At the height of the street fighting in Algiers, the French stage a press conference for a captured FLN leader. “Tell me, general,” a Parisian journalist asks the revolutionary, “do you not consider it cowardly to send your women carrying bombs in their handbags, to blow up civilians?” The rebel replies in a flat tone of voice: “And do you not think it cowardly to bomb our people with napalm?” A pause. “Give us your airplanes and we will give you our women and their handbags.”
Pontecorvo has taken his stance somewhere between the FLN and the French, although his sympathies are on the side of the Nationalists. He is aware that innocent civilians die and are tortured on both sides, that bombs cannot choose their victims, that both armies have heroes and that everyone fighting a war can supply rational arguments to prove he is on the side of morality.
His protagonists are a French colonel (Jean Martin), who respects his opponents but believes (correctly, no doubt) that ruthless methods are necessary, and Ali (Brahim Haggiag), a petty criminal who becomes an FLN leader. But there are other characters: an old man beaten by soldiers; a small Arab boy attacked by French civilians who have narrowly escaped bombing; a cool young Arab girl who plants a bomb in a cafe and then looks compassionately at her victims, and many more.
The strength of the film, I think, comes because it is both passionate and neutral, concerned with both sides. The French colonel (himself a veteran of the anti-Nazi resistance), learns that Sartre supports the FLN. “Why are the liberals always on the other side?” he asks. “Why don’t they believe France belongs in Algeria?” But there was a time when he did not need to ask himself why the Nazis did not belong in France.