Days Of Glory (Indigènes) Review
The rather poor choice of English title for Rachid Bouchareb’s WWII war drama Days Of Glory takes away somewhat from the bitter connotations of the original French title Indigènes (Natives) which refers to rather derogatory denomination for the North African troops who joined the war and fought alongside their French colleagues in the liberation of the country from the occupying Nazi forces, but received little thanks or recognition for their contribution. The English title, rather unfortunately in my opinion, aligns it somewhat uncomfortably with Edward Zwick’s politically correct but ideologically confused US Civil War drama Glory, where black soldiers demanded the same rights as their white colleagues to be to be gloriously massacred as cannon fodder. The comparison however turns out to be appropriate, since it is an almost overbearing sense of political correctness and settling of accounts that weighs heavily on what is an otherwise run-of-the-mill WWII war drama.
The real success of Indigènes is that it got made at all. With French filmmaking increasingly under the control of major television corporations, and films being made with an eventual safe primetime television audience in mind, the concept of such a big-budget war film being green-lighted on such a politically sensitive subject, with no major stars and a cast made up almost entirely of actors of North African origin, would be out of the question. The film wouldn’t have been possible at all were it not for the presence of the immensely popular comedian Jamel Debbouze whose participation in the film as an actor and as a producer ensured the film got the funding and attention it required.
Essentially, the film sets out to show that, despite religious and ideological differences and the suffering they have historically endured at the hands of the occupying French authorities in their countries, a large number of Algerian and Moroccan Muslim Arabs volunteered to join the French army and played an important role in the turning around of the war, giving their lives for the liberation of their French “homeland”. The film shows these men, all poor, having been left with nothing in the deserts of their own land, and having suffered grave injustices in the name of “pacification”, nevertheless wholeheartedly pledge allegiance to the French flag and sing The Marseillaise as they drive out the occupying Nazi forces. Yet despite their commitment to the ideals of liberté, égalité and fraternité, they are never treated as equals, not allowed to eat the same food as their white French colleagues, never given the same opportunities for promotion and leadership, not given equal opportunity to learn how to read and write, not allowed to consort with white women and not even given the leave due to them.
These points are made clunkily and pointedly in Days Of Glory, contrasting the injustice they receive from their French leaders with the tremendous bravery of one particular small group of indigènes that the film follows on their progress through Provence and the Rhone Valley, all the way to the liberation of Alsace, without achieving due recognition for their efforts. Their real struggle then is not against the Nazi forces, who much like any traditional war film remain faceless bogeymen who couldn’t hit a barn door with a rocket-launcher yet practically throw themselves onto the bullets of the Allied forces. No doubt many of those German soldiers also joined up for similar reasons to the North Africans, out of a sense of duty to their country and more practical considerations of earn money for their wives and children back home – but there is little comprehension shown towards them. The film’s focus is elsewhere and it’s not the Nazi forces that are being fought against as much as the more modern concern of settling old accounts of racial prejudice enacted against those of North African origin. This is borne out by the film’s epilogue which, having shown the dedication and given their lives for their French colleagues, tells us that the war pensions for those North African soldiers was withdrawn in 1959 and that despite a ruling in court against the action, successive French governments have failed to rectify the situation. This then becomes the entire point of the film, a propaganda exercise to highlight a particularly shameful action that the French nation is complicit in perpetuating either by intent or wilful ignorance. After this film, they have no longer have any valid excuse.
It’s clearly a point that needs to be made and Days Of Glory achieves its aim effectively and makes it point emphatically, and indeed the movie industry has been falling over themselves to be seen to do the politically correct thing in supporting the film, promoting it as the official French film for the Oscars, awarding it the best screenplay at the French Césars, and collectively awarding the principal leads the award of Best Actor at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. Aside from the worthiness of the film’s message (and indeed the fine performances of the cast), Indigènes is however an unexceptional film that proves more than anything that the North African French filmmakers have overcome their struggle to get this film made only to prove that they can make a typical, cliché-ridden war movie just as effectively as anything out of Hollywood. In addition to the film’s principal heavy-handed treatment of the issue of prejudice, all the usual character types and standard situations are trotted-out. There’s the young inexperienced hot-head, there’s the intellectual who questions the actions and intentions of their leaders, there’s the young man in love but worried that his messages to his girlfriend are not getting through, and there’s a tough sergeant with a soft heart who really cares for his men. Despite their differences, when under attack they all look out for each other and put their personal issues aside. Every formulaic “band of brothers” war movie convention is delivered in a calculated, formulaic and predictable manner. You know how this one is going to end as soon as it starts.