The Dark Side: French Men Becoming Monsters in Algeria

Michael G. Vann

Sacramento State University


For nearly five decades, when asked for a film on the Algerian War, most scholars, historians, and film buffs would immediately point to The Battle of Algiers. Indeed, there is much to admire about Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 classic. While the film’s political impact and its artistic merit are undoubted, it is not without its faults and obviously more can always be said on such a complex and critical historical event. To many present-day viewers the film’s radical chic politics are a tad embarrassing and the decision to use terrorism for any end, no matter how noble and just, is difficult to swallow in the post-9/11 world. We might even argue that it romanticizes the Front de Libération Nationale while ignoring the internecine Algerian violence of the era (Rachid Bouchareb’s 2010 Hors la loi covers this in brutal detail). Perhaps the strongest criticism of The Battle of Algiers is not that it offers a hagiography of the FLN but that it presents the French military as ready and willing to torture and terrorize in order to squelch the counter-insurgency campaign. In this regard, the film is short on context. Yes, there is passing reference to the NAZI occupation, the recent defeat at Dien Bien Phu, and the struggle against the Vietnamese freedom fighters, but Pontecorvo’s sparse contextualization leaves us with sui generis French officers and soldiers who appear to be enthusiatic war criminals. There is little to indicate that these men had to develop into monsters. In contrast, René Vautier’s 1972 Avoir vingt ans dans les Aurès and Costa-Gravas’ 2006 Mon Colonel take us into the disturbing transformation of what Christopher Browning would call “ordinary men” into the criminals who committed the crimes for which the Algerian War is so famous, what Vice President Dick Cheney referred to as working “the dark side, if you will.”[1] Separated by four decades and markedly different cinematic styles, the two films explore the path that led French enlisted men and officers from their homes in the métropole to the torture chambers of the colony.

The trope of good men going bad in the context of war is nothing new; look no further than Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Apocalypse Now, Oliver Stone’s 1986 Platoon, and Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Full Metal Jacket. We could even cite the recent HBO mini-series The Pacific (2010). The same goes for stories of the corrupting effects of life in the colonial empire, a recurrent, if rarely mentioned, theme in Régis Wargnier’s 1992 Indochine, as well as Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de torchon. That Apocalypse Now is based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness shows the tenacity of the theme of empire’s damaging moral impact. Both Avoir vingt ans dans les Aurès and Mon colonel revisit the question of the dissolution of values in the context of a colonial war. For use in a French or world history classroom, both films offer important insights into the horror and hypocrisy of France’s determination to hold on to Algeria. For a wider audience, these films evoke parallels between France’s colonial past and America’s imperial present. Sadly, the issues raised by these films have never been more relevant.[2]

Released in 1972, René Vautier’s film is a gritty, realistic, and troubling account of the Algerian War. Considering the film’s disturbing depiction of the war and the director’s past it is a wonder Avoir vingt ans dans les Aurès made it past the censors. At age twenty-two Vautier was jailed for his 1950 debut film’s accurate account of French colonial rule. Arguably France’s first anti-colonial film and banned for decades, Afrique 50 was commissioned as a piece of colonial propaganda promoting the soi-disant mission civilisatrice. However, Vautier went rogue, exposing the lack of doctors and teachers, the brutalities of the colonial army, and the exploitation of the African people. When the Algerian war for national liberation began, Vautier, a teen-aged veteran of the French Resistance, joined the maquis in Algeria. Despite his work as a propagandist for the FLN, he was imprisoned and tortured by a faction of the independence movement. After his twenty-five month incarceration, he remained committed to the struggle and stayed in Algeria, recording the end of the war and the first days of independence, working in the nascent Algerian film industry, and promoting Franco-Algerian dialogue. When he returned to France Vautier engaged in a variety of radical causes including anti-racism, anti-capitalism, and Breton autonomy. Avoir vingt ans dans les Aurès brought together several strands of his ideological commitments.

