The Battle of Algiers, Censorship and the ‘Memory Wars’

Authors: Benjamin Stora ab; Mary Stevens

Affiliations: National Institute of Oriental Languages and
Civilizations, Paris
Université Paris-VII, France
University College London, UK
Published in: Interventions, Volume 9, Issue 3 November 2007

View all Articles from this Special Edition Publication:


In November 2004 Pontecorvo’s controversial film, The Battle of
Algiers, was shown on prime time French television for the first
time, nearly forty years after its original release. Using newspaper
articles from the time to discuss the film’s initial reception, this
article traces the history of its invisibility and explains how,
unlike other films produced about the Algerian War, The Battle of
Algiers was in fact never subject to official censorship. Instead,
its absence from French screens can be attributed to two factors: in
the 1960s and 1970s cinema owners were deterred from showing the
film by threats from veterans’ organizations and pied-noir groups in
the context of what Stora terms the ‘memory wars’. And more recently
the film has been subject to a more subtle kind of censorship: the
disinterest of spectators unwilling to be confronted with this
painful episode in French history. Thus even on its recent re-
release and despite the controversy surrounding the film, it failed
to attract a substantial audience. [MS]
Keywords: Algerian War; censorship; cinema; decolonization; memory;
Battle of Algiers


On 1 November 2004, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the
outbreak of the Algerian War, the French television channel ARTE
showed Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers. This was the first time a
French public channel had screened the film in prime time, on this
occasion in a re-mastered version from 2003. For a long time the
film had gone unseen on French screens. However, this was the
consequence of a very unusual form of censorship, since it was not
imposed by the state, as was the case for various films produced
during the Algerian War and released after 1962.1 (The Algerian War
constitutes the last major period of blanket censorship in French
cinema; for the record, the films subject to official censorship
were: L’Algérie en flammes (René Vautier, 1958), Tu ne tueras point
(Thou Shalt Not Kill, Claude Autant-Lara, 1961), Le Petit soldat
(The Little Soldier, Jean-Luc Godard, 1963), Octobre à Paris
(Jacques Panijel, 1961), Muriel (Alain Resnais, 1963) and Adieu
Philippine (Jacques Rozier, 1962).) In the case of The Battle of
Algiers the ban came from French society at large, with promoters
deciding not to screen the film on account of threats from pied-noir
groups and associations of veterans who had undertaken their
military service in Algeria.2

Pontecorvo’s film recreates the ‘Battle of Algiers’ with a precision
and economy of style reminiscent of a newsreel. Shot only three
years after the end of the Algerian War in the exact locations where
the ‘battle’ took place, the film’s primary value is as a historical
document. The best sequences in the film show the demonstrations of
December 1960; the director had considerable means at his disposal
and we see the population of Algiers displaying genuine enthusiasm.
There is nothing contrived or staged about these scenes. This is not
just because they replicate the style of original footage but also
because of the exceptional nature of their content. The crowds of
extras were neither ‘directed’ nor fired up by external forces. The
events they were recreating were too close in memory and the joy too
great, despite the disappointments of the post-independence period
(notably the military coup of June 1965). Moreover, anger at the
suffering inflicted during the colonial period is still too present
for the reconstruction to be anything less than spectacular. In the
newspaper Combat the film critic Henry Chapier wrote:

Pontecorvo’s direction is truly masterful: the night raids, the
terrorist attacks on both sides and the stories of the résistants
are conveyed with a degree of veracity that – at times – recalls
news footage. This historical reconstruction achieves its aim better
than an edited documentary would have done since his choice of
techniques allows the director to adopt contrasting perspectives on
events. Black and white film appears in all its glory; in a context
such as this the use of colour would have been intolerable! (Chapier
1970a: 13)

In point of fact, precisely because the reconstruction is so
disturbing and so close in style to a documentary, the film had the
perverse effect of diverting the public’s gaze away from the
Algerian War just as it had drawn to a close. The black and white
images belonged to too recent and traumatic a past. On the rare
occasions where contemporary fiction films addressed the topic of
the war they did so by allusion; this was the case for both
Resnais’s Muriel (1963) and Alain Cavalier’s L’Insoumis (The
Unvanquished, 1964), released at about the same time. None of these
films made much of an impact on the viewing public. What chance was
there then for a documentary-style film that openly depicted the
brutal reality?

In the wake of the general strike of May/June 1968 a new generation
that had had no involvement in the Algerian War entered politics.
These young people set out to challenge the silences of the official
version of national history. The Vichy period was put on trial, in
particular in Marcel Ophuls’s’ documentary Le Chagrin et la pitié
(The Sorrow and the Pity, 1969), a film that cast a new light on the
limited extent of resistance during the Nazi occupation, revealing
it as by no means as widespread a phenomenon as is often believed.

