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Prelude to the Deluge: Days of Glory – A film by Rachid Bouchareb

July 8, 2007


Indigenes (the French title for "Days of Glory")

Indigenes (the French title for “Days of Glory”)

Allons enfants de la patrie!
Les jours de gloire sont arrivés!

(Children of the Nation!
The Days of Glory are upon us!)

Another Film Review (this one not of a 51 year old film)

Thus begins the French national anthem, La Marseillese, to my mind, one of the most stirring, militant songs ever written. If sung to the end it is far more radical than the Communist Internationale which pales in comparison. I sing it rather regularly in the shower along with another French song, `Le Deserteur’, by Boris Vian. Judy Collins and Peter, Paul and Mary have sung renditions of the latter in not-too-bad French

`Days of Glory’ is the English title of a film for what the French call simply `Indigène’ (The Natives). The English translation plays upon double meaning of the title. On the one hand, it refers to the song itself – a hymn to popular uprising, to the dissolution of monarchy (and more generally oppressive government, to `liberty, equality and fraternity’ – the promises of the French Revolution for a more democratic and prosperous life for all. On the other hand, La Marseillese can also simply mean – the woman from Marseilles.

I’ll come back to these themes later – as both of them run through the heart of the film

A few months back in Denver’s cold 2007 Spring I sat in a near empty theater on Colorado Blvd watching a film that took my breath away, Days of Glory. It was just as well the theater was empty save 3 other people and myself. Through most of it, tears – not my normal trademark – just rolled down my cheeks. The film came and went hardly making a dent in the public conscience.

Although I generally avoid war films with their increasingly gratuitous violence, this one was different, reminding me that war stories well told can be among the more stirring insights into the human spirit. The great ones are just that: Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One, Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion, Gallipoli (the first and last good film Mel Gibson ever made) and Erich Maria Remarque’s extraordinary All is Quiet on the Western Front. And then there is the greatest of them all: Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain (not the one with Michael Douglas). All of these films are what might be considered `anti-war’ war films, all about more than war with insights, most of them accurate and depressing, about the human condition and the modern world. Days of Glory, a heart-wrenching and beautiful film, is every bit as good as these classics and hopefully some day will be appreciated as such.

For Americans the subject is both familiar and obscure. `Obscure’ because it is about Algerian Berbers who volunteer to fight in the Free French Army of General de Gaulle in World War II That Algerians fought and died to liberate France from Nazism is not common knowledge here in the land of the brave and the free and the world’s No.1 arms merchant, nor is the fact that almost immediately after that conflagration ended, in 1945, at a place called Setif, in Eastern Algeria, those same French turned on Algerian demonstrators and nationalists with a vengeance, killing as many as 35,000 of them (the numbers are contested by both sides) and shattering for ever any illusion that Algerians could be integrated into French society as equals and that Algeria would continue much longer to be a part of France.

It took another seventeen mostly horrific and bloody years before the final split came but more and more, scholars and commentators are concluding that the turning point was the Setif events after which the talk of reconciliation had, for all practical purposes collapsed. Not even that great humanist, Albert Camus could put the old Algeria back together again. It was perhaps the frustration of that failure that motivated Camus one day to drive his sports car into a tree at 110 miles an hour. The middle has collapsed. There was no room for moderates anymore.

`Familiar’ because the struggle portrayed in this movie, the great effort made by Algerian soldiers in the French army to defeat fascism, and in consequence to take their place as full fledged citizens with equal rights to Frenchmen…you know that stuff about liberty, equality and fraternity bears a rather powerful resemblance to Blacks fighting in the American military at the same time for the same causes: defeating fascism and attaining genuine equality within the social fabric of the US of A. Same struggle different front…and quite different result actually.

The fact that soon after the events portrayed in Days of Glory ended, the French colonial adventure in Algeria enters its death throws castes a powerful, eery aura over the film itself. This is tragedy: moving, poignant human tragedy, a tale – true in virtually all the themes and details – of hope pulverized, of the human spirit seeking dignity and justice for all..and finding death instead. In its own way this film explains to the largely French audience that will see it (it is available from Netflix by the way with subtitles), why the director, Bouchareb, thinks the Algerians had no choice but to rebel when the war ended.

A few good friends of mine still think that Algerians had other options. While I can’t contradict them for certain – in the end we’ll never know – I seriously doubt that. On reflection, the film is nothing other than a polemic – an explanation to those French who still don’t get it: This is why we Algerianas HAD to rebell. You gave us no choice. You closed every door we tried to open, crushed every initiative in blood and gore, and shattered any hope of reconciliation and then asked US to be patient and democratic like you are.

(Israel’s more zealous supporters would do well to watch the film carefully and reflect upon it. And I have read and heard that many Israeli think tanks, scholars and politicians do take an unusually pronounced interest in Algerian history as well they should. If the social chemistry involved varies to a certain degree from the Israeli-Palestinian issue, still the parallels are there for any but the blind and those reluctant to study history.)

Days of Glory becomes then, an autopsy, a psychological and sociological autopsy on the failure of French policy in Algeria. It gives a fine insight into just how complete, how total was the gulf between French and Algerians, the unbridgeable gap that could only lead to separation and the orgy of violence that followed. Even when the French and Algerians are fighting in principle on the same side, each has his own version of what the battle is about. For the French it is about defeating fascism to reconstruct France’s already historically obsolete colonial empire, one of the pearls of which was Algeria. For the Algerians, it was about defeating fascism as a first step toward Algerian independence from France. Once the war ended, the scenarios would almost inevitably clash.

