Two: watching torture

We do know torture, we have witnessed it, again and again: in fictional representations. Fiction provides a security for the viewer: this is make-believe. It’s just a movie. And wound into the structure of the action-adventure film, the kinetic charge of fast movement allows the audience to recognize, experience, and quickly move on past the torture event. The edits, the narrative ellipses across a cut or across a scene, allow an event without reflection, sober consideration, attention to the aftermath, or ethics and morality. Heroic action cinema differs from the new forms of exploitation “torture porn” since the latter goes beyond just showing and lingers on pain and suffering.

Here are some key and/or representative moments of torture in films and TV from the past 50 years. Our own ways of imagining torture are framed, in significant ways, by what we watched of torture in dramatic narrative cinema.

Lost Command:
torture to maintain imperial control

A 1966 studio picture, Lost Command was directed by Mark Robson based on a novel by French journalist, novelist and former soldier, Jean Lartéguy. The 1963 novel, The Centurions, is set in the Algerian war of liberation from French colonialism in the 1950s and is widely credited with being the first example of the “ticking time bomb” plot, which justifies using torture to obtain information that could save lives from a terrorist attack.

An oddly contradictory mix, the film shows the French army’s depraved slaughter of unarmed civilians, and depicts (off screen) torture by electrodes and beating as interrogation techniques. Alain Delon plays a French captain who marks the moral center, standing against attacks on civilians. But those lower in the chain of command attack Algerians anyway, in revenge. George Segal improbably (and with dark make-up) plays a soldier released from the French Army after the defeat in Vietnam who returns home and becomes a radical (along with his sister) when their younger brother is shot by the French police for painting “independence” on a wall at night. The film implies that fighting for national liberation is good (not so unusual for a U.S. film given our own colonial history), but using terrorism in the struggle is bad. Torture is also bad, but in the film it works.

The film’s central star, Anthony Quinn, plays a French Lt. Colonel who is captured in Vietnam when the French are overrun at Dien Bien Phu (1954) at the start of the film. He re-emerges when sent to Algeria to inspect the colonial situation there. Seeing the massacre of civilians, he proclaims it to be murder, but then uses the example to warn the native population to not protect the liberation fighters. At the end the Delon character leaves Algeria, disillusioned by the French brutality he has witnessed while the scheming pragmatist, Quinn, overcomes the disgrace of his defeat in Vietnam and ascends to the rank of General.

After three French soldiers are killed by FLN rebels, the French troops punish the civilian population in the nearby village by rounding up all the boys and men and mass slaughtering them.

Torture of prisoners is used for interrogation to find the location of the enemy’s hideout. A French soldier prepares the electric clamps which will be used; the actual process is shown offscreen.

In Algiers the Delon character observes police and soldiers supervising locals who are painting over the political slogans which appear on walls every night.

The Algerian family recovers the body of their teen boy who was shot by French police for painting “independence” on a wall.

The family’s eldest son, a French Army veteran of the Vietnam War (played by George Segal), subsequently joins the FLN in the countryside, bringing his military expertise to the local insurrection.

The Battle of Algiers:
dialectic of torture and national liberation

Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, The Battle of Algiers (1966) recreated key events in the French-Algerian war (1954-1962). The Algerians fought both in the countryside and in the cities for national liberation from French colonialism, and the urban guerrilla war was particularly intense, involving attacks on French colonial civilians and French army assaults on Algerian civilians. When the film appeared, that war was over, but the U.S. had ramped up the Vietnam war which had earlier been a French colony, so the parallels were inescapable.

The film was shot like a documentary, with on-location portable camera extensively employed. On release it was banned in France, and the controversial torture scenes were cut in the U.S. and U.K. distribution. In 2003, the New York Times reported that the Pentagon screened the film for officers and civilian experts who were discussing U.S. action in Iraq. The publicity read: "How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas."

The press conference

This sequence is a key turning point in the film. Up to this point we have seen the actions of the two sides: the FLN (National Liberation Front) and the Algerian community on the one side, and the French Army and the colonizers/administrators on the other. The stakes are laid out clearly here. (Of course we know while watching it that the French did leave, which changes the nature of the rhetorical set up. The internal dramatic “if” becomes an understood “when.”)

