Days of Glory

December, 2006, Drama

This movie about the reception accorded North Africans who volunteered to serve under French officers in WW II created quite a storm when it opened in Paris, since it challenges whether the words “liberty, fraternity and equality” really mean what they say.  In much the same manner that Americans have struggled to demonstrate that “all men are created equal”, Glory examines the myriad ways in which young Algerians and Moroccans were asked to sacrifice for the colonial power they served while at the same time facing the kind of discrimination meted out to their African-American counterparts in our Armed Forces. Discrimination has never seemed so odious, nor quite so matter-of-factly cold-blooded.

Employing a storyline taken directly from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, (a handful of soldiers is introduced prior to a major offensive, then tracked to a final confrontation in which they’re outnumbered by German forces while defending a small community) Glory documents the consistent belittling of six Arab fighters who long to see themselves recognized as full partners in the French ideal of an open society in which everyone is respected for who he is rather than what he is. But despite the lofty pronouncements of senior military officials, outdated equipment, lousy food, infrequent leaves and rare advancement through the ranks march alongside these soldiers and their compatriots as they slog from Italy through France to Germany in 1943-1945. 

Writer/director Rachid Bouchareb and his fine cast, (which won “best actor” accolades as an ensemble at Cannes earlier this year) personify France’s colonial history; each of them was born in France after the war, but all are Arab in ancestry. They provide an authenticity to this movie that goes far beyond its often violent action sequences to demonstrate not only the valor and dogged determination of these troops, but the frustration, bitterness and self-loathing which accompanied it.

Bouchareb, (known primarily as a producer in Europe) handles Glory’s large battle scenes effectively, but it’s in the soldiers’ interactions that the director most effectively demonstrates his skill at exposing the rancid effects of discrimination; a sergeant who hides his shame at having an Arab mother behind a wall of vitriolic abuse, a sweet-natured orderly who declines the opportunity to learn how to read because “it’s too late to do me any good”, the corporal who seethes with resentment at the promotions given to unqualified French nationals, the anger which boils over when fresh tomatoes aren’t given to these men but are provided instead only to those who are “true” Frenchmen. Yet the North Africans fight on, clinging to the notion that repeated demonstrations of their worth will earn proper recognition from their adopted nation. Yet the final credits note that pensions for surviving veterans from these now independent countries were phased out early in this decade, suggesting that France has yet to fully appreciate sacrifices made and debts inadequately repaid.

Like Battleground, The Big Red One and scores of other war films, Days of Glory follows a rather conventional storyline, but its gripping examination of bigotry under fire makes this one well worth seeing.      

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