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Days of Glory

A Thoughtful, if Not Exactly Original, War Film

Nominated in the Best Foreign Film category at this year’s Academy Awards, Days of Glory (Indigènes) examines the experiences of North African soldiers who, as colonial subjects, fought alongside the French against the German occupation. Co-written and directed by Rachid Bouchareb (L'Ami y'a bon, Le Vilain petit poussin), Days of Glory is credited with compelling French president Jacques Chirac into supporting war pensions for North African soldiers who served with the French during World War II and their survivors. Whatever its merits as an instrument for real-world political change, does Days of Glory also have what it takes dramatically? As admirable as the film may be, the answer has to be: Almost, but not quite.

In 1943, five North Africans, Saïd (Jamel Debbouze), Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila), Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), Yassir (Samy Naceri), and Yassir’s younger brother, Larbi (Assaad Bouab), enlist in the French Army and join the 7th Algerian Regiment. Abdelkader studies to become a corporal. Messaoud proves to be a crack shot and becomes the unit’s designated marksman. Saïd becomes the personal valet to Sergeant Martinez (Bernard Blancan), a tough, but compassionate non-commissioned officer. The men join the French cause primarily for idealistic reasons: if they help to end the German occupation of France, they believe the French will live up to their ideals and offer the North African colonies the same “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” the French seem to enjoy at home.

Beginning in Italy, then moving on to Provence, the Vosges forest, and finally, an Alsatian village where the North Africans are forced to hold a bridgehead short on ammunition and without reinforcements, they’re subjected to innumerable indignities, large and small. They’re refused rations and forced to endure months without leave. The French officers also overlook their accomplishments on the battlefield, promoting less deserving Frenchmen over the North Africans. Despite doubts about the French, the soldiers push on, enjoying brief respites between battles once they’ve liberated a town or city.

Days of Glory doesn’t stray far from the conventions and clichés of the war genre. The North African soldiers have to overcome discrimination and ill-treatment from their superiors, a shortage of equipment or weather-appropriate clothing, and their own fears and anxieties. Not all of them make it the end of the last battle alive. Revelations about the characters and their pasts are few and far between. What we see, what we learn about the characters when we first meet them is repeatedly confirmed without variation or additional insight. Bouchareb also tends to unnecessarily linger on the scenes before and after battles. Some scenes feel redundant (because they are), other scenes are meant to evoke the tedium and boredom that typically happens during wartime between battles. That’s fine, up to a point, but it often feels like Bouchareb is padding Days of Glory to reach the two-hour running mark.

With Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima still fresh in moviegoers’ minds, it's almost impossible to shake the feeling that Days of Glory, for all its earnest, good intentions, doesn't illuminate the plight of the Arab soldiers any more than a traditional documentary would have. A documentary could have reflected historical truths more accurately, with, hopefully a minimum of sentimental manipulation. Fiction works better at uncovering emotional or universal truths, but if we know these truths going in, we’re left wondering about what, if anything, Days of Glory can add to our understanding of the era, culture, and country or even viscerally as a moviegoing experience.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars


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