In 1943, 130,000 North African men volunteer to help free France from Nazi occupation. Among them are Saïd (Debbouze), Abdelkader (Bouajila), Messaoud (Zem) and Yassir (Naceri), whose destinies are entwined as they fight from Italy to Alsace.
We’ve become too used to our race-related tales of historical injustice coming packaged by Hollywood with a fat white ribbon wrapped around them. You just know that if Ed Zwick had made Days Of Glory (called Indigènes, or ’natives’ in France), he’d have set the Caucasian corporal dead centre, where he could earn the grudging respect of his North African troops as they march towards their unsung doom. As it is, the corporal in question is a pale blur on the sidelines in Rachid Bouchareb’s vision of a war fought passionately by men you wouldn’t blame for caring little about their colonial masters.
Hardly surprising, given Bouchareb’s French-Algerian roots, but refreshing nonetheless. In a manner reminiscent of Sam Fuller’s critical The Big Red One, the film zones in on a small core of characters and turns them from green recruits to weary, hardened warriors through a punchy, episodic structure, as they trudge north to liberate a homeland they’ve never even seen.
Bouchareb doesn’t scrape deep enough to reveal precisely what compels sullen, illiterate Algerian peasant boy Saïd (Jamel Debbouze, of Amélie and Angel-A fame) or the sensitive, erudite Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila, who resembles a North African Ethan Hawke) to take up arms. Leathery mountain man Yassir (Samy ‘Taxi’ Naceri) is clearly in it for the spoils; sharpshooter Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) arguably for the girls — but is that really all it is?
Come the tense finale, as the quartet endeavour to defend an ailing Alsatian village, the question ceases to nag. It’s not the why that’s important, it’s the actions of these men — which only intensifies your outrage that the colonial troops were so shabbily treated after the war’s end. It’s a shame Bouchareb feels he needs a modern-day postscript to ram the point home, but we can forgive him that. After all, Days Of Glory is a truly excellent war picture. Bouchareb portrays battle as a series of dull, bloody and almost inevitably fatal thuds rather than pyrotechnic spectacle, and this admirable earthiness ensures the film remains awfully gripping without ever tumbling into Boy’s Own territory.
A war film more of sober, grim reflection than balls-out escapades. Yet it grips consistently, its bursts of combat delivering gut-punches of veracity.