Unknown Soldiers: Days Of Glory

Film still for Unknown Soldiers: Days Of Glory

Days of Glory is a superb war movie by Rachid Bouchareb celebrating North Africa's neglected heroes. It's as good as Clint Eastwood's. By Ali Jaafar

The battle has been won. French forces stream into a liberated village in Alsace, where the bodies of the defeated German army litter the charred landscape. Grateful civilians embrace the soldiers and pose for the photographs that will document the event for posterity. But amid the smiles, our attention is drawn to the weary face of Abdelkader as he passes by unnoticed. In the course of Rachid Bouchareb's Days of Glory (Indigènes) we have followed him from his home in Algeria in 1943 through bloody battles in Italy and France to free a fatherland he has never previously set foot in from the grip of Nazi fascism. Abdelkader, along with hundreds of thousands of other 'indigenous' volunteers from France's African colonies, will soon find that their war for freedom and independence has just begun.

Bouchareb, a French director of Algerian origin, explicitly set out to reclaim the story of his forefathers' contribution to World War II. In 1940, with France defeated and 1.5 million French soldiers held prisoner in Germany, General de Gaulle sent out a rallying cry - via the BBC - for the citizens of France's empire to take up the fight against fascism. In June 1943 de Gaulle's Free French government in exile in London merged with General Henri Giraud's Commandement Civil et Militaire of Algiers to form the Comité Français de la Libération Nationale (CFLN), based in Algiers, which mobilised some 233,000 North African troops to reinforce the French and Allied soldiers who would participate in the liberation of France. But while the D-Day landings at Normandy in June 1944, the exploits of the French resistance and the Soviet offensive on the eastern front have all been celebrated as turning points that won the war, the contributions of these colonial forces in Italy and France have been ignored.

Neglected by history and by the French state - which in 1959 froze the pensions of troops from the colonies as punishment for their countries' fight for liberation - the soldiers of Days of Glory have now been awarded a long-overdue recognition. 'I've seen a lot of movies about the Second World War but I've never seen any Muslim soldiers,' says Bouchareb. 'I knew some of my ancestors had died in the battlefields of World War I and my uncle fought in Indochina, but when I researched the subject I discovered it wasn't only a few soldiers from Africa and North Africa, but that most of the Free French army was made up of men from the colonies - from Algeria, Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia, Mali, Madagascar and Indochina. It was even called the army of Africa. I realised then that this was an important subject for cinema.'

Beyond the clouds

On the surface, as its English title promises, Days of Glory is a conventional war film. A disparate group of would-be soldiers gathers, including the well-educated Algerian Abdelkader, ace marksman Messaoud, Moroccan berber Yassir, who wants to earn the money to marry off his younger brother Larbi, and Saïd, a meek Algerian villager thrust for the first time into a position of responsibility. Each new stage of their journey from the sun-soaked terracotta huts of their native lands through the snowy woods of Europe is marked by a God's-eye shot of clouds that change from black and white to livid colour. 'I wanted to create a classic war movie,' says Bouchareb. 'Every D-Day films like Sam Fuller's The Big Red One or Richard Attenborough's A Bridge Too Far are shown on television. I'd like my film to be screened alongside them, or with Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. We have never been able to see our own history before.'

Bouchareb's film, which was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, certainly bears comparison with both Saving Private Ryan and Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers. All three bookend their World War II battle sequences with scenes from the present. Days of Glory has an elderly Abdelkader visit the cemetery in which his fallen comrades lie in much the same way as Spielberg has his ageing Ryan pay homage at Normandy. But while Eastwood deconstructed the story of the planting of the Stars and Stripes at Iwo Jima and Spielberg raised the technical bar in capturing the horrors of war, it is Bouchareb who has proved that cinema can still make a difference. Days of Glory has been a sensation since its release in France, with admissions of some 3 million, and even persuaded President Jacques Chirac to increase the pensions of 'indigenous' veterans to the level of those of their French counterparts. 'I knew the media in France would get a shock,' says Bouchareb. 'And I told Thierry Frémaux it was important that the film have its premiere at Cannes because 60 years ago hundreds of thousands of African soldiers arrived on the beach where Cannes is now so that France could be free.'

Days of Glory did indeed receive its world premiere at Cannes in 2006 (where its cast collectively won the Best Actor prize), in the wake of riots by immigrant communities seething at socioeconomic deprivation that awakened a debate in France on integration and multiculturalism. That the film also arrives in the wider context of the rising tensions in east-west relations that have accompanied the so-called war on terror only adds relevance to Bouchareb's exocet of a history lesson. But for all its far-reaching resonances, it is in its details that Days of Glory is most powerful. Scenes such as Yassir and Larbi marching in sandals through the icy terrain or Messaoud not realising his letters to his French sweetheart are being blocked by censors ache with a humanity rarely found in war films. War may be hell, the director seems to be saying, but that's no guarantee peace will prove any better for these men.

