June 13, 2007

Days of Glory: Soldiers getting their due


Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of 5): ****

Summary: A terrifically gripping WWII drama that manages to balance introspection with bursts of battlefield action.

Days of Glory was likened by some critics to Saving Private Ryan, but this is a bit simplistic, as the film deals with a racially oppressed underclass, the Algerian soldiers who fought bravely for France against Germany without getting their due. Like Private Ryan, Glory does end with a modern day tail, but here it's more moving because the subtext is these men were not given any acknowledgment for their heroism, and the ending while equally emotional, is that much more bitter. It took until 2002, and then with this film, for these men to be given the respect they deserved all along, when the French government paid the surviving soldiers and their families the pension they had previously given French citizens for their efforts.

But separate from that history, this film by Rachid Bouchareb (a Frenchman born to Algerian parents) never feels like a polemic. Lead by the remarkable cast of unknowns, who won an ensemble award at Cannes for their collective performances and are heartbreakingly empathetic, Days of Glory does what all great war films should do: have us rooting for the protagonists and praying for their survival, even when knowing in your heart that they won't all make it. They are lead by a staff sergeant (the hollow-faced Bernard Blancan) who is stern, even fascistic at times and yet supportive of his men, too. He hides a secret that reveals him to be a deeply conflicted man. And in a particularly heartbreaking story thread, when one of the soldiers, Messaoud (Roschdy Zem), meets a woman after arriving in France, their brief but deep relationship is doomed by the French army's censoring their correspondence due to the "taboo" nature of their relationship.

The film is terrifying at times - the feeling of being isolated on the battlefield is expertly captured - and climaxes with a harrowing battle with German soldiers in a town in Alsace. By the end, you will be properly moved by their efforts fighting Nazism despite having understandable conflicts over the meaning of patriotism. At least we see the French people appreciating their heroism even if the commanders and government could give a damn.

An assured work.

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Posted by cphillips at June 13, 2007 3:08 PM

This one's a must-see for WWII fanatics, as well as for French film lovers. Despite a few melodramatic or overdone touches, most of the movie soars, and it is so beautifully photographed in terms of time and place that it seems unusually real. And the four leads--all award-winning, born-in-France actors with, I believe, Algerian provenance--are wonderful. The original title of this one translates as "Natives," which is a whole lot better than the crap-cliche "Days of Glory" the U.S. distributor saddled it with.

Posted by: James van Maanen at June 16, 2007 3:13 PM
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