Judging by modern history, there are few things worse to be in a war than French—except North African. As a French colony, the people of North Africa were told to look to La France as their Queen. In turn, they were treated as serfs. (Not that the French were unusually cruel colonialists—that just came with the conquered territory.)
But in wartime 1943, with the Germans closing in, these Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians were courted by the French, who sent middlemen to their villages to tell all the poor young men that only feckless boys refused to fight for their motherland—a country none of them had ever set foot in. In one swoop, their towns were emptied of men lured by the promise of pensions and glory. And most of them received neither. With the Russians, British and Americans still arguing over who won the war, the story of these small men’s sacrifice went with them to the grave.
Days of Glory, Rachid Bouchareb’s dogged and expository film, seeks to squeeze the North African soldiers back into history. His main characters, Messaoud, Said and Abdelkader (Roschdy Zem, Jamel Debbouzel, Sami Bouajila) all suffer the same enlisted traumas. They’re sent out to the battlefield so untrained that grenades confuse them. Like shields, the “indigenes,” as they were dubbed, charged up the mountainside wearing helmets over their headscarves to smoke out the Germans, while the French stayed safely back and figured out where to shoot their missiles. The survivors who escaped unshredded by machine guns were denied everything from vacation leave to fresh produce with supper. Screenwriter Olivier Lorelle hews so closely to the effete and gutless stereotype of the French solider—these twats cruising around in jeeps—that you almost want them to lose the war. They even try to make the indigenes watch ballet.
Between battles, Messaoud—a tall, handsome strip of leather—falls for a lovely French lass who’s far less racist than his comrades-in-arms. Meanwhile, hangdog Said is forcibly adopted by the Captain as his go-to Muslim (the previous one was shot) and scampers about more harried than Mariah Carey’s personal assistant. And if they’re the emotional heart of Bouchareb’s grievances against La France, the brain is Abdelkader—a noble and ambitious leader pounding his head against the French Army’s glass ceiling. The more they avoid promoting him, the more Abdelkader sweats to earn their respect—including volunteering for the mission that’s likely to get them all killed.
As Days of Glory shifts into the who-dies-next? gear sautered onto every war flick, it continually favors cliché over depth. We momentarily learn that decades ago, the French massacred some of the men’s families, and that their disciplinarian Captain is hiding his own Muslim roots. The Nazis even drop letters on the troops arguing that they’re treated no better than indentured servants. Yet the film avoids wrestling with these complexities, instead rushing to make sacrificial heroes of them as they march stoically towards their deaths. They only grumble over canceled vacation time. By the time they’ve reached the Alsatian Alamo sequence where most of them meet their dooms, there’s no more emotional turmoil than a game of solitaire.
Bouchareb scores his points, but so clumsily that the film is as one-dimensional and didactic as the textbooks it wants to revise. Yet in the last scene, where the sole survivor of a deadly skirmish watches as the French reinforcements stomp in just in time to take credit for his victory, you can see the struggle in his eyes as he realizes the North Africans have won the battle, will win World War II, but have lost the war for respect.