It’s hard to take a war movie seriously when:
a) The gentle private reassures his sergeant / father figure, without a trace of irony, “You’re not going to die, sarge.” (Care to guess who dies?)
b) It is a stirring tale of French victory.
Two strikes for the French-language Days of Glory then. Competing for this year’s Best Foreign Language Oscar under its original title, Indigénes, the film relates the story of France’s Buffalo soldiers: the Muslim North African volunteers who fought to liberate the fatherland in World War II. An awkward pastiche of genre clichés, its heart is all it has going for it. And that’s just enough.
France’s black and brown youth have been in an arsonous mood towards the fatherland lately. But it wasn’t always so. As Days opens it is 1942, and an old man is hobbling through the medieval alleys of a Moroccan village, shouting in Arabic for volunteers to “wash the French flag with our blood.” Saïd (Jamel Debbouze), Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), Yassir (Samy Naceri) and Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) — who had never set foot in France before — respond.
After the defeat of 1940, 130,000 volunteers from France’s African colonies signed on to fight the Nazis. Derogatorily called indigénes (“natives”), they fought up through Italy and into Provence while France heroically fed them substandard rations, kept their pictures out of French history books and after the war, froze their veterans’ pensions at 1959 levels. (Making them much poorer than the European French they fought alongside.)
Director Rachid Bourchareb’s grandfather was one of them. Thus the movie’s familial warmth for its band of brothers. In his zeal to embrace them, Bourchareb flattens Saïd, Messaoud, and Abdelkader into GI boilerplates sprinkled with improbable eccentricities (Saïd spends almost all of WWII with his right hand in his pocket) and for the first three quarters of the movie, mostly forgets Yassir. Weak as individuals, the four still add up to a workable composite of the indigéne experience, which is powerful enough to do without characterization.
Days of Glory sees the shades of grey in what was likely the most contradictory experience of its subjects’ lives. As all France’s African units were, the men are led by a European — the weathered Sergeant Roger Martinez (Bernard Blancan) — who simultaneously has to push them into battle and keep them in their place. Blancan concocts a convincingly unconscious blend of arrogance and sensitivity for the job; especially appropriate for the way he takes a shine to Saïd. It could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, at least until Saïd discovers that Martinez is self-loathingly half-Arab. Then it can’t be anything.
It’s what Days doesn’t see — motivation — that’s distracting. France’s African soldiers fought for a country they knew primarily as an idea. What was it about the idea of France that moved them to arms? What sense of duty mandates defending the country that’s subjecting yours? Or was it just boredom that made them enlist? By not caring too much, Bourchareb and screenwriter Olivier Lorelle lock you outside their film’s richest possibilities.
But let’s not get too eggheaded here. It is a war movie after all, one that holds itself to the standard of Saving Private Ryan in the action that comes to dominate the fourth and fifth acts — and, alas, falls short. Battles begin and end along clear arcs. Shells explode in plumes of loud white smoke and the unflappable camera catches it all from 90°.
It’s not Messoud or Abdelkader’s fault that the denouement engagement, which would be an underbudgeted cribbing of Spielburg’s taut bridgehead defense if only it took the same chances, isn’t anything special. None of what makes watching Days of Glory a chore is. Indeed, you care about them and their story in spite of the film that tells it.
The less respect France affords them, the harder the soldiers fight to obtain it; ultimately in vain. It’s because France drops the ball that the audience has no choice but to pick it up themselves, overlook Days’ weaknesses and to feel for its protagonists. Your attention is the only tribute you have to give, and you want them to at least have the recognition they can.
The film rightly became a discussion-starting sensation when it debuted in France last fall. It accomplished what decades of legislative hand-wringing hadn’t: Jacques Chirac was so moved by a screening that he ordered the government to pay colonial veterans’ pensions in full.
This is a good ending (better than the one the film itself has), and all’s well that ends well. It’s a reproach to the French government that a mediocre film was what it took to obtain a measure of justice. The fact that Days of Glory could obtain it, though, pays in hope for what the movie doesn’t deliver in entertainment.
– Louis Wittig is a writer in New York.