In the closing minute of the classic Hollywood film Casablanca, the American saloon owner Rick Blaine, and the opportunistic Vichy police captain Louis Renault, walk off into the mist to join the Free French garrison at Brazzaville. If you’re an ignorant American like me, you probably had to look that one up. Where the hell is Brazzaville? My first guess was that it was somewhere in Spain or Portugal, or maybe along the North African coast, but I was wrong. It’s a lot farther. Since Brazzaville, a city in the Republic of Congo on the West African coast, is over 4500 miles from Casablanca, almost three times as far as London, Rick and Louis are going to have a long walk through that mist.
So why didn’t Rick and Louis simply go to London? What exactly were a Frenchman and an American, both newly converted to the anti-fascist cause, supposed to do in Equatorial Africa during the Second World War? I had to look that one up too. Once again I was exposed as an ignorant American. From 1940 to 1943, Brazzaville was the symbolic capital of Free France. After the fall of France to Germany in 1940, an astonishing 1,900,000 French men of military age were taken back to Germany to do slave labor. What’s more, something I found even more astonishing, most of the 140,000 French troops who were evacuated by the British at Dunkirk, chose to be repatriated to either German-Occupied or Vichy France instead of signing up for de Gaulle’s army in London. The French resistance to the Nazis was, therefore, organized in Africa. Sixty-five percent of the Free French Forces fighting in Europe were Senegalese, Moroccans, or Algerians. The French people owe their freedom to blood spilled by black and Muslims troops, without whom most of those 3 million people in Paris carrying “Je Suis Charlie” signs in 2014 would have been speaking German.
“Ich Bin Charlie.”
Lest you think I’m the typical Anglo-American French basher, rest assured I’m not. The French, Islamophobes though they may be, are no more racist than most Americans. In fact, they’re probably a good deal less. In 1944, after Allied Army landed at Normandy, Eisenhower had plans to bypass Paris. A generous interpretation would be to say he didn’t want heavy fighting to destroy the whole city, as the siege of Monte Cassino had destroyed an ancient and historic Italian monastery dating all the way back to the 6th Century. A less than generous interpretation would say that Eisenhower knew about German plans blow up the French capital and conduct a systematic massacre of its people, but that he simply didn’t care, that he was more interested in getting to Berlin ahead of the Soviets than in saving French lives. As it turned out, it didn’t matter. That August, the Communist led French Resistance launched an insurrection. While they didn’t have enough heavy weapons to drive the Germans away from the outskirts of Paris, they did capture most of the city’s historic core. Eisenhower, not wanting to see Communists in control of Paris any more than Stalin wanted to see Catholic nationalists in control of Warsaw, decided to move troops into the French capital, not to liberate it from the Germans, but to take it back it from the French Resistance. De Gaulle also had a request, that French, and not American or British troops be the first into the city, a request Eisenhower granted. De Gaulle was not popular with the Americans and British, but his anti-Communist credentials were sound.
In 1944, however, the American Army was still very much a Jim Crow institution. The American officer corps, almost entirely white and mostly southern, would not allow de Gaulle to move into Paris with black or Muslim troops. The liberation of Paris had to be a whites only affair. The problem for de Gaulle, however, was that there simply weren’t enough white troops in the Free French Army to fill out even one division. So he scrounged up all the white soldiers he could, mostly Spaniards, republicans who had volunteered to join the French Resistance after Franco took over in Spain, reinforced the Second Armored Division, and sent them into Paris ahead of the Fourth American Armored Division. Luckily for the citizens of Paris, the German military governor Dietrich von Choltitz had already seen the writing on the wall. Not wanting to be hanged as a war-criminal, he disobeyed Hitler’s orders and surrendered the German garrison of 17,000 men to the Free French on August 24th.
Does anybody else find it as sad as I do that so many Spanish republican volunteers in the French Resistance were made to be the token white faces required by the Jim Crow American officer corps to lead the push into Paris of August 1944? Sadder yet was the systematic betrayal of the French government of the black and Muslim troops who liberated the French people from the Nazis. They were no only were they treated as second-class citizens, even while serving in uniform. In 1959, as a vindictive move against the Algerian Independence Movement, the French government froze their pensions, condemning most of them to a life of dire poverty in their old age. In 2002, a French court rules that the pensions be paid in full, and retroactively, but the order wasn’t carried out for another 4 years. What finally shamed French President Jacques Chirac into releasing the funds to the now elderly veterans of the Free French Army was a movie.
