Days of Glory has an interesting topic, certainly not one that’s been done to death, yet the way it approaches it is quite conventional and so doesn’t feel like anything special. Mostly the film just feels every bit of its two hours plus length.
Not that it’s a bad movie by any means. But I didn’t experience it as engaging enough to warrant two hours of subtitles.
Days of Glory is the story of a band of Algerians, recruited by the French to fight on the side of the Allies in the latter half of World War II (Algeria being a French possession at the time).
In reading about the movie beforehand, I found that while it mostly got positive reviews, it was criticized by some critics for being a little too simplistic and heavyhanded in making the movie all about the anti-Algerian prejudice and how the French screwed these soldiers over. I don’t think I would agree, though, that it overdoes that theme, or deals with it in a particularly crude, polemical fashion.
The theme is there, certainly, as the Algerians are depicted as being treated worse than the French alongside whom they are fighting (they don’t get leave like the French do, there are formal or informal quotas that make it harder for them to get promoted, etc.), but it’s not all one-sided like that (they get French pussy when Paris is liberated, the Alsatian townspeople they liberate express gratitude toward them and treat them well, when they protest that they are not getting the same food as the French soldiers, the policy is changed to satisfy them, etc.).
More importantly, though, they’re in the middle of a war, and the fact that they could get their head blown off at any moment occupied my attention—and I would have thought would occupy theirs—far more than issues of bigotry in the French army. I mean it’s nice to get a stripe on your uniform and a few extra francs for being a corporal, but the people putting obstacles in the way of that happening seem like really trivial enemies compared to the people shooting at you and dropping bombs on you.
Which is not to belittle or deny the discrimination they experienced. But the military and war are horrifically inhumane and unfair to begin with. People get killed, injured, lied to, betrayed, exploited, etc. nonstop during war. Heck, we’ve just wrapped up a war that was initiated on the basis of blatant lies, fought with a volunteer army of kids manipulated into the military with sophisticated marketing techniques and cynical appeals to patriotism.
So I’m having trouble seeing much that is particularly egregious about the plight of the Algerians in this movie. Yes, they were treated shitty, but until people stop fighting wars I think that’s going to be pretty much par for the course.
It’s interesting that in just about every movie set in World War II that I’ve seen since I started writing these pieces, some or all of the French characters are portrayed as real assholes, including in French movies.
It feels like not a whole lot is covered in two hours in this movie, like maybe some of the scenes could have been eliminated or shortened to make room for more material. I cared somewhat about the Algerians as the film developed, but I also felt it dragging all too often.
I found maybe the last 20% or so of the film the most engaging, when the Algerians are engaged in street to street fighting with Nazis in a small town in Alsace in 1945. There’s good filmmaking technique in that sequence. It’s not the Saving Private Ryan overwhelming choreography and special effects sort of style, but a much smaller scale treatment of combat, where you’re there with the individuals, feeling their stress, fear, exhilaration. It has a tautness that’s not present earlier in the movie—at least to the same degree—including in the earlier combat scenes.
Not that it’s particularly realistic, since four or five Algerians are depicted as being no worse than evenly matched against a few dozen Germans with bigger and badder weapons. But it’s gripping material.
This is one of those movies like Nowhere in Africa that I think is objectively a fairly good, important movie, but that I found more of a chore to watch than I should have. (Though at least Days of Glory has the compelling last 20% or so; nothing in Nowhere in Africa engaged me to that degree.)