Based on extensive oral interviews, the film tells the story of a unit of long-haired and unshaven Breton soldiers. Originally the men were syndicalistes who opposed the war and refused to fight. As their punishment, the ill-disciplined unit of cheveux-longs was isolated in a harsh training camp where a veteran of the failed Indochina war forged them into a fighting force, tasked as commando de chasse. The film follows the unit as it makes its way through the Aurès mountains. After a brief firefight where one member dies, another is wounded, and an Algerian is taken prisoner, the men reflect on their metamorphosis from dissenters into increasingly ruthless soldiers. In these scenes, the film depicts the various crimes they have committed against the Algerian people, combatants and non-combatants alike. While many of the images may not seem terribly graphic to today’s viewers bred on Quentin Tarantino, some students might be perturbed by a violent rape scene and the corpses in a village destroyed by the army. The middle of the film is a prolonged discussion of the failed generals’ putsch against De Gaulle in April, 1961. While this section of the film has lost its relevance for a general audience, it could be useful in an advanced post-war French history class. The final reel follows a soldier who frees a prisoner from torture and probable death and then deserts with him, with predictable consequences. Thus the last two thirds of the film may not be particularly valuable for the average classroom. Nonetheless, educators might take certain sections of the film, specifically the rape scene and a few other scenes of brutality, to teach the violence of the war, especially if screened in conjunction with selected readings from Frantz Fanon (specifically the case studies of his French and Algerian patients who both survived and committed acts of terrorism and torture in the war), passages from Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954-1962 (while not a sophisticated work by any means, he does offer gripping stories of some of the more horrifying incidents in the war), or Anouar Benmalek’s 2004 novel The Lovers of Algeria (a beautiful story of an unlikely pairing of a Algerian man and a French Jewish woman set in the horrors of Algeria in the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 90s).[3]  In sum, Avoir vingt ans dans les Aurès’ depiction of violence provides several very teachable moments. The film is especially unsettling as Vautier skillfully shows us how men are drawn into increasing violence and callousness,, allowing us to identify with the characters.

Mon colonel is also the product of a filmmaker with strong leftist credentials. With a story by Costa-Gravas, the Greek born writer-director of such excellent films as Z (1969), State of Siege (1972), and Missing (1982), Mon colonel uses a murder mystery to explore the history of France’s systematic use of torture against insurgents in Algeria. Throughout his career, Costa-Gravas has used all the techniques and tricks of classic cinema to tell the audience stories with important political messages. This film deploys a familiar trope, the unsolved murder, to draw the viewer in. The film starts in 1993 during Mitterrand’s final years in office. When retired General Duplan, an extreme right-wing veteran of the Algerian war and vocal critic of De Gaulle, is murdered, one of the investigating officers receives a cryptic message “Le colonel est mort à Saint-Arnaud” and an image of the murder weapon. She discovers that Saint-Arnaud was a French settlement in Algeria under the colonel’s command. The mysterious informant then sends daily packages with photocopies of a young officer’s journal written in 1957. In a series of flashbacks we learn of Guy Rossi’s decision to join the army after a failed romance when he was in law school. While this framing device might seem somewhat clumsy and a bit cliché (this reviewer was reminded of Didier Daeninckx’s 1984 novel Meurtres pour mémoire), it provides a narrative that would appeal to the average undergraduate.[4]

Since Costa-Gravas wrote and produced the film but did not direct it, it lacks the grand-master’s stylistic touch, and feels instead like a mundane “movie of the week” (TV is director Laurent Herbiet’s primary medium). However, it is worth noting that this mainstream product, rather than a great work of art, addresses such an important and politically charged topic. As the story progresses we see how the young officer’s legal background is used by his commanding officer, Colonel Duplan, to develop a rationale for the use of torture. A veteran of Indochina, the colonel resembles the radicalized officers described in James Hans Meisel’s The Fall of the Republic: Military Revolt in France and the novels of Jean Lartéguy – Mao Zedong’s famous words on guerilla warfare and the peasantry figure prominently on his office wall – and is likely based on General Jacques Massu.[5] Through character development and historical context Costa-Gravas allows us to see how the colonel came to be an advocate of torture. As the young law student is drawn deeper and deeper into “the dark side” and eventually receives the order to torture, the audience starts to wonder how far our young hero will go. Unfortunately, the framing device keeps dragging us back to 1993 (complete with casual cultural references to the era) and a murder mystery far less engrossing that its historical back-story. All the more frustrating is the artistic decision to use a stylized black and white for the flashbacks, which has aesthetic merit but ultimately only serves to deflate the framing narrative . In this film, the real story lies in the past.

