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Days of Glory   B

The Weinstein Company / IFC Films

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Rachid Bouchareb
Writers: Olivier Lorelle, Rachid Bouchareb
Cast: Jamel Debbouze, Samy Naceri, Roschdy Zem, Sami Bouajila, Bernard Blancan, Mathieu Simonet, Assaad Bouab, Benoît Giros, Mélanie Laurent.

Review by Rob Vaux

Days of Glory earns almost none of its distinctiveness from technique. Director Rachid Bouchareb has a competent visual style, but his story differs little from any World War II drama of the last 30 years. It embraces the usual clichés of men under fire, following a band of disparate youths as they join the Free French Army against the Germans. He can't match Spielberg's audacity in Saving Private Ryan or Eastwood's discipline in Letters from Iwo Jima. If the faces under his helmets were white, nothing about Days of Glory would be notable -- decent enough for casual viewing, perhaps, but unremarkable in light of more skilled examples.

However, the faces under the helmets aren't white, and therein lies the movie's simple strength. Its scruffy dog soldiers marching into German artillery come from places like Morocco and Algeria -- colonial citizens, long dominated by the French Tricolor and now tasked to save a "motherland" they've never seen. Over 230,000 native North Africans fought in the Free French Army during World War II. Days of Glory wants nothing more and nothing less than to give them their place alongside the other heroes of the Allied cause.

Bouchareb, a French citizen of Algerian descent, understands the irony of a subjugated people fighting to free the nation of their oppressors. But he also sees the nobility in their sacrifice, and in their willingness to embrace the ideals that France would rather deny them. Liberté, égalité, fraternité was supposed to include the colonies as well as the homeland. Indeed, it served as a rallying cry to bind the North Africans to "their French brothers," as Charles de Gaulle made promises for new rights if the colonies helped free France from Nazi rule. Bouchareb juxtaposes that high-minded devotion with the shabby and hypocritical reality endured by North African soldiers. He creates a very deliberate sense of tension amid his protagonists -- a sextet of Berbers, Moroccans, Algerians, and white French colonials serving in the same unit -- who struggle to articulate exactly why they are fighting even as they charge fearlessly into the lion's den.

The principle drama lies between the unit's sergeant, Martinez (Bernard Blancan), and Saïd (Jamel Debbouze), his meek aide who spends most of the film fetching him coffee. At first, Martinez seems to be the embodiment of French colonial arrogance, barking orders at his swarthy underlings and curtly informing them that they will live or die according to his whims. But he saves Saïd's life during their first encounter with the Germans, and as the Algerian latches onto him with almost puppy-like devotion, we become aware that Martinez cares more about his men -- and their plight -- than he lets on. Meanwhile, Saïd becomes the butt of company jokes, his fellow North Africans mocking his timidity and adherence to the man in charge. On the surface, the dynamic echoes standard imperialist tropes, with the harsh but benevolent white father looking out for his little brown friend. But Bouchareb colors it with unexpected conflict and subtle nuance, as self-loathing on both sides churns beneath a common goal of demonstrating Algeria's true worth to the world.

Around that, Days of Glory hangs a number of parallel plot threads, each involving a North African soldier trying to maneuver his way through a merciless cultural minefield. The quietly competent Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) watches lesser white men pass him over for promotion, but sticks to his mission with the firm belief that rewards will follow. A pair of Berber brothers (Samy Naceri and Assaad Bouab) hopes to earn enough money for a family marriage while grappling with the vast cultural differences between Africa and Europe. And in the most heartbreaking case, the unit's marksman (Roschdy Zem) falls for a liberated French girl (Aurélie Eltvedt), only for the government to block all of his letters to her almost as a joke. In each case, these men throw themselves wholeheartedly into the fight against Hitler, their bravery equaling or surpassing that of any European. But on top of that, they must endure the countless tiny slights from their superiors, the baffled confusion from the towns they liberate, and the Faustian bargain that demands sacrifice to France now in exchange for nebulous and ill-defined freedoms later.

Bouchareb coats these details with a quietly savage anger, allowing them to fester without detracting from the greater (and ultimately justifiable) cause to which these men are devoted. An unspoken coda lingers over the proceedings -- the implication that the skills which the North Africans learned against the Nazis were later applied during their own nations' fight for independence. The injustices which fostered those later colonial revolts appear here without balance or recompense, as do the heroics on the battlefield which otherwise make for boilerplate viewing.

Indeed, the entire structure often feels unduly familiar -- the platoon filled with one-note stereotypes, the romances with beautiful women far away, the hills which must invariably be taken and the bridges which must be held at all costs. The film's finale cribs liberally from Private Ryan, rescued by Bouchareb's understated approach but still smacking too much of dramatic shorthand. Yet as by the numbers as it sometimes becomes, those very clichés also emphasize the fact that we haven't seen these men in this setting before. Stock World War II scenes take on new (and possibly taboo) meanings, as white women joyfully couple with their brown-skinned rescuers and a praying soldier bows east towards Mecca while the Nazis close in. These men shed blood as red as anyone's; they gave all that they had for hope of a brighter tomorrow. If their story is shopworn, the fact that it has gone unrevealed for so long grimly confirms that the prejudices on display have not yet been vanquished. A few other war films have adopted similar themes, most successfully with Edward Zwick's Glory. But even then, we saw the struggle through the eyes of whites, leaving ostensible foci as peripheral figures in their own story. Bouchareb dismisses that tool from the beginning, revealing Days of Glory solely from the standpoint of the North Africans. Therein lies its final, undeniable power: less in what's being said than in who -- at long last -- is doing the speaking.

Review published 07.03.2007.

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