Empires are like cruel lovers: they demand everything, but if you give in, you’re screwed. This is the message of Days of Glory, Rachid Bouchareb’s Oscar nominated story about the African Army in the Second World War. The army, gathered from the French colonies, was instrumental in the liberation of France and the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany.
A kind of Band of Berbers, it is told through the eyes of four volunteers recruited from their dusty Algerian villages in 1943 to help free “Mother France” – though none had been there. The four are soon playing their part – as canon fodder – in delivering victories for their colonial masters and are shipped to France, where they help defeat the Nazi occupiers.
The Africans quickly realise their part in the war effort is not as equals. Racism is routine. Their rations, clothing and living conditions are far worse than those of their French comrades. Battle weary, they are refused leave and denied promotion. No wonder patriotic songs about the “motherland” soon sour into angry, aggrieved ditties, and any love for the place turns as cold as an Alsace winter.
Days of Glory follows the usual war film trajectory: we see the men meld from a ragbag of volunteers into a formidable fighting troupe with stereotype characters: the clown (Said played by Jamel Debbouze), ne’er do well (Samy Nacri’s Yassir); the thoughtful leader (Sami Bouajila’s Abdelkader); and the lovestruck sharp-shooter (Rochdy Zem’s Messaoud). Completing the clich is Bernard Blancan as thin-faced Sergeant Martinez, a man harder than an Atlas mountain. All five deliver strong performances, while Bouajila’s understated rage is note perfect for an intelligent man frustrated by foolish superiors.
Though made with a small budget, Bouchareb creates suitably convincing battle scenes. As the men cower in foxholes and shells rain down, their fear is tangible, as is their confusion. Later, as they freeze in a French forest, the desolation of the landscape mirrors their sense of abandonment.
But any similarities with Hollywood blockbuters ends there. The treatment of the African soldiers adds a political weight to Days of Glory and reveals Bouchareb’s real mission, which is to highlight the treatment of African veterans. France owes a debt of honour to these men, a debt still waiting to be paid.
In revenge for the colonial rebellions of the 1950s it froze the retirement and invalid pensions of African Army veterans in 1959, leaving many living in penury. Successive attempts to get the money have been treated with disdain.
It is an important cause, but Bouchareb’s anger threatens to undermine the film. In his desperation to convey the message, he overcrowds the plot, leaving some storylines dangling and others woefully under-developed. A coda to underline the injustice done these men is clumsy, clichd and unnecessary. We know what these men sacrificed for France. We have just watched it and need no help to share the director’s justifiable outrage.