Franco Solinas, who wrote the screenplay for “The Battle of Algiers,” set out to demystify colonial war. Honor, glory, maintaining peace, bringing freedom and the advantages of civilization, guaranteeing human rights—whatever the occupier’s stated motivation for fighting—all of this was sentimental drivel. Solinas felt compelled, he said, to present the events in a harsh light because he was against “a hypocritical, phony, romantic, fictionalized idea of war.”
It’s true that the French do not come off well in this film. The colonists seem spiteful, their young people spoiled, their policemen immoral and underhanded. Apart from the paratrooper commander, Colonel Mathieu, who upholds his warrior code, the French army appears callous at best, sadistic at worst. In one brutal sequence, we see Algerians being tortured in graphic detail, Ennio Morricone’s mournful score heightening our revulsion. Not only must we endure the men’s agony as they are beaten, burned, waterboarded, and subjected to electric shocks, we are also shown the faces of their wives and mothers, tears running down their cheeks, as they too are made to witness the torture.
But none of this would have surprised audiences in the mid-1950s, when the events marked by the film took place. The fact that torture was routinely used in France’s “Dirty War” in Algeria was widely known and hotly debated. Exposés were written by prominent figures, from decorated army generals to Catholic theologians. Soul-searching was the order of the day, particularly among Left-Bank intellectuals. Former members of the French Resistance routinely denounced the “Gestapo methods” of the French army. And efforts by the authorities to censor this literature only increased the demand for it.
The European-born editor of a left-wing Algerian newspaper critical of the colonial regime was tortured for a month at the height of the Battle of Algiers. His account, smuggled page by page out of prison, sold 168,000 copies in a clandestine Swiss edition published in 1958, after the original version was confiscated in France. His ordeal became a cause célèbre.
The shock value of “The Battle of Algiers” did not reside in its revelation of French brutality, difficult as the scenes of torture are to view. I think it was the film’s glorification of revolution, its endorsement of the argument found in Frantz Fanon’s radical manifesto, The Wretched of the Earth, that violence could be a cleansing force, enabling an oppressed people to overcome their fears and reclaim their dignity, that earned the film its acclaim, and its notoriety (depending on the viewer’s politics).
In a famous sequence, three Algerian women prepare to bomb civilian targets in the European area of Algiers. Who doesn’t root for them to get through the checkpoints?
Pretty shocking, I’d say, even today.