The Battle of Algiers, screenshot, credit Wikipedia
Rehabilitation of Colonel Mathieu
by Bill Hartley
Since its release in 1966, director Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers has drawn widespread praise. Both critics and fellow film directors celebrate its vivid neo realist style. This approach was so effective that when first shown in cinemas, the film was preceded by a notice denying that any newsreel footage had been used. Due to its controversial subject it was banned in France for five years after release. Even when it eventually appeared, there were demonstrations outside some cinemas.
The encomiums heaped on the picture are understandable and the grainy black and white photography makes it at times indistinguishable from an old Pathé newsreel. The café bombing scenes, for example, are so realistic that they resemble actual atrocities of the kind with which we have since become all too familiar. Remarkably, the film was made with an amateur cast, some of whom had been involved in the Algerian war. Only one professional actor was used in the picture.
Essentially the film depicts the struggle by the FLN to free Algeria from French rule. Whilst there was guerrilla warfare in the mountains and other locations, the picture focuses specifically on an urban insurrection in the capital and is told mostly in flash back. Central Algiers looks very much like any other French city of the era, with its wide boulevards and patrolling gendarmes. There are plenty of Europeans about, reflecting the notion of Algeria as part of Metropolitan France: as if the sea separating the two countries didn’t exist. The native Algerians mostly inhabit the Arab quarter, known as the Kasbah.
In true revolutionary style, the FLN adopt a two pronged approach. One is to create a parallel administration. For example, we see a young couple choose to avoid the official registrar and instead are married by an FLN official. The other element, of course, is the armed struggle. In Algiers, the FLN begin to attack gendarmes on the streets and the film shows how an assassin carries out a shooting before disposing of his weapon and disappearing into the crowd. Contrasted with this is French justice, where in Algiers jail, medieval style hooded executioners use the guillotine to despatch a prisoner.
Inevitably the violence escalates. Elements in the French police launch a counter terror, bombing a café in the Kasbah. Retaliation soon follows. A café frequented by the French is bombed and we see how the carrier, a woman dressed in fashionable European clothing, is able to plant the device without attracting attention, for this is a society with no clear dividing line between Algerians and colonials. The crossover allows the FLN to gain access to its targets. Predictably, the official response is to create checkpoints. Searches are carried out in and around the Kasbah but this does nothing to reduce the violence. The bored French conscript soldiers are reluctant to stop and search Muslim women in traditional costume but will happily flirt with those dressed in European fashions. With the situation running out of control, the governor general summons the 10th Parachute Division, fresh from the Indo China war. This is a unit of the French Army which has lost once and doesn’t intend to do so again.
The man charged by the divisional commander with running the counter insurgency operation is Colonel Mathieu, played by Jean Martin (1922-2009), the only professional actor in the cast. According to his biography, Martin’s politics were the complete opposite of the role he played.
In addition to its cinematic reputation, the film has reportedly been required viewing for members of various ‘liberation’ movements, ranging from the PLO to the IRA. As a morale booster for such organisations it may have had its place but it falls short as a training aid, though the early scenes give a flavour of the revolutionary zeal required to take on an occupying power.
Colonel Mathieu gets down to business quickly. We see him in a conference with his officers. Mathieu explains that the FLN have created a cellular structure. Capture a member of one cell and others will quickly seal themselves off from the breach. Speed is essential. The colonel is an intellectual soldier; detached and professional, speaking in a language of intimate ambiguity. Referring perhaps to the despair of defeat and the concomitant loss of national prestige, he warns his men that as far as their mission is concerned, ‘humane considerations lead to despair’. Yet Mathieu is no fanatic. Throughout the film he shows a respect for his adversary. With a nice Gallic touch he names the mission ‘Operation Champagne’. ‘We must’, he tells his officers, ‘create the occasion for a free hand’.
The colonel’s men are paratroopers, quite different to the conscript soldiers encountered earlier in the film. Whereas the latter avoided searching women, when the FLN exploit this to move men out of the Kasbah disguised as females, the more focussed paratroopers soon spot the subterfuge and open fire. With no time for the slow grind of interrogation, torture is used. Penetrating the cell structure is the justification for such methods and this is done with cold professionalism. After it is over the broken victims are treated gently. Mathieu rationalises this by saying, ‘we are soldiers, our duty is to win’.
During a press conference Mathieu’s pragmatic approach is further emphasised. He challenges the reporters: ‘Do you believe France should be in Algeria?’ and wonders, ‘why are the Satre’s always on the other side?’ He is a shrewd manipulator of the press, denying that his men are employing torture, pointing out that like him some are veterans of the Resistance and concentration camps. If, however, the government chooses to use him, then ‘people will have to accept the consequences’.
Not surprisingly, down the years, some divergent opinions have been expressed about the colonel. In a 2005 essay entitled The Dark Soul of Colonel Mathieu, the American writer Robert Farley accuses him of being an ‘evil man’ who is on the ‘wrong side of history’. He goes on to suggest that Mathieu is a cynic with no belief in French nationalism. This is to ignore Mathieu’s professional detachment and his awareness of the broader picture, which is evidenced by what he has to say at the press conference. Farley also suggests that ‘he could certainly have refused the assignment’. This is absurd. Soldiers in any army are in no position to do so.
The Battle of Algiers was said have been shown at the Pentagon before the occupation of Iraq. If so, then they didn’t learn much from it, as the subsequent counterinsurgency operation was considered a failure by the Rand Corporation, due to its haphazard application. In its report, it noted that the locals tended to be suspicious of troops, seeing them as neo-colonialist. In contrast, Mathieu explains to his officers that most of the locals aren’t against them. His methods target only those who are. There is nothing haphazard about his approach; at one stage he uses the ‘tapeworm’ analogy to explain how progress could prove to be illusory. ‘One can destroy sections of the organism but unless the head is cut off then it will reform’. Ultimately this is what the colonel succeeds in doing. At the end of the film we are taken back to where we began: the destruction of the FLN leadership. Afterwards, the general commanding the division congratulates Mathieu. He informs him that his men can now go to the mountains where the fighting will be ‘easier’, implying perhaps that having won the dirty war, the paras can now resume what they do best.
Early in the picture the colonel expresses confidence in his methods but wonders if the political will to remain in Algeria can be sustained. As we know, it wasn’t. The colonel wins his battle but the war is lost. There may be something of a romantic attachment to the film among those who see the story simply as one of the first insurrections against a colonial power. But arguably the real message of the film is what Naomi Klein distilled in a 2005 article in Los Angeles Times. Commentators of all political persuasions agree that the film continues to carry a valid message.
Klein concluded that ‘there is no nice humanitarian way to occupy a nation against the will of its people’ and added that ‘those who support such an occupation don’t have the right to morally separate themselves from the brutality it requires’. Klein was writing at the time of the Iraq war. She wondered if some brave official might learn a lesson from Colonel Mathieu and ask the question; ‘should the US stay in Iraq?’ To stay where you’re not wanted requires a man like Colonel Mathieu and his methods. Governments should be honest about this.
William Hartley is a former Deputy Governor in HM Prison Service