Indigénes (Days of Glory)
a film by Rachid Bouchareb, released by The Weinstein Company
Think of Days of Glory, the previously untold story of French colonial troops in World War II and an Oscar contender for Best Foreign Film, as a cross between Band of Brothers and A Soldier’s Story, with a dash of Glory.
Its French title, Indigénes, means “natives.” Colonial soldiers, mostly Muslim and Arab, were 65 percent of the “French” forces in southern and eastern France, but there is no archival footage of them. So director Rachid Bouchareb co-wrote the screenplay based on his interviews with veterans.
Cunningly woven onto the war-movie conventions it transcends, Days opens in 1943 Algeria and ends in Alsace 62 years later. The journey between is eye-opening. Shot with gritty immediacy, paced with evocative battle scenes, animated by outstanding ensemble acting (its four leads shared the Best Actor prize at Cannes), the film casts the tangles of French colonialism into human terms, unfolding a multifaceted tale of individuals caught up in history as they face complex divided loyalties and death.
Most natives sign on to fight out of loyalty to la patrie. As a village elder puts it, “We will wash the French flag with our blood.” He is not being ironic. When these men sing the Marseillaise or shout “Vive la France,” most clearly mean it.
Nevertheless, race rules. Officers are French, NCOs not necessarily. Veteran Sergeant Martinez is half-Arab. He bullies the men verbally and physically and takes one, the illiterate Saïd, as his lackey. All this grates on newly minted Corporal Abdelkader, who believes in General Charles de Gaulle’s promised égalité and sees the army as the most direct route to it. Neither he nor the other men know Martinez advocates for them with the officers.
After an Italian battle causes heavy casualties, a French cook tells them the crates of tomatoes on the chow line are only for the French. Abdelkader demands all be treated equally. When Martinez counters him, Abdelkader puts the topmost crate on the ground and stomps the tomatoes to pulp. “No one will have any now,” he says. Martinez tells the captain, “They will die for France, but any injustice will cause mutiny.” Cheers erupt when the captain countermands the cook.
The men get tomatoes but no real recognition. The wonder is that they soldier on even though French troops get leave while they get new marching orders.
When they land in Marseilles, Messaoud falls hard for Iréne. In her room, he is afraid: “In my country we don’t go with French women.” She smiles and takes his clothes off. She makes him promise to return. The censor blocks his letters, and her attempts to find him are met with bureaucratic shrugs.
Messaoud dies with his unit in snowy Vasques, in an Alamo-style stand against the Germans led by Abdelkader, the lone survivor. Promised a reward worthy of being the first French to enter Alsace, Abdelkader is assigned to a new unit. Though the Alsatian villagers applaud him, nearby a photographer is posing French troops as Alsace’s liberators.
Sixty years later, as Abdelkader visits his comrades’ Alsatian graves, across the screen these words scroll: “In 1959, a law was passed to freeze the pensions of infantrymen from colonies about to be freed. In January 2002, the government of France was ordered to pay these pensions in full.” They remain unpaid.
The resonance with contemporary France’s racial unrest are unmistakable and thought-provoking. The marvel is how Boucherab, a dual French-Algerian citizen, deftly frames them as human, not abstract political, questions.
Originally published in the April 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.