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.
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:
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:
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]
[Cut CU 1:33:36]
“And us? What form of questioning must we adopt?”
“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.”
Soldier applies burner to torso.
Return to suspended man.
Ambulance comes down street; a body is thrown out of back door. Cry: “He’s been stabbed!”