The new generation also turned its attention to the Algerian War and
in 1971-3 films such as René Vautier’s Avoir 20 ans dans les Aurès
(To Be Twenty in the Aures, 1972) and Yves Boisset’s RAS (Nothing to
Report, 1973) enjoyed considerable success with a young audience.
Was this the moment for the return of The Battle of Algiers to the
French screen? Emphatically not.3 At the start of 1970 its
distributor put in a request for a certificate to screen the film.
On 4 June 1970, just before it was due to be released, Paris’s
cinema managers suddenly decided to withdraw the film from their
programmes. They took this decision after receiving strongly worded
direct threats from veterans’ organizations and in particular from
former members of the parachute regiment. They all remembered what
had happened on 1 October 1966 when veterans of the parachute
regiment burst into the Odéon theatre and caused massive damage,
because at the time it was staging Jean Genet’s play Les Paravents
(The Screens), set during the Algerian War.

The weekly magazine of the far right, Minute, justified the banning
of The Battle of Algiers by drawing a comparison with a Vietnam film
that was causing a scandal at the time. According to Minute,

it wasn’t so long ago that Moscow was throwing its weight around,
putting a stop to screenings all over France of John Wayne’s The
Green Berets (Ray Kellogg, 1968), whose only crime was to pay homage
to the American army in Vietnam. And none of our progressive
thinkers had any problem with that. (Ferreol 1970: 13)

On 4 June 1970 the leader-writer of the royalist newspaper Aspects
de la France explained that passions were still running high and
that those lobbies representing the memory of those who had
supported the French in Algeria would not put up with a spectacle of
this sort:

What do they in fact want us to admit? That the FLN was a
spontaneous movement of the Algerian people? It’s not true When so
many men and officers gave their lives to preserve this portion of
overseas France and when there are in France today nearly a million
pieds-noirs who lost everything in the fight and around a hundred
thousand harkis who escaped the massacres of the
Algerian ‘liberation’ – not a patch on ours, as it happens – and at
a time when, just maybe, feelings of bitterness are starting to
subside, can there be any justification for releasing a film that
opens with a hideous makeshift guillotine and ends with abominable
scenes of torture? Without a moment’s hesitation we say no! (Hellio
1970: 5)

In the same issue of Aspects de la France, Pierre Pujo called for
the film to be banned:
Of course some people will say what about free speech? Shouldn’t art
be allowed to express all opinions? Well, in short, no. No decent
Frenchman can accept a film that is a slur on his country. That way
lies the breakdown of the national community. And what’s more, where
are the films that promote a French view of the Algerian War? The
public is only being shown the fellagha’s version. (Pujo 1970: 3)4

By contrast, in Le Figaro littéraire Claude Mauriac placed the
emphasis on the film’s even-handedness, going so far as to accuse it
of being too sympathetic to the French army officers. For him,
Pontecorvo portrays Colonel Mathieu as if he were
a wholly self-sacrificing hero of the French Resistance. We don’t
doubt his purity and nobility – except in this instance – where
Pontecorvo is not prepared to settle for trying to understand
Mathieu, an entirely justifiable approach, but rather goes so far as
to display a sort of complicity or collusion with him, to the point
of admiration. It is as if inflicting and being subjected to torture
both required the same stoic endurance. As if there could be, after
all, not just a political but also an ethical justification for
torture Colonel Mathieu and his victims confront each other man-to-
man, hero-to-hero. Their relationship is governed by mutual esteem,
even affection. It is as if there were an elite class of combatants
where, even between enemies, everyone speaks the same language But
Pontecorvo’s para Colonel, played by Jean Martin, is rather too
chivalrous for my liking. (Mauriac 1970: 35)

On 20 August 1970, at the end of the summer, the manager of a cinema
in the Latin Quarter decided to screen The Battle of Algiers. But
this was a one-off. A year later, in October 1971, the Studio Saint
Séverin cinema decided to screen the film as part of its regular
programme. At each showing the cinema had its windows smashed. The
film became the focus of running battles in the Latin Quarter, known
for its strong tradition of student protests against the
authorities, between far-left and far-right activists, the latter
led by the tiny ‘Occident’ group. In the end, the cinema manager
withdrew the film. Writing in Combat, Henry Chapier asked, ‘can it
be that a film, whose primary objective is to entertain, can have
reawoken the sort of angry passions that in the past we observed
with horror in the hearts and minds of the French people?’ (Chapier
1970b: 13).5

Thus the ‘memory wars’ justified the film’s ban; and, when it was
finally screened, the film did not reach a large audience, either in
the cinemas or on TV.

