African soldiers’ story gets rousing treatment

  • By Robert Horton / Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, March 1, 2007 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Once again a movie has illuminated a corner of history and brought it into the headlines. “Days of Glory,” one of the nominees for this year’s best foreign-language film Oscar, is causing social change.

The film represented Algeria at the Oscars, although it is a co-production of France, Morocco and Belgium as well. It looks at the journey of African soldiers in the French Army during World War II.

As the opening scenes show, this was not a case of men enlisting in someone else’s Army: The Africans who lived in French colonies were considered French, and many of the characters in the movie join up because they believe they’re doing a patriotic duty for their own country.

The film follows a traditional war-movie format: We meet a group of young men in North Africa, follow them through training (the officers are European), and then move into dramatic battle.

It’s a classic format, similar to “Saving Private Ryan.” Spielberg himself should admire the intricate staging of the final operation, as a small platoon is sent to hold a village in the Alsace still in German hands.

In other words, anybody who likes traditional war movies will like this one. The difference is this: These soldiers are giving the full measure of devotion to a country that does not acknowledge their status.

And it becomes clear during their slog through the European theater that the African troops are being pushed into the most dangerous battle situations while getting the least credit for their efforts. Promotions, for instance, are endlessly delayed.

The cast is strong. Sami Bouajila, as the de facto corporal of the platoon, has the weary presence and quiet intensity of Robert Ryan. Jamel Debbouze, as a naive country boy, and Roschdy Zem, as a ladies’ man, are memorable.

The film only briefly deals with the sad aftermath of these heroics, which is that colonial soldiers who had fought for France were denied their pensions after the colonies became independent in the early 1960s. That’s where the film has had some history-making power, however, as efforts to thaw the frozen pensions have accelerated since the movie threw light on the situation.

“Days of Glory” comes from director Rachid Bouchareb, whose 2001 film “Little Senegal” marked him as a director to watch. He’s got a talent for creating vivid, specific characters, and he vigorously pushes along the years-spanning story. Along with his talent, Bouchareb has a personal interest: His grandfather fought for France in World War II. Perhaps that accounts for this movie’s steady, passionate gaze.

A scene from “Days of Glory.”

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