Days of Glory
2006Director: Rachid Bouchareb
Cast: Jamel Debbouze, Samy Naceri, Roschdy Zem
hen Saving Private Ryan was released nearly a decade ago, Spike Lee complained that Steven Spielberg ignored the efforts of African-American units that helped secure Normandy after Operation Overlord. Well, that really wasn’t fair. Saving Private Ryan focuses on a specific story about specific soldiers, and Spielberg just didn’t make the film Spike Lee wanted. The problem: no one else made it either. Whether black US forces, Gurkhas, or Algerians, Second World War soldiers with darker complexions don’t get their fair share of celluloid commemoration. With his skillful, affecting Days of Glory, Rachid Bouichareb takes a vital step towards correcting this injustice.
Focusing on a handful of Algerian volunteers fighting on behalf of the French Army, Bouchareb moves from Morocco in 1943 through to the deracination of Vichy one year later. Along the way, the soldiers clash with their French leaders and each other, fall in love, and face the prospect of death in both the arid theatre of Africa and the rural battlefields of Europe. An elegantly simple screenplay by Bouichareb and Olivier Lorelle effectively illustrates its point without seeming the least bit didactic, and all the performances rise to the occasion. It’s not without reason that the cast was collectively awarded the Best Actor prize at Cannes.
Bouchareb wisely doesn’t shy away from the irony of his characters’ situation. Although fighting under a flag that claims to represent the revolutionary principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity, the Algerians themselves are hardly the beneficiaries of these ideals. Likewise, the men enter battle to rid France of an occupying force while enduring imperialist occupation at home. None of this is to say that they were duped; it simply serves to illustrate the extent of their heroism. Life may have been hard under French rule, but there’d be no life at all under Hitler’s thumb. Still, Bouchareb never suggests that this calculation is the basis for the Algerians’ actions. One soldier dismisses Nazi offers to switch sides, not because the Germans are worse than the French, but because he’s cast his lot with France and feels kinship with its people. That this affinity seldom seems returned deepens the pathos of his situation, but does nothing to diminish his service.
Days of Glory was recently honored with a Foreign Film Oscar nomination, and although it is neither the best nominee nor the likeliest to win, the added attention is welcome for a movie that does so much to shed light on a forgotten chapter of World War II history. This film isn’t the first to deal with France’s problematic history with Algeria. As far back as 1966, Gillo Pontecorvo brilliantly captured the perils of counterinsurgency in The Battle of Algiers. More recently, colonial French guilt formed the subtext of Michael Haneke’s engaging Caché. However, the stories of those colonial subjects who bravely volunteered to help free their “fatherland” from Nazi occupation have been left untold.
Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima has been rightly praised for providing a perspective on World War II that Western audiences are rarely exposed to. While Days of Glory isn’t quite as good a film, its insights are even more valuable. At least implicitly, a Japanese viewpoint on the conflict is recognized, but how many people are broadly aware of Algerian efforts to liberate France? Even Jacques Chirac, the president of France, was largely oblivious to this legacy until he saw Days of Glory last year, but he has since taken honorable steps towards ensuring that the surviving veterans receive the pensions cruelly denied to them for decades.
Nearing the end of the movie and the occupation, a French officer addresses the colonial forces. Pledging rewards for the hardships they’ve endured, he assures them that “all of France will watch and remember you.” As the closing titles somberly report, this promise was broken for the soldiers who risked and sacrificed their lives to liberate France. One hopes, then, that the words will ring true for this strong and valuable film.
Days of Glory is currently playing in limited release.
By: Nav Purewal
Published on: 2007-02-21