‘We all are children of France’
Days of Glory has a less-than-subtle political message: we should all be good patriots now, regardless of our skin colour.
Days of Glory isn’t a bad film, but too often it appears instrumental – a means for the director, Rached Bouchareb, to flag up the gap between the rhetoric of French republicanism and the reality of life under the Tricolor. In the context of politically charged race relations in France, particularly after the 2005 autumn riots, much of what could have been just a good war movie is transformed into a clunky metaphor for contemporary problems of integration and assimilation in France.
Days of Glory follows a unit of the First French Army, composed of troops from French colonies that lay outside the control of occupied France’s Vichy and German authorities. Beginning from the recruitment in North Africa, the unit first fights the Germans in Italy, moves up into Southern France, ending up in Alsace towards the end of the war. The best scenes of fighting are at the beginning and at the end of the film. The first battle against the Germans in Southern Italy is a classical operation, with generals standing on the hillside watching the battle they have planned work itself out in practice. It gives life to the phrase of being ‘in the line of fire’, as a first wave of troops are sent to provoke the Germans into shooting them. This allows the French to identify the positions of the German gun posts and to bomb them from behind the lines, leaving a good chunk of the new recruits dead. The last battle is quite different: the four main characters arrive in Alsace and take hold of a position in a small French village. Only recently abandoned by Germans in the face of incoming American troops, the Germans return and the four French soldiers fight it out door-to-door, guerrilla-like, in a tense final scene.
Some of the acting in Days of Glory is very good. The French sergeant, a skinny, humourless figure, turns out to be a pied-noir, a French colonist born and brought-up in North Africa. He supports his men and is regarded as ‘one of us’ by some of them – yet he defends the discriminatory system within the army. In this, he captures something of the ambivalent position of the pieds-noirs in French society. It is telling that it is the sergeant who defends the privileges accorded to white Frenchmen in the army, even whilst acknowledging that they are unjust. He knows, better than his superiors, how French rule in its colonies relies upon this fragile system of hierarchy. He also shows how uncomfortably it sits alongside what unites the pieds-noirs with Arabs – an attachment to land – and leaves them with little in common with metropolitan French.
But for all its strengths, Days of Glory isn’t that great. Bouchareb has tried to make a political film, but in a way that pushes the politics too much into the foreground. Afraid that his audience might not get his point, Bouchareb has laid it on too thick. Some of the ostensibly political scenes appear contrived. On the ship to France, a canteen meal is disrupted when a black African soldier questions the policy of only giving tomatoes to white Frenchmen. Abdelkader, one of the main characters, intervenes, and demands that all soldiers be treated equally. There is something in this scene evocative of the famous revolt on the Battleship Potemkin, which began with sailors rejecting rotten meat. Yet the scene of the tomatoes stands out from the rest of the film, as if Bouchareb had decided that we would now have a ‘political moment’.
We find the same problem in a later scene, where the army authorities decide to put on some ballet for the troops. A few minutes into the show, all the Africans and Arabs start to walk out, leaving only a few white French officers. Outside in the street, Adbelkader stands up and makes a political speech, and ends up on the floor fighting with the pied-noir sergeant who accuses him of stirring up trouble. Both these scenes fail to blend in with the rest of the film. Perhaps it says something about the times we live in today, when spontaneous speechmaking and canteen revolts are unheard of, that such scenes appear contrived. But it is also a product of wanting to hammer home a point rather than let an audience draw its own conclusions.
In its relationship to the present, Days of Glory is ambiguous. There is no doubt that as a film it attempts to connect the story of racism in the First French Army with contemporary problems of integration. Only at the end is there any direct connection with the present, but the whole film – when situated in the contemporary context of French debates about immigration today – takes on a metaphorical quality. In some scenes, the four main characters appear a bit like the French football team in 1998 – all good patriots in spite of their colour. Are we to conclude from this that those who were burning cars in November 2005 were actually good patriots too?
This is the message from Jamel Debbouze, of Amélie fame, who played Saïd in Days of Glory. In speaking to schoolchildren in the town of Arceuil, near Paris, he remarked: ‘This film tells how France was unjust, but also great. It also tells of our love for this country.’ (1) Director Bouchareb has argued that France’s disaffected youth should see his main characters as role models. ‘The youth of today need markers, models and reasons to feel proud and to hope.’ ‘My heroes are their forefathers,’ he adds. ‘We all are children of France, of the republic.’ (2) If this is really what Bouchareb intended, then Days of Glory has become a piece of Republican propaganda. The truth is that Republicans today would love it if they could hear the cry of liberté, égalité, fraternité from the suburbs. It would breathe new life into French patriotism. Days of Glory plays into this ruse, which might go some way to explaining its success in France.
Chris Bickerton is a PhD student at St Johns College, Oxford. He was written on French colonial history for Le Monde Diplomatique
(1) See Indigènes: enlarging France’s history, OpenDemocracy, 19 October 2006
(2) See Indigènes: enlarging France’s history, OpenDemocracy, 19 October 2006
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