Days of Glory

| March 6, 2007

The splashy one-sheet for Days of Glory boldly promises a “true story so controversial, it couldn’t be told until now!” What a shrewd (if vaguely specious) approach to advertising Rachid Bouchareb’s modest think-piece of a war picture. That provocative tagline refers to the real-life political victory the Algerian film has allegedly sparked. Responding empathetically to Bouchareb’s impassioned polemic–a “message movie” about North African Muslims fighting for France during WWII–the French populace has since pressured its government into unfreezing the pensions of these forgotten soldiers. It’s a stirring development, to be sure, yet what of the film that inspired it? Really, it would be misleading to suggest that there was anything particularly “controversial” about this staunchly traditional portrait of unsung heroism–specifics aside, this is a story that most definitely has been told before. It’s your grandfather’s war movie, re-packaged and re-contextualized, as solemn, earnest and respectful as its generic title suggests.
But about that title: it’s worth noting that the original, domestic moniker for Days of Glory was Indigènes, a reference to the film’s motley group of Moroccan and Algerian soldiers. Enlisted to help stem the tide of Hitler’s march across Europe, the members of this foreign cavalry fought valiantly for France, yet they were treated as second-class citizens, denied the privileges and promotions their French comrades took for granted. A conventionally structured ensemble drama, Days of Glory filters this historical injustice through the experiences of a single platoon, a small cast of archetypal characters. There’s Yassir (Samy Naceri), the headstrong corporal, torn between his desire to move up in the ranks and his opposition to the thinly veiled racism of his superior officers. The sensitive and soft-spoken Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) wants nothing more than to return to the Caucasian beauty he bedded in France, while Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) would just prefer to get out alive, maybe with a few stolen souvenirs to show for his tour of duty. Rounding out the bunch is Saïd (Amelie‘s Jamel Debbouze), an illiterate peasant who’s blindly obedient to the dour, condescending Sergeant Martinez (Bernard Blancan), who treats the young recruit like his own personal man servant.
We follow this conflicted band of brothers across the entire European theatre, leaping forward in time and space, moving from the streets of Paris to snowy, woodland battlefields and bombed-out villages. But who are these men, really? Like Clint Eastwood’s recent World War II double-header, Days of Glory sacrifices individual character development in lieu of its Big Ideas: each soldier is assigned one specific trait–ambition, loyalty, romantic passion–as well as a character arc that aligns very neatly with the film’s grand thematic trajectory. Yet if Bouchareb and co-writer Olivier Lorelle paint their protagonists in broad strokes, the actors playing them find room to color in the empty spaces–not for nothing did the stellar cast win Best Ensemble at Cannes this past year. The rich performances lend the movie a dramatic poignancy, belying its more didactic, self-important tendencies.
As for the battle sequences, they’re models of organic staging, intense and small scale. Days of Glory‘s restrained aesthetic has very little in common with the gritty, messy, war-is-hell trappings of its more “realistic” genre contemporaries. In a post-Saving Private Ryan world, the film’s vision of ground warfare looks downright quaint, yet its scarce moments of combat have an uncommon grace and intimacy to them. In the climatic showdown–set, as it were, in the ruins of a small border town–we never get lost in the hail of gunfire, the explosion of heavy artillery. Bouchareb keeps his camera close to the ground, and the editing is so clean and precise as to leave no doubt about who’s alive and who’s dead at any given moment. This is the rare battle scene in which every bullet counts and every life taken has meaning and significance. It’s a far cry from the CGI bloodbaths of your typical modern war epic.
It would have been smart for Bouchareb to end his film with the aftermath of this cathartic skirmish. Instead, he unwisely opts for a present-day, cemetery dénouement, drawing unfavorable comparisons to the mawkish framing device of Spielberg’s WWII juggernaut. Days of Glory is no Saving Private Ryan–for all its flaws, the latter has a visceral power that the former wouldn’t know what to do with–yet, excepting its maudlin conclusion, it scarcely aspires to be such. Bouchareb’s influences run deeper, his narrative palette harkening back to earlier milestones of the genre: the meat-and-potatoes drama of 1940s war pictures, the widescreen grandeur of A Bridge Too Far, the probing moral quandaries of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. Despite its vague contemporary relevance, Days of Glory is doggedly old-fashioned, an achingly sincere blast from the past.

About the Author:

Jon Bastian Jon is a playwright and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles, where he has been currently appearing in Flash Theater LA when not working for Cesar Millan to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.
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