Writer/director Rachid Bouchareb’s Days Of Glory is a heartfelt tribute to the sacrifices endured by the thousands of North African soldiers who helped liberate France from German occupation during World War Two. In some ways it resembles various American combat classics, notably Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One, by focusing on a small group of infantrymen slogging their way through a series of bloody military encounters across Italy and France (Provence, the Rhone Valley, the Vosges).
Yet the characters in Days Of Glory have a more ambivalent relationship to the country for whom they are risking their lives. Saïd (Amélie’s Jamel Debbouze) comes from “total poverty” in Algeria, while the Berber mercenary Yassir (Samy Naceri) has bitter memories of French ‘pacification’ programmes in his homeland. Obligatory sharpshooter Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) falls in love with a white French woman from Marseille. Their corporal Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) believes in the republican ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. And their tough-as-nails sergeant Martinez (Bernard Blancan) has a guilty secret about his own racial identity.
Bouchareb sticks tight to these men during the frantic, frenetic battle scenes – which mainly consist of close-quarters fighting – and during the quieter, more reflective moments. We’ve seen most of it before, maybe, but a strong political dimension elevates this impressively acted story from a slew of lesser films concerned with military bravery. Here, our heroes are indigenous troops (the French title is actually Indigènes) who are exploited by their colonial masters. They are regarded as inferior citizens and treated as such: denied leave, passed over for promotion in favour of white French combatants, expected to make do with inferior food and equipment and routinely presented with the most dangerous missions. The film’s coda informs us how the racist treatment of these soldiers continued with the freezing of their pensions after decolonisation in the ’50s.
A poignant drama that will jolt you into a state of righteous indignation, it benefits from Bouchareb’s unwavering ability to squeeze fresh juice from stale scenarios. Take the scene where the depleted unit discover a semi-ruined mountain village, the locals emerging from hiding to congratulate their rescuers. Instead of hugs and heroics we have stillness and silence, Abdelkader and his comrades saying nothing as their flat gazes are accompanied by the sounds of nature and we sense their separation from the country for whom they risk their lives.