`We’ve come from afar to die
We’re the men from Africa’
(song sung by Algerian/Malian/Senegalese soldiers early in the movie)

And die they did by the hundreds of thousands if not more in both world wars of the 20th Century `for France’. As the film accurately portrays it, the Algerians were used as cannon fodder and thrown into the harshest battles in the front lines to conserve French lives. The French were by no means unique in utilizing colonial manpower in this fashion. In the First World War, the British threw wave after wave of Australian and New Zealander units up the steep cliffs of Gallipoli to be slaughtered by the Turks. During World War II, not willing to send British troops to scale the cliffs near Dieppe to test Nazi defenses for a possible invasion of France in 1943, Lord Montbatten cavalierly sent several thousand Canadians to do the job. They were picked off like flies by Nazi machine gunners sitting comfortably atop the cliffs probably sipping French wine and nibbling on French cheese it was so easy. The British might have forgotten Dieppe, but to this day it’s still an issue in Canada, the investigation has been covered up and chances are that if you are Canadian and in Dieppe, you’ll drink at local bars for free, for the locals remember the carnage.

So what were these Algerians fighting for in World War II? If it is true that some Arabs supported the Nazis (Sadat did, so did some Iraqi officers and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem had some limited contacts, Gandhi refused to take sides), Arabs in droves volunteered simply to fight fascism. It was not `love of France’ that propelled them as much as it was the simple and profound understanding that for however how awful was French colonialism (it is not romanticized in the least in the movie), that Nazism was worse. The Nazis of course, tried to play on the French colonial record to woe Algerians to their side. As the film suggests, this didn’t work most of the time.

One of the many historic distortions of this period current today is to play up the nazi-Arab connections while ignoring or downplaying the major trend – that Algerian Arabs and Berbers, Moslems almost overwhelmingly, fought against Nazism with the same values as my Jewish father and uncles did: to oppose injustice.

No doubt, they also fought for their vested interests. Throughout the colonial world, colonized people negotiated deals with the French and British which went more or less along the same lines: we’ll (the colonized) will fight the Nazis (and the Japanese) with you but in exchange, when the war ends, you (the French, British) must grant us independence. Sometimes the deals were open, other times suggested. Some time the promises were kept, mostly they were broken. After the war was over, the French used (willing) Japanese p.o.w. troops still stationed in Vietnam to put down Ho Chi Minh’s first post war independence movement. The British reneged on most of their promises to the Arabs for independence made during BOTH World Wars i and II, but kept their pledge to the Jewish troops in Palestine fighting under their command to facilitate Israeli independence. Any illusions that Algerian support for France in the war would lead to Algerian independence already evaporated before the month of May, 1945 was out with the events at Setif, described above.

The human element of this film gravitates around the lives of four companeros, Said, Yasser, Messaoud, and Abdel Khader, all Berbers. They are not idealized, but human in both attributes and faults. These four interact with a fifth – Martinez – a pied noir (French Algerian) sergeant, whose name (like Camus’) hints at Spanish, not French heritage. While Martinez does lobby for his Algerian underlings to his French superiors, he keeps up a public front of condescension and social distance, feeling particularly threatened when, at different moments and in different ways either Said, his aide de camp or Abdel Khader, probe those boundaries, these Algerians find out just how iron-clad they remain.

Each of the four protaganists is complex and tragic in their own ways. Said, knows his place and has no aspiration for assimilation or `moving up. When asked from where it is he hails, Said answers simply and accurately `from total poverty’. Yasser enters the war for booty pure and simple and admits as much. But while war de-humanizes many, it seems to have the opposite effect upon him. Ironically enough a part of Said’s `re-humanization’ process takes place in a church where he breaks through to the humanity of the French by seeing Christ suffering on the cross and comparing it to his own. He comments to his brother `Their [the French] god suffered a lot’. His brother, as if to justify his desire to steal from the church responds with `Tell me what the French called the campaign to exterminate our family? to which Said answers, accurately – `pacification.’

The drama of Messaoud, the sharpshooter who has pas de chance (= bad luck) tattooed upon his chest, centers around his love affair with a French girl from Marseilles (thus La Marseillese), Irene, given her name, a symbolic love affair with France itself. Theirs is a great, unlimited love affair in which if anything, Messaoud is more cautious about letting his emotions go than is Irene. The message Bouchareb is conveying – if left to themselves on a popular level, French and Algerians would find the ways to connect to each other, that France at its grass roots is not inherently racist, and Algerians for all their Moslem upbringing are not adverse to pursuing human relations with France and its people. But precisely they are not left to themselves, the `system’ intervenes in the form of the military censor that destroys Messaoud’s letters to Irene and lies to her about his whereabouts.

Abdel Khader – whose name is perhaps lost on American movie goers but would ring a bell with any Algerian watching the movie – represents the complexity of those Algerians earnestly exploring the assimilationist possibility. Can an Algerian rise as a result of his performance within the French military: the film’s message, apparently not. He is the articulate one, the agitator, if not a pacifist, the Martin Luther King Jr figure of sorts, demanding equality and challenging the old order at the same time he is trying to rise within it. He bears the name of one of the great, if not the greatest, Algerian leaders resisting French colonialism, a kind of Algerian Geronimo or Sitting Bull, who in Abdel Khader’s case fought the French for decades inflicting upon them defeat after defeat until finally the latter adapted a scorched earth policy to weaken native resistance, which finally collapsed. The name could not have been accidentally chosen.

The end is not pretty. Three of the four `die for France’ in the Vosgues; Abdel Khader survives, only to be denied benefits by the French government because he was not a French national. Final irony: it is said that after seeing Days of Glory, French President Jacques Chirac tried to reverse this policy and to grant benefits to those Algerian veterans of the French military still alive. But to date, not one of them have received a penny.

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