Days of Glory (Indigènes)

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Days of Glory (Indigènes)
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

During World War Two, France called upon its colonial subjects to join the fight against its Nazi masters and save the motherland.  130000 of its “indigenous soldiers” from Algeria loyally joined the fray hoping to be treated with the same honor and respect afforded French-born soldats fighting the German Army. But, that higher regard would not come easy, if at all, in Days of Glory.”

Said (Jamel Debbouze), Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila), Messaoud (Roshdy Zem) and Yassir (Samy Naceri) are among the Algerian natives who enlist to liberate La Belle France from Hitler and his armies. These men, with their comrades, fought bravely, without recognition, as they won battle after battle in Italy, Provence and the Vosgers. As the war starts to wane, the troopers find themselves, alone and outnumbered, to defend an Alsatian town against an overwhelming force of a German infantry battalion. Their bravery and sacrifices, and that of they fellow indigenes (natives), had gone unrecognized for over 60 years by the French government.

French-born Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb breaks new ground with his hitherto unknown story (co-written with Olivier Lorelle) of the bravery and dedication of the French colonial troops, focusing on the Algerians, who fought to free France during World War Two. Seen through the eyes of its four protagonists, we are shown a world where loyalty means far less than birthplace. While a French-born soldier has the opportunity to rise in rank in the army, the Algerian troopers are considered fortunate to attain the lowly rank of corporal. This insight drives home the disparity that allows promotion to be based more on where one is born than on ability, a disparity that lasted for decades after the war’s end.

Days of Glory” is a first rate look at the lives of men at war. While the budget must have been miniscule to, say, that of American films like “Saving Private Ryan,” the quality and craftsmanship is inherent in the finished product by Rouchareb. High-tech CGI is not used to depict the horror of war. Instead, traditional, old-fashioned effects are utilized to show the grim and gritty reality of battle. This craftsmanship is joined with effective, believable performances by the principle characters and all of those in supporting roles. Sami Bouajila is particularly notable as smart, brave and compassionate Corporal Abdelkader, a man who puts the lives of his men as his first priority. Jamel Debbouze is also solid as the illiterate, likable private, Said, who is treated as a kind of mascot by the unit’s Staff Sergeant Martinez (Bernard Blancan).

This remarkable film is one of the year’s best and is the first film from Algeria to garner submission to the lofty heights of Oscar contender for Best Foreign Language entry. Its impact was so great that French President Jacques Chirac reversed the over half-century discrimination of the WWII Algerian veterans and gave the survivors and their widows full, retroactive pensions for their contribution in saving France. That is not a shabby accomplishment for a filmmaker. I give it an A-.

During WWII, France conscripted its colonial citizens as soldiers but treated them as second class citizens, referring to them disparagingly as 'indigènes.'  The 2006 Algerian Foreign Language Film Nominee takes a look at four of these men and their different ways of coping with their situations in cowriter (with Olivier Lorelle)/director Rachid Bouchareb's "Days of Glory (Indigènes)."

"Days of Glory" is one of those rare feature films that has actually effected social change.  When invited to see the film, France's president Jacques Chirac became determined to right a serious injustice and did so twice.  The pensions of foreign soldiers, which had been 20% of what the French received, were brought into line with French veterans.  Those pensions which had been cut off when colonial countries achieved independence were reinstated.

The film itself is a good, solid war film which follows a familiar arc.  Men from different walks of life are introduced and become members of the same squad.  Here they are naive Said (Colin Farrell lookalike Jamel Debbouze, "Amelie," "She Hate Me"), a peasant who leaves his mother weeping that should would rather live in poverty than lose her boy.  Yassir (Samy Naceri, "The Nest," "The Code") plans to profit economically from his forced employment while Messaoud (Roschdy Zem, "36 Quai des Orfèvres," "Le Petit Lieutenant") profits with the French women denied him in his home country.  Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila, "The Adventures of Felix," "Embrassez qui vous voudrez") is an unusual example of a foreign officer, having tested his way to corporal status.  From 1943 Algeria to Morocco, the men are trained and treated roughly by Sergeant Martinez (Bernard Blancan) and in 1944 their fighting prowess is first tested in Italy.  Abdelkader freezes initially but becomes a leader.  Said is saved by Martinez and becomes a sort of mascot when he goes to thank the man.

What begins as Abdelkader's meek protest when Said is beaten for his poor performance at camp escalates into outright rebellion when the African soldiers are denied the fresh tomatoes served to the French.  We witness one right after another being denied - the right to learn to read and write is ignored, leave is given sparingly, entertainment is culturally geared only towards the French.  Slowly, Martinez is brought around to his men's side, but he has a secret he is desperate to hide. Messaoud is astonished when, after arriving in Provence, the beautiful Irène (Aurélie Eltvedt) not only takes him to her bed but promises to wait for him, yet the lovers are kept apart by French authorities who refuse to help her and censor his letters.

And yet these men fight bravely.  When they reach the Vosges and are showered with Nazi propaganda flyers that promise them equality, they become even more determined to squelch the enemy.  They are chosen for a dangerous mission which will find them the first to reach Alsace and are promised that they will be watched, rewards implied for their heroism.  It all ends tragically, of course, not only in battle but in a heartbreaking modern day coda.

Debbouze and Blancan are standouts in the ensemble, beginning as opposites even as they share humble and cultural origins.  Their relationship is organic and their pairing effective.  Also touching is Roschdy Zem as the gallant soldier thrilled with his romantic fortune.  Bouajila underplays his role, perhaps in an attempt to suggest a more refined background.

The film has a limited visual scope despite some vast battle shots, but changing locales are noted with a color palette which progresses from drab neutrals to the greens of the 'motherland' and blue gray of a final destination.  A nice score, by Armand Amar ("Amen") and Khaled is subtly melancholy without ever being grandiosely manipulative.

Much like Edward Zwick 1989 "Glory," which focused on the ill treatment of Black American soldiers during the Civil War, "Days of Glory" illustrates both the mistreatment of men fighting bravely besides their abusers and a more universal horror at the waste of human life.  But would "Glory" have helped the Civil Rights Movement had it arrived on screens thirty-five years earlier?  Given the recent rioting in Parisian suburbs, "Days of Glory" demonstrates that films which aim to educate modern audiences about historical injustices will never have an expiration date.

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