Days of Glory

"Any trouble, take out a cigarette. Before you light it, it'll be over."

Rachid Bouchareb’s Oscar-nominated Days of Glory is well-intentioned, important, topical, and zzzzzzzzzzzzz… The premise — and the true-life story that forms it — is interesting and relevant: the trailer makes much of the fact (or at least the assertion) that France changed its policy toward its veterans as a result of the film. But the movie is static, crudely drawn, and frankly kind of boring. Its bland good intentions and staid demeanor crush it, rob it of life, vitality, any real interest. It offers nothing beyond the predictable.

Bouchareb depicts the racism that greeted the mostly Arab North African colonists who showed up, bravely or not, to defend France from the Nazi invasion. His thesis, alas, doesn’t get too far beyond “man, that sucked” — a believable proposition, but sadly also the extent of the film’s insight. We see isolated incidents — the soldiers revolt upon being told that unlike the Frenchmen, they are to receive no fresh tomatoes — and not-so-subtle digs at the leadership — the film glibly contrasts the bloody chaos that surrounds the colonists on the battlefield with the white Frenchmen watching the carnage with binoculars from safety. Much of this is repeated again and again; it’s hard to fault Days of Glory for depicting the pervasiveness of racism in a historical setting where it probably was that pervasive, but rather than make an effort to contextualize the bigotry and pinpoint its place in a larger system, Bouchareb seems content to simply provide as many examples as possible.

The characters do little to fill the void. They’re largely defined by single events, or even a few lines of dialogue — the first time we see Yassir (Samy Naceri), his brother asks him why they’ve enlisted, and he replies that they did it for the money, “so we can marry you off,” and that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about him for most of the film, as that motivation proceeds to dictate everything he does. Others are in it for love, or for ideals and country; only Saïd (Jamel Debbouze), the pathologically meek private all but adopted by his Sergeant, is potentially more complicated, but his most interesting scene is his first, wherein his mother tries to convince him to “be reasonable” and stay home. Oh, and the Sergeant has a Secret too.

The battle scenes are filmed with what could charitably be called patience, but really seems like indifference. They replicate the risk-averseness that characterizes the rest of the film: the camera moves gingerly, the explosions are barely felt (though they occasionally cover the lens with dirt), and only once in a while do we get a sense of geography or scale. A war movie that doesn’t depend on jittery, chaotic camerawork sounds nice in theory, but here it just helps the battles blend into the general tedium.

My favorite part of Days of Glory may be its transitions: a shadow of a cloud sweeps across a bleak bird’s-eye-view expanse, turning black-and-white to color. It’s a rich piece of imagery, full of implications and possible metaphor; tragically, it’s the only remotely suggestive aspect of the film. The ordeal concludes with a shameless flash-forward that manages to add precisely nothing, aside from reiterating — yes, again — the point: these men fought for a country that would as soon spit on them as give them some tomatoes. It’s a poignant true story, but Days of Glory does it no favors. Even stories that Must Be Told can use excitement and imagination.

-- Eugene Novikov

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