The movie is about soldiers who fought and died for their country, despite facing discrimination both at home and within the army. They absorbed tremendous casualties as the shock troops against the enemy, yet few today know about their heroism and accomplishments.
The soldiers in question are not the Japanese Americans who were freed from internment camps to enlist in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team to fight in Europe. Nor are they the African American, Latino, or American Indian soldiers who fought for a land that continued to deny them their rights.
The soldiers portrayed in the movie Days of Glory (Indigenes) are North Africans who fought in the French Army to drive the Germans out of a “motherland” most had never seen. The movie, a French, Algerian and Moroccan co-production, was a recent Academy Award nominee for best foreign film, and its ensemble cast collectively won the best actor award at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival.
Days of Glory is both an exceptional film about war, with taut action sequences and intimate portraits of the lives of ordinary soldiers, and an important film that was made with a purpose.
At its core, the movie is about four soldiers from North Africa who enlist in the 7th Algerian Infantry, part of the Free French Army, in 1943. They receive rudimentary military training in Morocco before being rushed into battle against the Germans in Italy. There, they inflict the first defeat on the German army by French forces since France was overrun in 1940. The soldiers then move on to France itself—to Provence, the Rhone Valley, the Vosges forest and finally to Alsace, near the German border—always given the most dangerous, deadly assignments.
For Said (Jamel Debbouze), enlisting is a way to escape the poverty of his remote Algerian village. For Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila), an idealist and an educated man, fighting for France is the best way to fight for democracy and an end to discrimination. Yassir (Samy Naceri), a Berber from Morocco, enlists for the money. We never learn why Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) enlists, or why he has “bad luck” tattooed on his chest in Arabic.
All four are major actors in the French film industry today. Debbouze, who helped finance Days of Glory, is particularly popular for his comedic roles. (He will soon be seen here in Luc Besson’s movie, “Angel-A.”) However, Bouajila will most likely be the only familiar face to American film fans, as he played a key role of Samir in The Siege, the prescient
pre-9/11 film starring Denzel Washington and Annette Bening.
“It was our duty to make this movie,” says director and co-writer Rachid Bouchareb in “The Making of Days of Glory” the DVD’s main bonus feature.
Like his stars, Bouchareb is a French man of North African descent, and he and his cast express their commitment to honor their grandfathers and great-grandfathers who were among the 150,000 soldiers from the French colonies who fought in World War II and whose stories have long been ignored.
Days of Glory doesn’t flinch from showing the discrimination that took place within the Free French forces. White soldiers receive promotions, eat better food and obtain leaves from combat, while the African troops continually slog it out with little recognition.
And more subtle forms of discrimination exist within the ranks of the 7th Algerian Infantry. The few promotions that are handed out go to light-skinned French soldiers who lived in Algeria, rather than to the Arabs from North Africa or the black soldiers from sub-Saharan Africa. Most promises of advancement offered to the North African troops turn out to be empty.
The film ends 60 years later, Saving Private Ryan-style, with one of the soldiers returning to a vast military cemetery in Alsace to pay his respects to his fallen comrades. The point is both obvious and important, particularly given the strife that engulfs France today about the treatment and integration of minorities—mainly from former French colonies—into modern French society.
For years, the African veterans of the war were denied pensions after their countries became independent from France in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Even after a law was passed in 2002 restoring the pensions, no funds were appropriated for that purpose.
But after seeing Days of Glory in 2006, French President Jacques Chirac decided to authorize the funding.