Indigènes by the French Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb is a great film. While largely adhering to the conventions of the typical American, and I suppose French, war movie, it also subverts those conventions into an anti-racist narrative that I found as stirring as the greatest American war movies, films like Glory, The Boys in Company C, and Robert Aldrich’s forgotten masterpiece Attack. In each case, a group of men, who realize that they’re being led by racists, cowards or incompetents, decide to fight on anyway, and, in the end, shower themselves with glory. The idea that “soldiers don’t fight for their country but for the guy on the right and on the left of them” is of course a cliché, often used to deflect criticism of an unjust war. Support the troops you damned hippie. Rachid Bouchareb, however, turns it around, not to criticize an unjust war, but to criticize the treatment of Charles de Gaulle’s troops in what was one of the few “just” wars of the last century. “Black and Muslim soldiers liberated France from the Nazis,” the film says. “So why have the French betrayed them?”
The film opens in 1943, shortly after the American and British armies had broken the power of Vichy in North Africa. Free French recruiters come to a small, impoverished village in North Africa. Saïd Otmari, Yassir, Messaoud Souni, and Abdelkader, all poor men who have never seen the outside world, know they won’t be treated as equals, but sign up for the army anyway. Like many of the Irish immigrants who signed up for the Union Army in 1861, and many of the African Americans who signed up for the Jim Crow American Army in 1917, the four men have their own agenda. Saïd wants to get away from the crushing poverty of his village. Yassir wants to earn enough money to help his younger brother get married. Messaoud wants to immigrate to France. Abdelkader, however, the most literate and intelligent of the four men, genuinely believes in the principles of the French Revolution, and in the fight against fascism. He knows most white Frenchmen rarely live up to their own ideals, but he believes in them anyway, enough to go to war and risk his life.
In Italy, the four men meet Roger Martinez, their sergeant, a self-hating racist who identifies as white and hides his half-Arab ethnicity. Martinez, nevertheless, is a good soldier, the kind of man you want watching your back when you go into a fight. He’s also willing to treat Saïd, Yassir, Messaoud, and Abdelkader as well as they perform in combat. If they act like cowards or incompetents, he will write them off. If they fight bravely, he will show them his grudging respect. They first time Saïd Otmari, Yassir, Messaoud, and Abdelkader are thrown into combat, largely, largely as canon fodder to flush out German artillery fire, they do what all soldiers do the first time they see what heavy artillery can do. They panic. Abdelkader hides behind a rock, frozen stone cold with terror. Saïd can barely move. Martinez, nevertheless, manages to push them forward, where they participate in the capture of a heavily German position, giving the French army their first victory since 1940.
Simply the fact that they go through combat wins the grudging respect of Roger Martinez. He’s now willing to stand up for his Muslim troops, when he thinks they merit it. The rest of the French officer corps doesn’t seem to feel that way. On the ship from Italy to the South of French, the cooks refuse to let black or Muslim soldiers eat tomatoes. They’re for whites only. Abdelkader throws a crate of tomatoes to the ground, and crushes them, starting a near mutiny. The company commander wisely decides to end the segregated dining arrangements. The Muslim soldiers can have tomatoes along with their white comrades. This scene will obviously remind some Americans of the famous scene in Glory where the black soldiers revolt over being paid less than white soldiers. I suppose, conforming to national stereotypes, Americans rebel over money, the French over food. The incident, moreover, while seemingly trivial, highlights the petty, mean-spirited nature of racism and colonialism. What kind of army denies food to men who have just risked their lives in combat? It also establishes Abdelkader as a troublemaker, and natural leader.
