On the list of WWII stories criminally ignored by six decades of combat movies in the past 60 years, the heroics of French colonial soldiers ranks pretty high. But Rachid Bouchareb's powerful drama which won the 2006 Cannes Film Festival's best-actors award for its superb ensemble cast and was nominated for a best foreign-language-film Oscar, went a long way toward rectifying the situation, both on screen and in real life. It follows a handful of the nearly 250,000 colonial soldiers, many of them North African Muslims, who served France during World War II. Routinely denied leaves, passed over for promotions, and humiliated by white soldiers and officers, these men were often sent on the most dangerous frontline missions, and it's estimated that their casualties constituted one-quarter of the total French losses during the entire war.
Italy, 1944: The men of the 7th Algerian Infantry Regiment, many of whom have heeded Charles De Gaulle's call to rid France of the German occupation and have volunteered to fight for the "motherland," prepare for what's essentially a suicide mission: They've been ordered to rout the German troops entrenched in the surrounding hills by serving as a human shield for the advancing French line. The mission is ultimately victorious, but the regiment suffers enormous casualties. The survivors include corporal Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila), a born leader who hopes to be promoted to sergeant and, one day, captain; Algerian conscript Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), whose love for a Frenchwoman (Aurelie Eltvedt) will soon get him into trouble with Berber peasants; Yassir (Samy Naceri) and his younger brother, Larbi (Assaad Bouab), who enlisted in hopes of earning enough money to find Larbi a wife, even if it means looting the corpses of fallen soldiers; and Said (the popular French comic actor Jamel Debbouze), a simple Algerian soldier who wants nothing more than to personally serve hard-nosed Sergeant Martinez (Bernard Blancan), a light-complexioned officer from Morocco with a closely guarded secret: He's really an Arab. The troops are treated to a hero's "homecoming" in France, a country few have ever seen, but their reception within the army is considerably less welcoming; they're commonly referred to as "wogs" and denied such seemingly insignificant luxuries as a single tomato with their meal. Worse, they're forced to sit by while white fellow soldiers are granted promotions and periodic leaves. The men of the 7th remain proud and fiercely patriotic nonetheless, and when it comes time to help the Americans hold their position against the Germans in Alsace, Abdelkader and the others volunteer for the mission, even though it's likely none will live to see Africa ever again.
With its expertly staged outnumbered-and-outgunned climax in a small French village, and a coda set decades after the fact in a military cemetery, Bouchareb's film is strongly reminiscent of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, minus the gimmickry that made the final moments of Steven Spielberg's otherwise powerful film so frustrating. Instead, the finale cuts right to the heart and leaves the viewer to dwell on the terrible injustices African veterans suffered at the hands of the French government, especially when the pensions of those hailing from colonies about to declare their independence from the "motherland" were frozen in 1959. DAYS OF GLORY was originally released with an ad campaign declaring that the film changed the course of history, and it turns out the claim isn't just hype. Upon seeing the film in 2006, French president Jacques Chirac was sufficiently moved to finally restore the surviving soldiers' pensions to the proper amount a restitution that coincided with the date of the film's release in France. leave a comment --Ken Fox