Colonel Mathieu leads a press conference: three journalists ask questions about torture, and finally a fourth:

Journalist: “It seems to be that, perhaps out of an excess of caution, my colleagues keep asking you indirect questions to which you can replay in a round-about way. It would be better to call a spade a spade. So let’s talk about torture.”

Mathieu: “I understand. And you? Have you no question?”

Journalist: “They’ve all been asked. I’d just like more precise answers.”

[Reverse shot 01:33:13]

Mathieu: “Let’s try to be precise. The word ‘torture’ isn’t used in our orders. We use interrogation as the only valid police method against clandestine activity.”

[Reverse shot 1:33:26]
“The FLN asks all its members, in case of capture to remain silent for 24 hours.”

[Cut CU]
“Then they may talk.”

[Cut CU 1:33:36]
“This gives the FLN time to render any information useless.”

“And us? What form of questioning must we adopt?”

“Civil law procedures, which take months for a mere misdemeanor?”

“Legality can be inconvenient. Is it legal to set off bombs in public places? Remember Ben M’Hidi’s answer when you asked him the question. (removes glasses) No, gentlemen, believe me. It’s a vicious circle.”

“We could talk for hours to no avail, because that isn’t the problem.”

“The problem is this:”

“The FLN wants to throw us out of Algeria, and we want to stay. Even with slight shades of opinion, you all agree that we must stay. When the FLN rebellion began, there were no shades at all. Every paper, the communist press included, wanted it crushed. We’re here for that reason alone. We’re neither madmen nor sadists. Those who call us fascists forget the role many of us played in the Resistance. Those who call us Nazis don’t know that some of us survived Dachau and Buchenwald.”

“We are soldiers. Our duty is to win. Therefore, to be precise, it’s my turn to ask a question. Should France stay in Algeria? If your answer is still yes, then you must accept all the consequences.”

The straight cut here to waterboarding is classic rhetorical positioning: a question is asked, and the next visuals answer it. The colonel: we are doing our duty (as assigned by politicians); if you believe in the policy, you must accept what we do. The visuals answer—no, we did not sign up for this, therefore the policy must be wrong, or we’ve changed our mind about the policy now that we realize the results.


Woman’s face, tear, observing it.

French soldier smokes, watching impassively.

[Cut 1:35:30]
Foreground waterboarding in courtyard.

Soldiers sit and smoke.

Strung up bare, except striped loose pants.

This repeats a visual element in the public imagination from pictures of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps.


Soldier applies burner to torso.

[Cut XCU]
Face in pain.

Recalls images of Christ in agony.

Bound/tied/hanging upside down.

Visuals are reminiscent of Caravaggio, both in chiaroscuro lighting and the figure positions in the Descent from the Cross.

[Cut XCU]
Young man watching [returns to previous shot] with view blocked by soldier.

Soldier attaches electric wire clips to ears of prisoner.

Return to suspended man.


Woman’s tears, slow zoom in on eyes.

NB: this cut establishes the response to the torture in a virtually syllogistic way: IF the troops torture, THEN a violent response against colonial civilians is to be expected and/or is justified.

Street scene, night, French quarter, café

Ambulance comes down street; a body is thrown out of back door. Cry: “He’s been stabbed!”

From the ambulance, guns blazing at the French colonial pedestrians, ends with attempt to run pedestrians down.

The gunman’s face resembles that of the (partially) seen young man who witnesses the torture above; therefore it draws a cause and effect relation: if torture, then terrorist attacks on civilians.

Title: “26 August 1957,” army raid on FLN

The film sets up the collective responsibility for the behavior of the troops. IF France should stay, then all means are to be used to achieve this end. While the Colonel speaks to the press, he is really speaking to the French public. Thus the response to the torture, violence against civilian targets, completes the moral question. IF the French public supports the means of torture, it will find a response directed at itself. The response is appropriate, given the rhetoric of the argument.

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