Most pleasing of all is that the word 'Allah' - the Arabic term for 'God' that is used by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike - is translated as such in the English subtitles rather than being treated as if it were the name of a purely Islamic deity in a way that contributes to the misrepresentation of Muslims and their religion as other. And Bouchareb's treatment of the pitfalls of this kind of ignorance is equally assured elsewhere. At one point hard-boiled Sergeant Martinez - a half-Algerian trying to pass himself off as a pied noir (a Frenchman born in North Africa) - urges his superior not to refer to the men as 'indigènes' (natives). When the captain suggests calling them Muslims, Martinez replies: 'That's just as bad.' 'What should I call them, then?' asks the captain. 'The men,' replies Martinez. 'The men.' It is as if Bouchareb were speaking directly to his audience, urging us to drop divisive compartments. These men, too, are our heroes. We just didn't know it.

Truth and reconciliation

Days of Glory is only the latest in a series of recent French films that question the country's colonial past. Michael Haneke's Hidden references the massacre of 200 Algerian demonstrators in Paris on 17 October 1961, an event depicted in gruesome detail in Alain Tasma's Nuit noire. Mon colonel follows a retired French officer murdered as a consequence of his actions during the Algerian war of independence 40 years previously, while I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed charts the kidnapping and murder of a Moroccan activist in Paris in 1965. And in 2004 Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1966), which charts the rise of Algeria's nationalist movement from 1957 through to the proclamation of independence in 1962, was granted its first terrestrial TV screening in France after four decades of being banned.

This influx of movies is part of a wider awareness. For years the Algerian war of independence was referred to only as 'events' by the government and it wasn't until 1999 that the National Assembly finally recognised it as a 'war', paving the way for an official apology. With the door now seemingly open for truth and reconciliation, it is no surprise to discover that Bouchareb sees Days of Glory as the first chapter of a longer story. 'I want to make a second part that takes us up to the Algerian war, which was born from a promise by De Gaulle that was never delivered,' he says. 'For me Abdelkader is Ahmed Ben Bella, who also participated in World War II. He discovered the extent of French discrimination and once the war was over he started the revolution.'

Born in Algeria in 1918, Ahmed Ben Bella was decorated for bravery following his efforts in the Free French army. He returned to Algeria to help found the Front de Libération Nationale and became the country's first president following liberation in 1962. Like Ahmed Ben Bella, Abdelkader and his comrades find that France's esteemed values of liberté, égalité et fraternité prove more elusive the closer they get to the homeland. Yet Bouchareb shows that Abdelkader and his fellow fighters themselves embody these principles. We see Messaoud praying for the soul of a German soldier after discovering a picture of the dead man's loved ones in his wallet. Self-confessed mercenary Yassir tells his younger brother not to steal the church collection - a plea that's followed by the disclosure that their family has been 'pacified' by French troops (the euphemism used to describe the colonial army's policy of wiping out entire villages to guarantee subservience). As Yassir and Larbi stare at Jesus on the cross, the elder brother whispers: 'Their God suffered so much.'

Waltz of ants

As befits a war film, Days of Glory doesn't skimp on its action scenes. The opening battle pitting the still-green indigènes against a well entrenched German army on the slopes of an Italian hill captures the randomness of combat. There is no shaky handheld camerawork or show-off pyrotechnics; instead Bouchareb repeatedly cuts to the viewpoint of the French officers who are following proceedings through their binoculars. From their perspective, the battle is transformed into a waltz of ants around wisps of cannon fire. 'It is a magnificent victory. For the first time since 1940 our army has defeated the Germans,' proclaims the French colonel afterwards to a reporter. We see the French flag raised on the hilltop by the bloodied hands of black and brown Africans - yet only hours later these same men are denied the right to eat the tomatoes served to the white soldiers at dinner. 'German bullets don't pick and choose,' argues Abdelkader to his superiors. Preserving democracy and practising it, it seems, are two separate things.

Bouchareb also worked as producer on Bruno Dumont's Flandres, which appeared alongside Days of Glory at Cannes. The two films serve as mirror images. While Days of Glory looks at North Africans fighting in Europe, Flandres follows a group of Belgian farmers sent to do battle in a land that could be Afghanistan or Iraq. In both films the lofty ideals of exporting freedom are soon lost in the fog of war.

Once he has completed his Days of Glory follow-up, Bouchareb plans to tell the story of Christopher Columbus from the perspective of the native population. 'So far we only have the official history,' he says, 'but we must remember that Columbus represents the start of slavery and colonisation. The cameraman always points in the same direction, but we have to show the other side. I started making Days of Glory for myself but I soon discovered it's a film for all African and Arab countries. So far we have only been in the audience while the west gave us its history. We need to change that.'

Days of Glory is a rousing commemoration, a celebration of our shared sacrifices and dreams of freedom. But while this particular story may have a happy postscript in the financial reparation of its long-ignored veterans, the ultimate tragedy perhaps lies in the fate that awaited these men when they returned home. In too many former colonies, a period of idealism was superseded by a rise in fundamentalism and renewed conflict, epitomised by the Algerian civil war of the 1990s. To that extent the film's English title is a fitting epitaph for a time of hopeful struggle. When Bouchareb does come to tackle the next chapters of his characters' lives, he may find their war has now become a struggle for hope.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012