Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 14, 2006

Days of Glory (Indìgenes)

Filed under: Africa,Film,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 7:00 pm

With an Algerian director and North African lead actors, “Days of Glory” (Indìgenes) tells the story of four soldiers in the colonial African Army during WWII who fight to liberate France from Nazi occupation and to secure their own rights against racist French officers. While this is sufficient reason to see the film, it has the additional distinction of being one of the finest war movies in recent years. With a budget that is a less than a quarter than that of “Saving Private Ryan,” it is many times more powerful. Indeed, the final scene of “Days of Glory” is a virtual reprise of Spielberg’s film with the four principal characters fighting heroically against a far larger German force, but with much more dramatic impact.

In some ways, “Days of Glory” is a very old-fashioned film in the mold of “A Walk in the Sun” or other WWII classics. You take a cross-section of men, put them in the crucible of battle and allow them to react to a variety of challenges, both from the enemy and from within their own ranks. “Days of Glory” has a couple of antecedents that are worth mentioning. One is the similarly named “Glory”, which is about the American Civil War’s first all-Black regiment and the other is Senegalese Director Ousmane Sembene’s “Camp de Thiaroye,” a semi-autobiographical film about Black soldiers detained in a French prison camp during WWII after they protest racist treatment.

In Sembene’s masterpiece, a Senegalese soldier disguises himself as an American GI to gain entry into a segregated brothel, but is turned away after they discover he is African. It is entirely possible that “Days of Glory” director Rachid Bouchareb was inspired by this incident to create the character Messaoud Souni (Roschdy Zem), who dons an American uniform in the hopes that he will be seen as more than a “native” (indìgene). Like Sembene’s soldier, he discovers that white women are off-limits. After Messouad begins corresponding with a French woman with whom he spent a night, military censors intercept and destroy the love letters he sends to her.

Messaoud takes out his frustrations on Saïd Larbi (Jamel Debbouze), an illiterate Moroccan peasant who has joined the military out of economic necessity rather than a desire to “liberate France.” Soon after his training has begun, he is asked where he is from. His answer: “total poverty.” After Saïd becomes a manservant to their sergeant, Messaoud begins calling him Aïchaa girl’s name–in the barracks. He only stops after Yassir holds a knife to a throat and swears that he will kill him if he does so again.

Corporal Abdelkader Bellaïdi (Sami Bouajila) pulls Yassir away and warns Messaoud to stop provoking Yassir. Unlike Yassir, Abdelkader can read and write. In his spare moments, he reads military training manuals in the hope of gaining the proficiency he needs to be promoted to sergeant, his only ambition in life. In the press notes, director Rachid Bouchareb states that Abdelkader “is inspired by characters such as Ben Bella, who fought in WWII, was disillusioned and became a nationalist.”

Joining the three men above in the film’s climactic battle with the Germans is Yassir Allaoui (Samy Nacèri), a Berber peasant who has joined the military in order to avoid forced labor imposed by the French colonizers. He has almost no interest in “liberating France” and sees the war mainly as an opportunity to make a petty profit as he removes watches, rings and wallets from dead Nazi soldiers. In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, Yassir and a fellow Berber enter a cathedral in a French town they have just liberated. After Yassir begins to loot the donation box, his comrade, who has been standing in awe of religious iconography on the walls, urges him to stop because it is “a sin.”

In distinction to the standard patriotic Hollywood fare, “Days of Glory” treats WWII as a job for these men and nothing more. No matter how many times they talk about “liberating France,” you understand that they are far more interested in proving to their masters that they are not mere indìgenes and deserve full equality. Shooting Nazis is not that much different than putting out forest fires or any other dangerous job that requires a strong back and physical courage. In one key scene, just as the four principals are about to enter a French village in Alsace where they will confront the Nazis, a German plane showers them with leaflets. It addresses them as Muslims and promises them freedom if they defect to the other side. As Yassir studies the leaflet with obvious interest, he is upbraided by Corporal Abdelkader who reminds him that they are there to fight Germans. The beauty of this film is that it depicts a man like Yassir as a genuine hero, even though his devotion to patriotic abstractions is understandably limited.

“Days of Glory” has inspired a grass roots movement against French attempts to betray the Africans who laid down their lives to liberate their country. In the early 1960s, after decolonization was completed, France then decided to freeze the pensions of veterans of the African Army. In 1996, a Senegalese ex-Staff Sergeant, Amadou Diop, sued the French government. After serving in the army from 1937 to 1959, he was dismissed after Senegal became independent and only received a third of the pension he was entitled to. In 2001, the Council of State ruled in his favor posthumously but in 2003 the French government put a new freeze on the pensions. Despite homages to colonial troops made by Jacques Chirac in 2004, the question of “frozen” pensions has not been resolved, a matter that the film addresses in an onscreen postscript.

In a departure from standard film release practices, the Weinstein Company has scheduled press screenings even though the film is now being shown at the Angelika Theatre in New York City on a “trial basis”. If this is a bid to get a wider audience for this noteworthy film, I can only do my part by urging everybody who reads this review in the New York area to see this landmark film. It is a masterpiece.

4 Comments »

  1. hi louis

    good review.

    you have mixed up yassir and said though. also, you don’t mention the character of the sergeant who is a pied noir, apparently, but turns out to have had an arab mother. this serves to illustrate the shallowness of racial distinction but also the possibility of racism being internalised if avenues for resistance are limited.

    Emphasising the loyalty of the soldiers helps the case for highlighting the injustice of the pension freeze but avoids exploring the legitimacy of the revolutionary or anti-imperialist nationalist solutions.

    paddy

    Comment by paddy — February 23, 2007 @ 9:43 am

  2. “Exploring the legitimacy of the revolutionary or anti-imperialist nationalist solutions” was not the theme of the film, but it was explored obliquely, and sufficiently throughout this wonderful, illuminating film. I’m afraid that if these explorations were to pass muster with Paddy, it wouldn’t have been a feature film, so much as the cinematic version of a political tract.

    Comment by Carson Park Ranger — September 15, 2008 @ 3:38 am

  3. […] are the names of the soldiers that Jamel Debbouze, Roschdy Zem and Sami Bouajila played in “Days of Glory” as well. Clearly, Bouchareb intended some kind of continuity between the two movies on this […]

    Pingback by Outside the Law « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — November 6, 2010 @ 6:57 pm

  4. […] despite its modest ambitions and budget. Director Rachid Bouchareb’s debut film was “Days of Glory” , a stirring celebration of the heroism of North African soldiers fighting for the French […]

    Pingback by There will always be an England « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 9, 2011 @ 9:12 pm


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