The practice of harm in The Battle of Algiers

Algeria partnership

It was the French colonisers, after all, who were bound to international conventions that govern the practice of harm in a way that a small groups of individuals like the Algerians, were not.

18 March 2013

Harm is… evil (physical or otherwise) as done to or suffered by some person or thing” which produces: “grief, sorrow, pain, trouble, distress, affliction”.– Oxford English Dictionary, 1978 *

It is often said that our central obligation as humans is to refrain from harming each other, and that, according to Cicero, any person who unnecessarily does so is an “enemy of the human race”. What then are we to make of the primary ethico-political question posed by Gillo Pontecorvo in The Battle of Algiers? That is to say, is torture a moral countermeasure to terror?  

The "problem of harm in world politics"as Andrew Linklater recently put it, is endured and inflicted by all people at different times, and to varying degrees. All states and peoples must have the capacity to harm – to see off threats and feel secure. But at the same time, every actor must also develop the unwavering commitment to avoid causing any unnecessary harm and suffering, and arguably also too, the positive obligation to help those who find themselves in harm’s way.

The Battle of Algiers may be read, therefore, as an exploration of how all peoples and states must balance these (at times competing) responsibilities, while at the same time inviting viewers to ask how we individually and collectively internalize harm in our political and moral consciousness.

Pontecorvo’s message is made plain when he has the head of France’s counterinsurgency unit parade the capture of a senior Algerian figure to world news media. Interestingly the foreign journalists are the only outsiders present in the film, and uncannily their line of questioning is almost exclusively that of the moral arbiter:

1st Journalist: Isn’t it cowardly to use your women’s baskets to carry bombs, which have taken so many innocent lives?


Ben M'Hidi: And doesn't it seem to you even more cowardly to drop napalm bombs on unarmed villages, so that there are a thousand times more innocent victims? Of course, if we had your airplanes it would be a lot easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets.

Terror, seen from this perspective, is morally and politically not only necessary, but justified. Based on a number of interviews since making the film, we know that the Battle of Algiers was very much written and constructed with this intention in mind – it was always a piece of political art.

But what the film also shows is something Pontecorvo could not escape: terror may respond to oppression and torture, but it can also produce it. As George Orwell reasoned, “a simple weapon – so long as there is no answer to it – gives claws to the weak”. And so when the Pentagon used the Battle of Algiers to train staff in 2003, the invitations included the following statement to ensure there was no misunderstanding:

“How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas... Children shoot soldiers at point blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.”

That the French and the Algerians are both shown using terror in the film, including in civilian areas, is seemingly a moot point for the Pentagon.

In an interview decades after the film was released, Pontecorvo noted the care that was taken to have the “same music for French and Algerian dead”, as well as the absence of any single protagonist, as if to say: all human life matters. But at the same time, it is notable how the Algerian characters are often afforded displays of empathy, courage, togetherness and honour, whilst the French for the most part, are not.

For instance, the central Algerian figure in the film, Ali Le Pointe, is first shown having to prove his loyalty and effectiveness to one of the movement’s leaders, Saari Kader, before he establishes unrivalled influence over the entire city. Yet, unlike his compatriots who resort to carrying out acts of terror, Le Pointe is depicted by Pontecorvo to be admirably principled in how he himself goes about the task of killing, as in:

Le Pointe: … you let me risk my life for nothing.   


Kader: C'mon ... you're exaggerating. The orders were to shoot him in the back.


Le Pointe: I don't do that kind of thing. 

And throughout the film he really doesn’t “do that kind of thing”. We see that in each scene where Le Pointe is tasked with executing individual targets on the street, he always makes sure they can see his face – putting himself, and the entire resistance (history suggests), at risk. It is not until he’s the only one left standing that he resorts to terror. 

By contrast, the French are shown dispassionately and incessantly humiliating civilians at checkpoints, enforcing arbitrary detentions, being culturally insensitive to women, as well as carrying out torture and executions of political prisoners. It was the French colonisers, after all, who were bound to international conventions that govern the practice of harm in a way that a small groups of individuals like the Algerians, were not.

Thus, as the film closes with scenes of renewed unrest in 1960, what are we to make of the French deploying tear gas against protestors followed by strafing machine gun fire? The taboo on chemical weapons, whilst not yet codified at the time of the Battle of Algiers, had nonetheless evolved over more than a century – particularly during the Second World War – and is now almost universally adhered to under international law. For example, commenting on similar scenes in Cairo in November 2011, the Egyptian presidential candidate Mohammed ElBaradei tweeted:

“Tear gas with nerve agent & live ammunition being used against civilians in Tahrir. A massacre is taking place”

As earlier, Pontecorvo is no less direct in his judgement, and no doubt viewers will recall that earlier scene involving the French command and another moralising journalist:

Colonel Mathieu:  “Should France remain in Algeria? If you answer ‘yes’, you must accept all the necessary consequences”.  

Given that the use of torture is the predominant feature of both films, it is no surprise, therefore, that many have sought to reignite these themes within Pontecorvo’s the Battle of Algiers in defence of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. This is not the place to rehearse a critique of Bigelow’s film, except to draw your attention to the final refrain of her statement to media, which touches on my earlier point about the nature of human duty:

“Bin Laden wasn’t defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.”

What Bigelow seems to want to make clear is that she is aware of the moral and legal problems with torture, but that she agrees with Pontecorvo’s French colonisers, in that torture is just part of "the necessary consequences” that “the defense of this nation” demands. That is to say, whilst Pontecorvo might have shown the suffering of torture and the necessity of terror from the perspective of the Algerians, Bigelow sought to make a case for how and why the Americans were justified in deploying torture against aggressors not from here.

In defense of a deeper humanity, I am of the view that our response to Bigelow should correspond with our times, not resort to asking Pontecorvo. For how much longer can we let our governments decide both unilaterally, and in secret, who is and isn’t inside the circle of our moral community? That is to say, whom we will never torture (our fellow citizens) and whom we might (foreigners). And when will our actions and moral reasoning be better attuned to the emotional needs and interests of distant strangers?

What we can and must return to The Battle of Algiers for is a sense of perspective: the longer we take to ask ourselves these sorts of questions, the longer this practice will continue.


* Andrew Linklater introduced the field of International Relations to the conceptualization of “harm” used in this essay. See: Andrew Linklater, The Problem of Harm in World Politics: Theoretical Investigations, Cambridge University Press, 2011.

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