With the exception of the gory aftermath of three terrorist attacks and a very brief electroshock-enhanced interrogation session, Mon colonel is tense rather than explicitly violent, and offers opportunities for classroom use. Clearly the best tactic would be to show the key exchanges between the crypto-fascist colonel and the idealistic law student; a debate that would resonate with undergraduates raised on Jack Bauer’s weekly moral dilemmas. This could be combined with some of the film’s torture scenes but even better with scenes from The Battle of Algiers or Avoir vingt ans dans les Aurès for a discussion of how men were transformed into butchers of Algerian civilians and freedom fighters. Another strategy would be to show these scenes with the debates on the recourse to violence amongst Algerian FLN members in Rachid Bouchareb’s outstanding Hors la loi (2010). As Hors la loi follows one if its main characters from the Sétif massacre of 1945 to Dien Bien Phu, to acts of terrorism in Paris in 1961 and their brutal repression, students can consider the ways in which the Indochina war affected Algerian nationalists as much as French officers. General Paul Aussaresses’ memoirs and Henri Alleg’s The Question would nicely complement a viewing of Mon colonel.[6] Moeover, the film subtly alludes to the complicity of politicians such as François Mitterrand in the crimes committed in Algeria. The fictional Colonel Duplan goes beyond rationalizing his use of torture, to argue that this type of war requires it. The graphic images of a FLN terrorist bombing might seem to some to support his extremist position. When he confronts a visiting ministerial delegation from Paris, in a scene reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men (1992), the colonel unabashedly explains what he is doing and why he is doing it. We can almost hear him yelling, “You can’t handle the truth!”

Identifying evil is easy. More challenging is probing the circumstances that allow ordinary men to become war criminals.[7] If the now classic Battle of Algiers saw the world in black and white, these recent films show us various shades of grey. Rather than simply voicing moral disapproval and condemnation, Avoir vingt ans dans les Aurès and Mon colonel challenge us to consider what we would do in such situations. These complex films are sure to provoke serious classroom debate about why men do monstrous things and whether we might yield to the dark side ourselves.

René Vautier, Director, Avoir vingt ans dans les Aurès [To Be Twenty in the Aures) (1972) 100 min. Color, France, UPCB

Laurent Herbiet, Director, Mon Colonel (The Colonel) (2006), 110 min, BW/Color, France, Belgium, K.G. Productions, Les Films du Fleuve

  1. Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York, 1993) and .
  2. See for a discussion of the relevance of France’s history in Algeria for contemporary American policy makers.
  3. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York, 1963), Alistair Horne, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954-1962 (New York: New York Review of Books, 2006; reprint of 1977 original), and Anouar Benmalek, The Lovers of Algeria (St. Paul, 2004).
  4. Didier Daeninckx, Meurtres pour mémoire (Paris, 1984).
  5. James Hans Meisel, The Fall of the Republic: Military Revolt in France (Ann Arbor, 1962) and Jean Lartéguy, Les centurions (Paris, 1963) and Les prétoriens (Paris, 1964). Les centurions was adapted into The Lost Command (1966). Starring Anthony Quinn, Alain Delon, and George Segal, the film is often dismissed as the “anti-Battle of Algiers” but is worth a look since it does address some of the key issues of the war, albeit Hollywood style.
  6. Paul Aussaresses, Services spéciaux Algérie 1955-1957: Mon témoignage sur la torture (Paris,2001) and The Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counterterrorism in Algeria 1955-1957 (New York:, 2004) and Henri Alleg, The Question (Lincoln, 2006).
  7. For two excellent treatments of this subject see Errol Morris’ The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003) – where McNamara sates that he and Curtis LeMay believed they would have been charged as war criminals had Japan won the war– and Standard Operating Procedures (2008) one of the best studies of what happened in the basement of that Iraqi prison.
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