(29/03/07) – In 1943 nearly a quarter of a million North Africans were recruited to reinforce the re-emerging French Army of de Gaulle to fight in Italy and eventually for the liberation of France. This is the story of how predominantly Muslim Africans fought for freedom and liberty under appalling conditions and for a land that was not even their own.
"We’ve come to die from afar. We are the men of Africa."
The basic premise is intriguing enough to raise Days of Glory out of the sea of other brothers-in-arms war films. The film follows one company of the African troops from the campaign in Italy in 1943 to Alsace at the war’s end, taking in the battles, the camaraderie and the injustice of their journey. It’s an ambitious period to cover and their progress is depicted by the way characters form both bonds and festering resentments for each other. This, then, isn’t a two-dimensional view of warfare with its good guys and bad guys but one that is human and believable, with characters having different aspirations and emotional responses outside of their work as soldiers.
Saïd has little ambition and is actually glad that the compulsory literacy classes aren’t being taught to their company while Messaoud recognises this omission for what it is – further indication that the French are happy to have them die for their liberation but not actually be a part of their country and culture. It doesn’t take long for them to realise that they are viewed differently from the indigenous French – wearing sandals instead of boots, not getting tomatoes with their dinner, never receiving adequate rest and recuperation. This doesn’t stop them fighting for a cause they have come to believe in but it begins to taint their view of justice and ultimately each other. When the battalion are bombarded with leaflets from the Nazis the propaganda is transparent but even so contains more than a grain of truth. Perhaps the most upsetting scene is the casual way in which letters between Messaoud and his French sweetheart are routinely censored or destroyed by the authorities to prevent miscegenation, causing each to think the other thought nothing of their love.
It’s not all about the politics though. As a war film Days of Glory has a gritty, almost bleached out feel that makes events seem almost mundane even at their most brutal and tense. In this respect the film doesn’t glamorise conflict but shows the harsh realities as a job done by increasingly battle-hardened men – each conflict showing more professionalism from the survivors but also more fatigue. Rather than over-emphasise the personal nature of conflict Days of Glory takes a wider approach, showing the terrain in map form fading to the actual battlefield as though from the point of view of a general commanding from afar.
While Days of Glory has much to its credit there are a number of problems with the film as a whole. The start is very unfocused to the extent that character identification initially becomes problematic. This presumably was meant to reflect the everyman scale of the campaign and the process of bonding but it unfortunately means that it isn’t until after the first major skirmish that you begin to have a true idea of the characters’ relationships to one another. Then there is the wrap-around modern day sequence that, like Saving Private Ryan, appears to be a way of wrapping up things. The problem here is that, as with the central body of the film, there is a strong and valid political point to be made about the current situation of the war veterans from North Africa – a point that is left to a couple of title cards and a Tom Hanks style graveyard visit that sells the film short. Either they should have scrapped the bookending (but kept the title cards) or shown contemporary events as part of the ongoing drama.
Still, Days of Glory is a dramatic, engaging and moving story of unrewarded heroes during the liberation of France. A fascinating film about a forgotten army.
Days of Glory opens in the UK tomorrow, 30/03/07.