The history of the long-lasting invisibility of the Battle of
Algiers is indicative of the nature of the relationship between
French society, the Algerian War and its filmic representation. The
film has never been subject to an official state ban making its
distribution impossible. Nor were there any official decrees
directly referring to Pontecorvo’s film, as there were in the same
period for Jacques Rivette’s La Religieuse (The Nun, 1966) (adapted
from the novel by Diderot). Contrary to what one might have assumed,
censorship came from elsewhere. First, it came from groups
purporting to represent the memory of French Algeria, committed to
defending France’s ‘civilizing mission’ in the colonies. These
groups were very active, very powerful and very well coordinated,
especially in the late 1960s and early 1970s, only a few years after
Algerian independence. Forty years later this lobby has still not
disappeared; its continued influence can be seen in the law of 23
February 2005, article 4 of which celebrated ‘the positive role of
France’s presence overseas’ (‘le rôle positif de la présence
française outre-mer’), although it now plays a less important role.6
It is still difficult to transmit a memory of the colonial period.
But censorship also came from audiences. The French still have
difficulties dealing directly with the colonial period and the main
problem Algerian War films face is public indifference, which
consistently produces box office failures. To try to explain this
phenomenon we should again turn to Claude Mauriac, the son of the
writer François Mauriac who was very vocal in denouncing torture
during the Algerian War. In Le Figaro littéraire he wrote:

We were all quick to voice our outrage after watching L’Aveu (The
Confession).7 Just because it is now France’s turn to be accused
from abroad does not permit us to shy away from the debate. Indeed,
quite the opposite Despite the differences in situation and plot
between L’Aveu and The Battle of Algiers, both films depict the
systematic recourse to torture. We are not proud of the Russians, we
are not proud of the Czechs, we are not proud of the French. We are
not proud of humanity. (Mauriac 1970: 34)

Spectators have chosen to censor The Battle of Algiers in order to
establish a selective barrier against difficult memories and to
block any move towards a more comprehensive analysis of the workings
of the colonial system as a whole from its inception. The torture
carried out in 1957, depicted in The Battle of Algiers and brought
to the fore by the journalist Henri Alleg’s taboo-breaking book The
Question (1958), was a fundamental component of colonial history,
from Indochina to Algeria.8 The existence of a double
censorship ‘from below’ – double in the sense that it has come both
from those who are still nostalgic for colonial Algeria and from the
French population more broadly – suggests a new field of inquiry; we
need to consider the sites where today the past does not pass, of
collective internal repression and of self-censorship (see Stora

1. Alleg, Henri ((1958)) The Question John Calder , London – trans.
John Calder
2. Chapier, H. ((1970a)) Combat – ‘Une épopée lyrique’ (‘A lyrical
3. Chapier, H. ((1970b)) Combat – ‘Contre un dialogue de sourds’
(‘Against a dialogue of the deaf’)
4. Morin, Esclangon, Valérie, Nadiras, François and Thénault,
Sylvie (Liauzu, Claude and Manceron, Gilles eds.) ((2006)) La
Colonisation, la loi et l’histoire pp. 23-58. Syllepse , Paris – in
5. Ferreol, B. ((1970)) Minute pp. 1-7. – ‘La reculade de La
Bataille d’Alger’ (‘The withdrawal of The Battle of Algiers’)
6. Hellio, G. ((1970)) Aspects de la France – ‘La Bataille d’Alger:
un film fellagha dans les salles françaises’ (‘The Battle of
Algiers: a fellagha film in French cinemas’)
7. Mauriac, C. ((1970)) Le Figaro litt̩raire Р1-7 June: 34-5
8. Pujo, P. ((1970)) Aspects de la France – 4 June: 3
9. Stora, Benjamin ((1991)) La Gangrène et l’oubli: La mémoire de la
guerre d’Algérie La Découverte , Paris
10. Stora, Benjamin ((2004)) Imaginaires de guerre: Les images dans
les guerres d’Algérie et du Viêt-nam La Découverte , Paris
1For more on this subject see Stora (2004).

2The pieds-noirs – an expression widely used for French colonials
born in Algeria Рwere officially known as rapatri̩s (repatriated

3For a more detailed consideration of the film’s reception history
in France, including audience figures, see Caillé’s article below.

4See above, p. 341, n. 2.

5Translator’s note: according to the author, Chapier is referring to
the aggressive nationalism and pro-fascist demonstrations of the
1930s. He sees the film as reviving the polarized confrontational
politics of this period.

6Translator’s note: on 4 January 2006, in an exceptional move, the
President of the Republic, Jacques Chirac, called for this
particular clause of the law in question to be withdrawn, despite
having been passed by the National Assembly on two separate
occasions. This was in response to mass protests by historians,
school teachers and concerned associations, as well as
demonstrations in France’s remaining overseas territories. For more
on the influence of the pied noir lobby on the passage of the law,
see Esclangon Morin et al. (2006).

7Directed by Constantin Costa-Gavras. Translator’s note: L’Aveu (The
Confession) was also released in France in June 1970. The film is
set in Communist Czechoslovakia and shows the use of torture to
extract false confessions.

8Translator’s note: in La Question Henri Alleg detailed his
experiences of being tortured by French forces whilst being held in
detention in Algeria in 1957.