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Days of Glory (Indigènes) (8/10)

by Tony Medley

This is an exceptionally well-made war movie based on a true story. And that true story is how Algerian Muslims fought for France in World War II even though none of them had ever been in France. Algeria was a colony of France at the time.

The film opens with a touching scene as Saїd (Jamel Debbouze) is leaving his mother in their poverty-stricken village to join the French army. There he teams up with fellow Muslims Yassir (Samy Nacery), Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), and Abdelkader (Sami Bouajula). They are serving under the stern hand of Sergeant Martinez (Bernard Blancan).

The men taste battle, endure hardships, and face endemic discrimination, all of which are presented in a realistic manner, although the way one of them combats the discrimination seems to me would have been subject to court-martial in any normal army.

Like American films, this Algerian effort is too long and contains a bit too much talking, although it did hold my interest. The battle with the Germans in Alsace at the end is as brilliant a battle sequence as you will see in a movie. It’s brutal and tough without being unnecessarily graphic.

There is a dubious love affair, an overnight stand that one of the Muslims has with a French girl after liberating a town. But the way that they moon for one another after spending just a single night together strains credulity, as does their meeting and instant coupling. But, maybe that’s the way things happen in a World War.

There is a particularly telling commentary on World War II France when an officious French official is ordering one of the officers how to treat one of the Muslims who was in trouble. The officer asks the official if he was from Vichy and the official bristles as he turns on his heel and storms out without replying.

Director Rachid Bouchareb has done an exceptional job of capturing the spirit of Olivier Lorelle’s script, aided by outstanding acting, especially by Jamel Debbouze, who plays the illiterate Saїd compassionately, and Bernard Blancan, who portrays Sergeant Martinez as a hard, but occasionally understanding authority figure for the loyal, but abused Muslims.

The purpose of the movie is to show how ungratefully the French treated these people who risked and sacrificed their lives for a country they had never seen. There were 130,000 “indigenous” people from the French colonies who served in the French armed forces during the war. The government terminated all pension payments to them in 1959, but was ordered by a court in the mid-90s to pay up. According to a scrawl at the end of the movie, which was sort of ambiguous, it seemed to me to say that these people have still only received between 10% and 30% of what their French counterparts who fought in World War II have received. One of the purposes of the movie is to shame French President Jacques Chirac to pay them. From what I know of Chirac, the only way they’ll get him to do that is if they offer him something that will allow him to gain personally, like half of what they receive.

This is filmmaking the way it should be, a good, action-packed war movie with admirable character development, one that informs while it entertains.

January 4, 2007