Friday, 6 October 2006

Days of Glory aka Indigenes (2006)

Neocon twits, take note: the Arabs liberated France from the Nazis in WW2

WW2 movies tend to be predictable, and fall into broad categories – the historically-inaccurate American triumphalist liberation of Europe narrative, the prisoner of war story, the Holocaust story, the final days of the Third Reich story. Then, Days of Glory comes along from an unexpected corner and hits you from behind the head. With the surrender of France and the establishment of the puppet Vichy regime, the obstinate De Gaulle retreats to the African colonies to recruit soldiers for the liberation of France.

That’s about as far off the mainstream as you can get in a WW2 movie: in the popular eye, the French got eliminated early in the game (only next to Poland) and with their lack of manpower and equipment, contributed little of consequence in the Allied campaigns. That’s still not as left-field as the idea that France’s colonial subjects in Africa would willingly and enthusiastically volunteer to liberate what they call La Patrie, ("the Fatherland"). Windtalkers may have featured a few Navajo code talkers, but Days of Glory has entire regiments of Arabs and Pied Noirs, who made up the bulk of the Free French army. The film follows one such platoon from its recruitment in Algeria, training in Morocco, and its progress in the Italian and French campaigns.

War movie buffs will notice the director’s attention to historical detail and accuracy – all uniforms, weapons (fully functional), equipment that appear in this film are authentic and date back to WW2 itself. It’s a feat that has never been quite duplicated since Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo attempted it in 1966 for their alternate history flick It Happened Here, after more than 20 years of sourcing for material.

But that’s not the main point Rachid Bouchareb is making in this film. In a world that recently marked the first anniversary of riots in Muslim quarters of Paris, or a Europe whose Muslims live a self-imposed state of separateness from the rest of the countrymen, Days of Glory offers a much different vision, a time where it was possible to both a good Muslim and a patriotic brown-skinned Frenchman. For ex-British colonies that fell in WW2 (like Singapore), the film offers an alternative Empire: surely the French must have done something right (though clearly the British Empire was more profitable) – Singapore’s future leaders were already plotting and conniving to expel the Brits off Malayan soil while collaborating with the Japanese occupation, while the good peoples of Algiers, Tunisia and Morocco were selflessly sending their young and able-bodied to fight and reclaim every piece of the French Fatherland from the Germans.

As you follow the members of the platoon across Italy, the Alps, and then France, it becomes easier not to dismiss the idea of genuinely patriotic colonised peoples as a quaint, outdated and outlandish – by participating in the liberation of France, some in the platoon are just there for the glory, some for the loot and plunder, and some for a commission at the end of the war. And yet still some believe that it is neat and right to liberate what they consider to be their Fatherland (despite the brutal French invasion and subjugation of their peoples not more than 3 generations ago), and what they believe to a chance to gain true equality and acceptance from mainland France.

Race and religion may divide us bitterly today, but the director makes an impassioned defence to show that it never was like this always. Even better, Bouchareb knows when to go easy on his agenda of restoring pensions for African war veterans, and allows the uncomfortable reality of racism play out by showing that for every person who believes in ideals, there are at least 2 more who don’t. No matter what, after seeing all the young men slog it out, you too may shed tears at a pivotal scene where French villagers emerge from their shelters to greet the Arab regimen as "our boys! The French Army!"

Days of Glory is a war movie, but it is also an elegy to the few, brief years in history where it was possible that an Empire could promise and deliver its ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity to its citizens, across all states, territories, and colonies.

First published at incinemas on 26 October 2006

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