I don’t mean for this to become some kind of film reviewing blog because, hey, let’s not forget this is supposed to be all about ME, but I saw Days of Glory last night, a French film about North African soldiers fighting for France in World War II, and it’s well worth talking about. Firstly, it’s a very good film with important points to make, and hence deserving of the searing blaze of publicity that exposure on this blog will undoubtedly produce (ha ha). Secondly, it serves as a rather neat counterpoint to both of the two films I’ve already discussed.
Where I am Legend managed to take an existing story that is brave, uncompromising, and thought-provoking, and turn it into something cowardly, pointless and utterly disposable, Days of Glory is – well – brave, uncompromising and thought-provoking. Really.
Where American Gangster is ponderous, bloated with unnecessary exposition, and pretends to have a point but doesn’t know what it is, Days of Glory is admirably lean and efficient, every scene contributing to the delivery of a heavyweight and heartfelt message. It delivers a knockout punch, alright, but it’s trimmed down, clever, and light on its feet. Kind of a Muhammad Ali to American Gangster’s Frank Bruno.
Days of Glory is the largely untold story of native-born North African Muslims who volunteered to fight with the Free French against the Germans in World War II. It’s focused on an Algerian peasant, an educated Morrocan corporal, an Arab who falls in love with a French girl, a couple of savage mountain men, and the French sergeant put in command of them.
In a world where films seem to be getting ever longer and more bloated, this is admirably streamlined and economical. The recruitment and training of the men, which in a Hollywood film might easily have taken an hour of navel-gazing screen-time, is done with six or seven sharp scenes. Ten or fifteen minutes in the main characters have all been sketched out and the background firmly established without the feeling that anything’s been rushed or overlooked. The whole thing clocks in at just under two hours and covers twice as much ground as American Gangster and I am Legend put together.
But it’s also a film that has something to say. It has a lot to say, in fact, about the period in which it’s set and about the modern world. About the exploitation of foreign soldiers by colonial powers (every bit as relevant to the British as the French). But also about racism in general, and about the relationship between the Western and the Muslim world. It’s also remarkable in that it apparently led to the end of the specific injustice of pensions not being paid to the Muslim soldiers who fought for France. A film that did some good? Can it be possible?
It’s interesting that for the English language distribution it’s been given the rather cheesy title “Days of Glory”, rather than the much more thoughtful and suitable “Indigenes” (the word the French officers would have used to describe their African soldiers, with its overtones of colonial contempt). Clearly they preferred to market it as a rousing war film than a film about racism, but the great triumph here is that it’s highly successful as both.
It’s all done without any tearful hand-wringing or breast-beating though, and I never really felt bludgeoned with THE POINT like I tend to be when Hollywood tries to make MEANINGFUL FILMS (witness the ham-fisted Blood Diamond earlier this year). The story remained always fixed on the characters, unpretentious and understated, with great acting and uncluttered film-making. There are no easy answers offered here, no simple people, and no pat resolutions. War is depicted as random, impersonal, extremely frightening, and very, very dangerous. The action scenes are hard-hitting (with the clear debt to Saving Private Ryan that I daresay everything WWII is going to have from here to eternity), and if perhaps not always exhaustively realistic, they certainly don’t lack for emotional content, which at the end of the day is the main thing.
It ain’t perfect, of course. There are a couple of moments that left me scratching my head thinking, would that have happened? The final mission didn’t seem to make a lot of sense, and it looked for a moment as if the film might wander off into rather standard heroic territory. But then it really, really didn’t. In fact I wonder if those cheeky film-makers might have held out the tantalising glimpse of a pat heroic ending just so the one they gave us was all the more stinging. I was left feeling like I’d learned something. I was left feeling as if my outlook on some things might be a bit different as a result of seeing this film. And that’s a rare and impressive achievement. Especially when you just watched I am Legend.