In Marseilles, Messaoud meets a young French woman named Irene, who falls in love with him. She asks him to write. He has every intention of coming back to Marseilles after the war is over. The mail service of the Free French Army, however, which reads every soldier’s mail, refuses to deliver Irene’s letters, realizing that she’s writing to a Muslim. They throw the letters into bin marked “censored.” Eventually Messaoud concludes Irene has lost interest in him, and she concludes that he’s been killed. Saïd, the youngest and most naive of the four men, who had earlier agreed to serve as Martinez’s orderly in gratitude for saving his life, gets gets a reputation as a weak, quite possibly gay, suck up. Initially, he is weak and passive. When Abdelkader offers to teach him how to read, Martinez contemptuously dismisses the idea. “What would you read? Saïd backs down. Eventually, however, he rebels. Having found a photo of Martinez’s Algerian mother, he suggests, in a brotherly, not a taunting way, that their their two mothers could be sisters. But Martinez explodes in a rage. If Saïd ever tells anybody, he’s dead. It’s not a particularly difficult threat to carry out in the middle of a war. We also realize that Saïd has been deferential to Martinez, not because he’s weak or a suck up, but because he had believed Martinez to be a brother Algerian, an older, more experienced soldier worthy of his respect. Now he knows better. When Messaoud calls him “Martinez’s bitch,” he threatens Messaoud with a knife, and forces him to apologize. When Martinez mockingly suggests he could become a colonel, he remarks that no, he couldn’t, but he might be able to make sergeant.
Sadly Martinez and Saïd, who genuinely like each other, never re-establish their friendship. Racism, Rachid Bouchareb is telling us, drives men apart, even when they rely on one another for their lives. Self-hating racist though he may be, however, Martinez does partially redeem himself. When a fascist colonel, who had only turned from Vichy to the Free French at the very last moment, suggests the army harshly discipline Muslim troops, especially Abdelkader, who is in the stockade for insubordination, and Messaoud, who went AWOL trying to visit Irene, Martinez declares they should be let go. “All my men are patriots,” he says, remembering how Abdelkader once read a leaflet the Germans had put out to persuade Muslims to turn on their erstwhile colonizers, and reaffirmed his loyalty to the ideals of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” against the Nazis. Martinez likes Saïd as a little brother. He respects Abdelkader as a man, even though he can’t admit it to his face.
The final scenes probably owe their inspiration, partly to Glory, and partly to Saving Private Ryan. All four men are sent on what is essentially a suicide mission, to be among the first Free French troops into Alsace, allowed to do what Muslim soldiers were not allowed to do at the liberation of Paris. Saïd, Yassir, and Martinez, along with the rest of the company, are all killed. Abdelkader is the only man who walks out alive. The townspeople he helped liberate give him a half-hearted cheer as he’s attached to another company. 50 years later, we see him again, as an elderly man. We do not know if he used the military training he learned fighting the Germans in the Algerian War of Independence, although, to judge from his behavior in the film, we can pretty safely assume that he probably did. He visits the graves of Martinez, Saïd, Yassir, and Messaoud. After paying his respects to Martinez, who has a cross as a headstone, he turns to the graves of Saïd, Yassir, and Messaoud. Their headstones are simple, geometric. He bends over to pray, a genuine hero, a Muslim soldier betrayed by the French people he fought to liberate, and scrubbed out of the American history books by the kind of cowardly racist orders Eisenhower gave in August of 1944.
Final Note: Some of the IMDB comments on Indigènes are, like so many comments on Internet messages boards, appalling and racist. An Italian, oblivious to how much resembles Martinez, only without Martinez’s courage, argues that Italians are just as white as Germans or Englishmen. A Frenchman talks about how his grandfather was liberated by Moroccan troops from slave labor in Germany, then accuses the Moroccans of being rapists. He seems to prefer his grandfather’s German slave masters to his Muslim liberators, the very definition of the slave mentality. I suppose Muslim troops committed rapes in the Second World War exactly the way Russian, German, English or American troops did. Sadley, it’s the kind of thing that happens in a war. I also know that Oskar Dirlewanger, the grotesque Nazi general who ordered tens of thousands of people in Warsaw massacred was quite possibly captured by French Algerian soldiers, then handed over to the Poles, who quite probably beat him to a bloody pulp, and his death. It would be poetic justice if it actually happened. Maybe the Poles should rethink their policy of admitting only Christian Syrians as refugees, and also admit Muslims, take a lesson from the way Abdelkader behaved at Roger Martinez’s grave. In any event, all I could really say at the end of Indigènes, while wondering how I could have been so ignorant about a historical era I thought I knew so well, was “Je Suis Abdelkader, Saïd, Yassir, and Messaoud.”