France / Morocco / Algeria / Belgium, 2006
Review by Tom Huddleston
Posted on 02 November 2006
Source Metrodome 35mm print
Features: The Times BFI 50th London Film Festival
Most artists like to imagine themselves contributing to the betterment of humanity, however obliquely. But they inevitably have to be content with changing the world incrementally, if at all: one soul, one consumer at a time. The number of modern artworks which have had a marked, direct and quantifiable effect, in real terms, on a populace at the time of their creation can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand, and most of those will be documentaries: The Thin Blue Line saved a man’s life, An Inconvenient Truth seems to have turned a few heads. But most works of fiction, however politically charged, must content themselves with merely sparking debate, offering a viewpoint, letting the public decide for themselves.
In 1952, following the dissolution of their colonial empire, the French government elected to cease all pension payments to those who had served in the French Army, but whose countries of origin no longer fell under French rule, effectively disenfranchising thousands of North Africans who had fought through Europe against the Vichy and the Wehrmacht. Half a century later the ruling was deemed illegal by the European Court, and France was ordered to pay up. But successive French administrations have shirked this burden, postponing payment as one by one the last remaining claimants passed away. Until the release of Days of Glory earlier this year. The film’s release rekindled the debate, its emotive story detailing the sacrifice made by those foreign soldiers who fought and managed to survive, and their comrades and friends who were not so lucky. Only a few months ago, after a private screening of the film, Jacques Chirac confirmed that full pension payments will finally be forthcoming.
The question of whether or not the film is actually any good seems, after all this, to be almost incidental. Structurally inspired by Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One (and perhaps Band Of Brothers), Days Of Glory introduces us to a group of Algerian conscripts in the Free French Army, and follows their storied progress through the battlefields of southern Italy and France, as they struggle not only with the enemy, but with the ingrained prejudice and racial injustice inherent in the military system. We focus on three central, ultimately heroic figures: Abdelkader the firebrand, whose faith in his French leaders’ adherence to the principles of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité is repeatedly undermined; Messaoud the romantic, undone by his love for beautiful Frenchwoman Irene; Said the child, lost in a world he doesn’t understand, clinging to his substitute father figure, their platoon Sergeant Martinez. It all builds towards the customary final make-or-break mission, in which the men are trapped behind enemy lines, forced to defend a mountain outpost against encroaching Nazi forces, a battle which few of them will survive.
Although its English title evokes strong (and doubtless intentional) connections with Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, the film stands better comparison with more traditional men-on-a-mission movies like Fuller’s. Indeed, the two films share many of the same flaws—like The Big Red One, (and, presumably, like war itself) Days of Glory is unstructured and episodic, sometimes frustratingly so. As director and writer (with Olivier Lorelle), Rachid Bouchareb lacks the sense of absurdity and uncontrollable horror on which Fuller’s film was built. Perhaps it’s a matter of direct experience: Fuller lived his war, Bouchareb’s comes, at best, second hand. But his saving grace is the continued relevance of so many of the film’s themes; in France, in the world at large, a clash between Moslem and Christian battlefield ideologies is more relevant now than at any time since the Algerian occupation. Bouchareb’s unswerving focus on these issues, coupled with his likeable, well constructed central characters, lifts the film free of it’s occasionally workmanlike plot and gives it real emotional and cultural resonance.
Not that this is, in any sense, a dry political tract. The battle scenes are excellently staged, and there are numerous nods to the boys’ own adventure aesthetic of traditional WW2 pictures (our heroes are spectacular riflemen, while the Germans can only take down their targets with the aid of a rocket launcher). There’s a great deal of humour, much of it derived from the fish-out-of-water culture clash between the African soldiers and the European citizenry they encounter. But there’s also a real sense of anger and betrayal, a recurring motif of French generals convincingly promising to make things better, but inevitably betraying their word.
The film’s political outlook is focussed in the character of Sami Bouajila’s studious Abdelkader, the self educated, aspirational soldier who naively believes that his race and his religion will not stand in the way of advancement. At first his protests are heard, even acted upon, but as he persists in attempting to improve the lot of his fellow Africans he meets resistance from both sides, from the Generals eager to keep him silent, and from the soldiers who just want to serve their time, collect their pay and go home. His mounting frustration is palpable, the look of betrayal in Bouajila’s sad eyes genuinely penetrating.
The five leading men shared the Best Actor prize at Cannes, and deservedly so. As Said, Jamel Debbouze is endearingly helpless, popping his own grenade, telling exaggerating war stories to the local girls but never taking it any further. There’s perhaps a hint of homoeroticism in his relationship with Bernard Blancan’s hard faced Sergeant Menendez, but it’s largely a father-son setup, with all the conflict and recrimination that entails. Roschdy Zem’s Messaoud is the undoubted heart of the film, his tentative courtship with the lovely Irene perhaps the most touching sequence in the film.
But this romance is rather brutally undermined by the film’s frustrating climax. It feels as though Bouchareb kills off most of his cast not because it suits the story, but because it’s a genre requirement: it’s hard to see how either the characters or the political integrity of the film could have been compromised by allowing just one of them a happy ending. The old-man-in-a-cemetery coda is more convincing and justified here than in Saving Private Ryan, but it still feels like a cliché, not helped by some flaky and unconvincing old age makeup.
Days Of Glory will go down in history for its political impact rather than its artistic quality. But there’s still a great deal to enjoy here, the film is intelligently written and sharply directed, a terrific central cast playing strong, memorable characters. And if nothing else, it’s good to gain a fresh, unique perspective on the Second World War, to understand yet another new facet of that most complex and fascinating of conflicts.