Creation tales born of revolution tend to obscure the truth in order to construct a compelling narrative with enduring themes. As Paul Lockhart makes plain in “Remember Bunker Hill!”? (page 72), Americans have imbued that inconsequential battle with mythic qualities, because it has been shaped, by Daniel Webster and others, into a critical chapter—the Great American Battle—in the story of our nation’s birth.
When the film The Battle of Algiers came out in 1966, it was hailed as a searing portrait of the popular revolt between 1954 and 1962 that brought Algeria independence from France. It was thought to be evenhanded. The film’s rebels take pride in bombing cafés full of French civilians and shooting French policemen in the back. Meanwhile, the French paratroop commander charged with taming Algiers is morally conflicted: hell-bent on his mission yet troubled by the torture his men engage in. I could see why the arty, uplifting film became Algeria’s creation story.
Still, as I watched a second time, with O’Brien Browne’s feature (page 78) in hand, I discerned hiccups and curious omissions in the narrative. The French bombing victims are all well dressed and frivolous—Riviera vacationers dancing on the backs of the downtrodden Algerians. The policemen are armed, disdainful symbols, complicit in the army’s torture campaign. Of course they deserve death, the film suggests.
Beyond such stereotyping, an inconvenient truth lurks at the film’s edge: the war crimes committed by rebels against other Algerians, part of their campaign to terrorize pro-French Muslims. As Browne points out, a tally early in the war showed that the rebels’ National Liberation Front had killed some 1,000 French, but also 6,300 Algerians. Its leaders frequently sliced off the lips of their countrymen, using mutilation and murder to crush challenges to their authority. After the war, reprisal killings against the many Algerians who served in the French army, and their families, mounted into the tens of thousands. While the rebel cause was honorable, there can be little doubt—whatever vérité reviewers ascribed to Algiers—that the freedom fighters’ methods were as reprehensible as those of the French.
Today, similar creation myths are being shaped in the aftermath of the revolutions sweeping North Africa and the Middle East. We must all watch carefully and when the time comes to write their histories, do our best to parse the tale from the truth.
And finally, those very revolts in the headlines today helped inspire our new department, Flashback (page 6), which shows in pictures the military history behind the news. Let us know what you think of it.