Every coin has two sides: Rialto's recent reappraisal of Jean-Pierre Melville's peerless Army of Shadows gave us the spy story of the French Resistance that fought a hushed war on the streets and frostbitten open fields of northern France. While that war was silently being fought, a much louder war was being waged on the battlefields to liberate France from the Nazis which is depicted in vivid detail in Rachid Bouchareb
's Days of Glory. There are also ulterior motives: where Army of Shadows used the Resistance as a way to study vengeance, loneliness and paranoia, Days of Glory uses the battlefield to confront the obvious racial bias the French Command had against its soldiers from Algeria, Morocco, and Senegal.
Rather than focusing on the battles and no-man-left-behind rhetoric, Days of Glory follows four soldiers as they make their landing in Merseilles and take a long, daunting trip towards the Alsatian front, where they have at it against a group of Nazi soldiers trying to overtake a small town. The leader, Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila
in a haunting performance), has the weight of social injustice and racism hanging round his neck while his second-in-command Messaoud (the great Roschdy Zem
) is harboring an uncertain love for a white girl he fell for during leave. They attempt to correct the racial strife that goes on (most notably in a scene concerning withheld produce) and try to protect young, misguided Saïd (Jamel Debbouze
) from getting ripped to shreds when he becomes the commanding leader's lapdog. Article continues below
Days of Glory instantly strikes the viewer as a personable film that carries genuine warmth towards its main characters. Though not innovative in any way, there's a rugged, worn-in feeling to it that recalls Sam Fuller's The Big Red One, though admittedly much smaller and conventional in scope. There's also a rather blatant resemblance to Saving Private Ryan, specifically in the final battle that shows each character's lone struggle for survival while constantly returning to the great battle being waged in the center (that and the solemn grave visitation that caps off the film). It's true that these contrivances hold back the film from being great, but to deem it inconsequential on those merits would be wrong. There's a sense of purpose and immediacy in Bouchareb's mis-en-scene that seems inarguably relevant.
In its treatment of racism in the army, Bouchareb's film plays it more as a state of being than inciting events, not overdoing it to create outrage. What might be the strongest blow dealt is the way that Bouchareb and writing partner Olivier Lorelle don't end the racism and rage that has built up. As one of the surviving soldiers meets up with his battalion, a higher-up tells him simply to fall into line, disregarding the courage and personal defeat the soldier has endured. It's a moment of solemnity that keeps the film's tone strikingly succinct until the bitter end. The film is one giant, vomiting toad away from being my Oscar pick.