3½ stars (out of four)
A stunning war drama by the Algerian filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb ("Dust of Life") and a critical hit at last year's Cannes Film Festival, "Days of Glory" ("Indigenes") follows the experiences of four young Algerian soldiers, members of the French Army's "indigenous forces" in World War II.
It's a curious situation. The soldiers are North African, fighting against a fascist aggressor on the side of one of the ultimate European empires. Since France itself was at the time occupied by the Nazis, with almost a million and a half French soldiers imprisoned in German camps, the replacement French army was drawn largely from its colonies and included at least 600,000 North Africans. The Algerians, mostly infantrymen, saw some of the heaviest fighting of the war; they were among the front lines of the troops who fought in Italy, France and Germany.After the war though, their achievements were mostly forgotten and their pensions ultimately reduced to a fraction (about 30 percent) of what their French comrades received.
"Days of Glory" is Bouchareb's tribute to those Algerian soldiers as well as his call for remembrance and justice. It's an emotional, even inspiring experience, with those four unforgettable Algerian soldiers at its center. Three of them are 1942 recruits or enlistees--Said (Jamel Debbouze), Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) and Yassir (Samy Naceri)--and one is a corporal, Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila), called up in 1939. The four come together under the command of the battle-wise, scrupulously fair and notably non-racist Frenchman Sgt. Martinez (Bernard Blancan), and, in his hands, they meld together into a unit and a brotherhood--somewhat as Lee Marvin and his guys do in Sam Fuller's great World War II saga "The Big Red One."
We see them in combat. And we see at least one of them, in a coda, decades later, part of a legion of forgotten heroes.
"Days of Glory" is not a conventional anti-war movie, though it documents the brutality of combat and some of the injustice that can imbue it or emerge from it. It also shows us that side of war--fraternity, loyalty and courage--that gets admiringly evoked in movies that celebrate battle. Few are as moving as "Days," but even so, this film doesn't romanticize. It's hard, clear, full of empathy for its characters and lucid in its insight into their plight.
This movie's last ferocious battle scene--with the four friends racing through an Alsatian village and sniping at an advancing German battalion--is as exciting as the more elaborate battle sequences in those great recent World War II movies "Saving Private Ryan" and Clint Eastwood's Iwo Jima films.
As we watch the four of them--the brilliant soldier Abdelkader, the supremely loyal Said, the ladies' man Messaoud and the scrounger Yassir--we're seeing types that we've seen in innumerable war or POW movies, though Bouchareb says they were all patterned after real veterans. That familiarity increases our anger at the end.
Few films can honestly claim to have changed the course of history. But "Days of Glory" led to the adoption of an adjustment of the unjust pension system, coinciding with "Days'" French release. Its social impact is part of what makes this movie memorable. But as with almost any exceptional, truthful war picture, "Days of Glory" moves us because we know the soldiers--because we share their fear, triumph and pain.
'Days of Glory'
Directed by Rachid Bouchareb; written by Olivier Lorelle, Bouchareb; photographed by Patrick Blossier; edited by Yannick Kergoat; art direction by Dominique Douret; original soundtrack by Armand Amar Khaled; associate producers Thomas Langmann, Jean Brehat; produced by Tessalit Productions. In French, with English subtitles. A Weinstein Company/IFC Films release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:00. No MPAA rating. Adult (for intense and believable war violence, sensual themes, language).
Said - Jamel Debbouze
Abdelkader - Sami Bouajila
Yassir - Samy Naceri
Messaoud - Roschdy Zem
Martinez - Bernard Blancan
Leroux - Mathieu Simonet