Worthy memorial to forgotten North African soldiers of WW II
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'Days of Glory' is similar to Spike Lee's 'Miracle at St. Anna' as both films deal with the subject of a minority group's contribution to the war effort in World War II. In Lee's film, the focus is on African-Americans and in 'Days of Glory', Arabic-speaking North Africans. The value of both films are that they chronicle the little-known history of discrimination against these minority group soldiers despite all their sacrifices made during wartime.
Toward the beginning of the film, the North African soldiers win a small victory when a Captain rescinds the decision not to serve them tomatoes as part of the their daily rations on a transport ship. But more egregious examples of discrimination which are not reversed are shown such as allowing native 'white' Frenchmen leave while the North Africans get none. Similarly, the whites are always promoted to a higher rank and the Africans always remain in the same subordinate positions. Further resentment is bred when the news media sends pictures and newsreels back home of the white soldiers, giving the false impression that they were the ones doing most of the fighting when in actuality it was the North Africans who were responsible for the bulk of the hand-to-hand combat. The ultimate indignity is referenced at the end of the picture when we learn that all pensions of the North African soldiers were frozen following independence of the French colonies. It's my understanding that this injustice has not been redressed, even to this day.
'Glory' focuses on four soldiers at the beginning of their conscription in North Africa, their initial foray into Italy in 1944 and finally, combat operations against the Germans in France proper. We meet Said, an impoverished Algerian goat farmer who signs up despite the protestations of his mother who fears she'll lose him in combat. The actor who plays Said, Jamel Debbouze, actually has one arm in real life, and must keep the missing appendage in his pocket throughout the film in order to maintain the illusion that he's not handicapped. It turns out that Debbouze is actually one of the film's producers who contributed a bit of money to the film's production, so it appears they could not avoid using him.
The trick in a movie like this is to avoid hagiography by showing each soldier with an inner life and enough conflict between them to keep things interesting. Perhaps the least successful is the character of Messaoud who falls in love with a French woman and is thwarted by the military censors when the letters he sends to her are never received. The other thing we learn about Messaoud is that he joins the majority of the other soldiers in the unit, taunting Said after Staff Sergeant Martinez makes him his orderly. Said puts a knife to Messaoud's throat as he can no longer endure the taunts which imply that he's Martinez's 'girl'. Messaoud eventually goes AWOL due to the aforementioned discriminatory leave policy in an attempt to see his French lover. He's restored after the brass realize they cannot dispense with his skills as a marksman.
Corporal Abdelkader proves to be the film's protagonist. He becomes a corporal after taking an exam (equivalent to a lieutenant in the US Army) and becomes the voice for the rights of the native African minority soldiers. Abdelkader faces Sgt. Martinez down on the ship, winning the right to have the tomatoes served to the men. Later, he's put in the brig after getting into a fight with Martinez over the Army leave policy (instead of the soldiers getting leave, they're forced to watch a French ballet performance inside a tent). Despite Abdelkader's militancy, he's also loyal to France and proves to be courageous in battle. So it's quite sad to see how he's not recognized at war's end and ends up a defeated, lonely man living in a small flat in France, far from his homeland.
There's also Yassir, a Moroccan of Berber extraction (one of the Moroccan 'Gourmier' soldiers) who joins in the soldering for the money. There's a good scene where another soldier prevents him from bashing in the mouth of a dead German soldier and extracting his gold fillings. Later, Yassir is devastated when his brother is killed in combat.
Perhaps the best character in the film is Sgt. Martinez, the 'Pied Noir' (a French national whose ancestors probably were of Spanish extraction who had settled in Algeria). Martinez considers himself thoroughly French and does not want to be associated with the Arab culture. When Said discovers a picture of his Arabic mother and asks him about it, Martinez beats him up and warns him not to tell anyone upon pain of death. Martinez gives 'Days of Glory' its flavor as he is almost brutal in the way he treats his troops but at the same time, sticks up for them when dealing with the higher-ups.
'Days of Glory' emulates many American pictures in its war scenes. There are some gripping battle scenes and the carnage and horror of war is ably depicted (one unforgettable iconic image shows the soldiers eating a meal with a dead horse in a ditch right in front of them). The battle scene at the end of the picture however, where the unit faces off against a much larger group of Germans in a small town, doesn't really ring true. The Germans march into town, taking no cover, and are picked off too easily by the North Africans.
'Days of Glory' is a worthy addition to the pantheon of World War II films. The characters are not all fleshed out but we do learn a great deal of the history of the discrimination endured by these heroic soldiers. Unlike the bloated 'Miracle of St. Anna', 'Glory' feature economical editing coupled with a soundtrack highlighted by some haunting Middle Eastern songs.