Days of Glory
Eamonn Kiernan sees how cinema can change the world
Days of Glory comes very highly recommended. It was nominated for a Best Foreign Film award at this year’s Academy Awards, having won a special ensemble acting award at the Cannes Film Festival last year.
Set towards the end of the Second World War, Days of Glory is a moving and passionate film which follows the fortunes of a number of raw recruits from the French colonies of North Africa.
Caught in the emotional rhetoric used by recruiters in their native villages, many young men rush to enlist. They are rushed through very basic training. In their new barracks one soldier turns to another and asks, ‘Where are you from’? The reply sums most of the recruits up: ‘From deep poverty’.
All too soon they find themselves pitted against crack German troops in Italy.
From their first encounter with the enemy we see that they are not treated the same way as the ‘native’ French soldiers in De Gaulle’s army.
They are ordered to storm an impregnable German mountain-top position. Lightly armed and with some soldiers shod only in sandals, within seconds of their advance the Germans cut them to pieces with heavy machine gun fire and mortar rounds.
Yet the impoverished soldiers courageously struggle to follow their orders as their comrades’ fall on each side.
You feel as if you are in the midst of the soldiers as they are cut to shreds and wonder how long they can possibly continue their advance.
The camera slowly pans back and we see the strategy behind their orders. Their commander, a native French general, has been using their advance to see where the Germans have hidden their gun emplacements.
Having noted the positions he orders a heavy artillery barrage, which takes little account of their own soldiers’ positions.
The strategy is successful and the surviving troops take the hill-top. They mop the residue of the German defence, but at huge cost.
Hundreds of lives have been wasted. As the victorious North African troops march back down the mountainside, the way they walk is more reminiscent of prisoners of war than victorious soldiers.
We discover that the battle was initiated to impress the Allied commanders and to show that the French are worthy of taking a prominent place in the battles ahead to free France from the Nazis.
The clue to how these troops are dealt with is now revealed. They are mainly Muslim peasants with little education and have been filled with the rhetoric of patriotism.
They are slow at first to see how differently they are being treated in an army which sees them as little other than cannon fodder. They are always the first into action, but with the least resources.
Discrimination even goes so far as the food they eat. After their first battle and as they line up, exhausted and hungry, a cook tells them that fresh tomatoes are not for them.
The tomatoes have been reserved for the native French soldiers. One North African soldier smashes the offending box of tomatoes into pulp: ‘If all cannot get them, no-one will’. Eventually their native French officer decides that they will all get the tomatoes. A small victory is won.
The soldier who rebelled is the platoon’s corporal, an ambitious and educated man often vilified for reading.
It is his intention to gain promotion in the ranks by studying. It soon becomes clear that there is no promotion above corporal for anyone who is not native French.
And so we follow the progress of the platoon across the battlefields of France. It is hard to witness the courage of these men in the bleak conditions they are ordered to operate in.
They march in ferocious winter conditions, without proper winter clothing. Some men still wear sandals as snow lies on the ground. This is a particularly horrific burden for troops from the blazing sun of North Africa to endure. Yet still their bravery and effort cannot be faulted.
The film ends making it quite clear that the treatment these men have received will lead to calls for independence for North Africa’s colonies from an uncaring France.
Days of Glory is a powerful testimony to the soldiers that France forgot.
In 1959, in the face of moves for independence in many North African countries, pensions paid to North African veterans by the French government were frozen.
In 2002 the Council of Europe ordered the French government to reinstate the payments at their correct value. It was only after President Jacques Chirac saw this film in 2006 that this action was implemented.
Sometimes the power of cinema can change the world. Days of Glory is a film that does exactly this. It is a fitting memorial to those brave men who believed a country when it said it would remember them for their sacrifices.
These men can be remembered as the heroes they were. France and the rest of the world can never forget again.
Days of Glory runs exclusively at Queen's Film Theatre for two weeks from April 27 - May 10.