When Academy Award voters mark their ballots, they frequently choose moral worthiness over artistic worth. That’s how well-intentioned tripe like Crash (and, perhaps, Babel) can win big. Still, there is something to be said for aspiring to worthiness. Interesting if stylistically unambitious films like Days of Glory and Amazing Grace are informative as well as diverting, which partially compensates for their overreliance on genre conventions and manipulative tactics.
Days of Glory, one of the five nominees for the best foreign film Oscar, follows a group of soldiers through the last two years of World War II. The story might seem familiar: Like Letters From Iwo Jima, it asserts the basic humanity of men who were previously left out of the story. But these guys were on our side: They’re from Algeria and Morocco, fighting for a French “fatherland” that’s been absentee all their lives.
The soldiers—well-educated Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila), mama’s boy Saïd (Jamel Debbouze), marksman and lover Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), and embittered and mercenary Berber brothers Yassir (Samy Naceri) and Larbi (Assaad Bouab)—fight their way through Italy and Provence and into Alsace, where they have their Saving Private Ryan moment. They’re led by Sergeant Martinez (Bernard Blancan), a Frenchman born in North Africa; such a person was called a “pied noir,” or black foot, a term that suggests the level of racial anxiety in French society at the time. The actors playing these roles work together simply and naturally; they deserve the ensemble acting prize they received at the Cannes Film Festival.
Although they join in the songs extolling “sweet France,” few of the African troops are motivated by the thought of liberating Paris. Most of them enlisted because there was no work at home, or because they hoped that a victorious France might show gratitude toward their colonized homelands. That seems unlikely, given the treatment of the North African soldiers (and their sub-Saharan cohorts, who remain in the background here). When tomatoes are available, they’re distributed only to the fully French men, who also get leave when the Africans don’t. Abdelkader, the most philosophical of the lot, lectures his fellow colonial subjects on their right to liberty, equality, and fraternity. Meanwhile, Messaoud just wants a letter from Irène, the woman he met in Marseilles, but he doesn’t realize that this has also become a racial matter: For unexplained but easily deciphered reasons, army censors confiscate Messaoud and Irène’s missives to each other.
Director Rachid Bouchareb, a Frenchman of Algerian descent, and co-scripter Olivier Lorelle don’t pretend that the North Africans are all virtuous and independent-minded. Saïd is overly anxious to win Martinez’s approval, and Yassir and Larbi loot German corpses. (On their first ever visit to church, however, they decide not to risk plundering the poor box.) The balance between Days of Glory’s war-movie framework and its political commentary is maintained right to the end: Sixty years after the final battle, one of the characters walks through a cemetery, looking for the graves of his lost friends. Save for the Islamic markings on the headstones, this is a standard conclusion for a soldier’s tale. But then a concluding title notes that the French government froze North African veterans’ pensions in 1959, when their countries were about to become post-colonial, and didn’t restore them until 2002.
Although it concentrates on just a handful of men, Days of Glory is not an obviously low-budget film. Bouchareb got the vehicles and locations he needed, and he stages one large-scale battle to set the mood when the troops first arrive in Italy. But he doesn’t bludgeon the viewer with fast pans, quick cuts, and dizzying hand-held camera shots. Shooting mostly in gray and brown, cinematographer Patrick Blossier achieves a stark, unostentatious beauty. The film has the economical structure and sober simplicity of a classic Hollywood war film; it’s closer in spirit to Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One than to Spielberg and Eastwood’s treatments of combat.
Compared to Ousmane Sembene’s powerful if didactic Camp de Thiaroye, a tale of Senegalese World War II veterans in which things just get worse and worse, Bouchareb and Lorelle’s drama is remarkably understated. The director spends as much time developing character as he does airing grievances. Indeed, the two are inextricably entwined. Days of Glory wouldn’t have much reason to exist if it weren’t about France’s previously little-considered North African troops, but it’s as interested in establishing their everyday humanity as it is in pressing their specific case.