In the wake of Clint Eastwood’s two fine films about the battle of Iwo Jima, Rachid Bouchareb’s “Days of Glory” proves a similarly serious and incisive take on the realities of war. Its subject is a little-known aspect of the western front of World War II—the role of soldiers from the colonial areas of North Africa in the French army. In emphasizing both their patriotic service to a nation from which they’d soon be separated and the unequal treatment they received from European superiors, who looked upon them with considerable condescension, the picture can be heavy-handed at times but overall makes its points with considerable power.
As is customary in such stories, the script concentrates on a single group of men, beginning with their recruitment and early training, continuing through their baptism by fire against the Nazi forces in Africa, and concluding with the part they played in the Allied drive against the Germans in the latter stages of the war. Among the most notable members are Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila), the squad leader whose experience makes him increasingly dubious about his loyalty to France; Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), the company marksman, whose brief romance with a French woman, Irene (Aurelie Elfvedt), while on leave drives him to distraction; Said (Jamel Debbouze), an everyman who becomes a sort of retainer to stern Sergeant Martinez (Bernard Blancan); and Yassir (Samy Naceri), an imposing fellow, looking a bit like Jean Reno, who’s extremely protective of his younger brother (Assaad Bouab). The men are accorded a combination of respect and dismissiveness not only by Martinez, but also by their French superiors Leroux and Durieux (Benoit Giros). But their traditions are largely ignored, and their abilities consistently underestimated, until in an engagement with a larger German force they decisively show their mettle, though at a heavy cost.
As this precis suggests, the didactic purpose behind “Days of Glory” is strong, and as a result the characters are more symbols or types than individuals. And coda set in the present day, in which a survivor visits the cemetery in which his fallen comrades are buried with a note that the pensions of the soldiers were stopped when their native lands gained independence, underscores the message rather clumsily. (It did, though, have a political effect: after seeing the picture, President Chirac ordered the payments reinstated.)
Within the limitations of the genre, however, the picture works. The cast interject some genuine humanity into what might easily have become stereotypical roles, with Debbouze, as the illiterate peasant who learns that his blind devotion may be misplaced, and Bouajila, as an ambitious man troubled by the glass ceiling of the time, making the deepest impressions. (Zem, on the other hand, is hobbled somewhat by that romantic subplot, which stretches credulity more than a little, as is Naceri by Yassir’s extreme fraternal concern.) Patrick Blossier’s widescreen cinematography is impressive as well, even if the method of indicating changes in setting by having black-and-white establishing shots transformed into color with the passing of clouds over them—initially quite beautiful—is overused.
The upshot is that if “Days of Glory” is comparable more to the lesser of Eastwood’s two films (“Flags of Our Fathers”) than to the superior “Letters from Iwo Jima,” that still leaves it a genuinely commendable effort.