Days of Glory, or Indigénes as it was originally titled in its country of origin, is a French war film that dramatises the experiences of a group of North African colonial soldiers fighting for the Free French Forces of Charles de Gaulle’s government-in-exile, Free France, during World War Two. Released in 2006, the film sparked much public uproar, because despite a ruling that war pensions for the surviving indigenous soldiers should be paid in full, since 2002 successive French governments had failed to do so, and the film highlights this in its closing text. The film itself focuses on four North African soldiers who, like many others, enlisted voluntarily, to help liberate France from Nazi occupation, whilst also fighting the prejudices of their European counterparts.
The four each have their own personal reasons for signing up, and this helps to reflect the genuine historical diversity of reason – why many of the real-life soldiers ended up risking, and in a lot of cases giving their lives for a country that the vast majority of them had never even seen before. These reasons range from one’s hope to leave poverty behind, to another’s persuasion towards the financial aspect of volunteering (as well as perhaps finding some loot along the way) so that his brother can get married, whilst the third simply wishes to marry and settle in France with a better quality of life. Finally, and perhaps the most historically and humanly important, the fourth is fighting amongst all else for the equality and rights of the colonised Africans.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is that it portrays all of its characters as rounded, often flawed individuals.
All of these strands are explored well and with a great deal of empathy and dignity, indeed one of the film’s greatest strengths is that it portrays all of its characters as rounded, often flawed individuals whose stories are obviously intertwined, but only insofar as they are all in the same boat, as they don’t always see eye to eye – the characterisation is excellent. Similarly, none of the main cast come across as caricatures, perhaps due to the largely internationally unknown cast – Melanie Laurent is perhaps the only cast member who audiences are likely to know, and even then it’s probably along the lines of “Oh isn’t that her from Inglourious Basterds?”. But this is a good thing, not least because it’s a refreshingly ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse cast from the usual demographics of Hollywood war epics. Obviously this is for the sake of the story – it would not make sense casting say, Tom Hanks in the lead role but you get the idea. Regardless, the cast are excellent in their roles and the racial and imperial elements of the film are tremendously effective and well-realised, without the messages being overly force-fed. They’re often tough to watch but it’s a reminder that these attitudes existed and persisted long after the war was over – among the Allies and Axis alike.
Days of Glory is simply a good war film in terms of it being a genre piece. It ticks all of the boxes.
One particular scene that stands out is when our four, along with hundreds of other colonial troops, are sent to recapture a heavily fortified and intensely defended mountain from German occupation. It is revealed that the white commanding officer is effectively using the colonial troops as cannon fodder to reveal Nazi artillery positions, after which his white Free French Forces can go in and clear them out. It’s a brilliantly revealed notion too, because of its bluntness. There is no reason given as to why this is the case, not even a cobbled-together excuse from the officer, just a notion of “Well that’s just how it is” hanging about in the air. Because even to the Allies, not all lives were equal. It’s a clever plot point because it sets up the contradictory, and all-to-often ignored side to World War Two, that just because the Axis powers’ cause was undeniably evil, doesn’t mean to say that everyone fighting them was God’s gift to earth. War is of course polarising, but what Days of Glory does well is explore the many sides of one particular aspect of this polarisation, helping to shine a light on the atrocious treatment of colonial troops before, during, and even after they had been through combat.
It must also be said, finally, that Days of Glory is simply a good war film in terms of it being a genre piece. It ticks all of the boxes – it’s well shot, has some excellent and dramatic set-pieces, characters that you care about and root for as they endure hardship and loss, as well as excellent pacing (a much-needed quality for a two hour film, but Days of Glory is never dull). Furthermore though, it’s a great war film that also has a great message behind it, one that, as the makers of the film state, was powerful enough to “change the course of history”.
By Oliver Rowe
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