions become gangland hits, making Boucherab's film an Algerian Godfather. Abdelkadr seems less principled revolutionary than provocateur, deliberately inciting violence to provoke a response; in one scene he cripples an Algerian boxer competing for the French heavyweight title. And by relocating to France, Outside blurs the line between revolutionary and terrorist.
Nonetheless, Outside the Law inspired controversy for its depiction of 1945's Setif Massacre. While the movie depicts an unprovoked massacre of Muslims, in reality it involved a nationalist riot followed by vicious French reprisals. Its depictions of Algerian laborers working menial jobs and French leftists supporting the FLN also touched a nerve. Though Outside earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, it polarized critics and flopped at the box office. Its reception showed again that Algeria's scars still run deep.
Historians and politicians alike still debate the Algerian War's legacy. Fifty-four years of films - Hollywood blockbusters, European art films, Algerian efforts - shows its cultural footprint remains equally unsettled.