A few years ago, I saw a movie called Days of Glory, a French film from 2006 about Algerian and Moroccan soldiers fighting for France in World War II. The original French title is Indigènes, but I suppose that calling a movie Natives does not sound quite right in English. Back in November, I had started to think about making a blog post about it at some point, talking about how a film might have to be made less of a movie to be more than a movie. I would, of course, have to borrow a DVD from the library. Since I already had some DVDs to go through, and I would be spending Christmas vacation with my family, I decided to hold off on getting the DVD until January.

And then…the attacks in France happened. Two of the perpetrators were of Algerian descent. Now, maybe a more prudent person would hold off on talking about this movie a mere three weeks after the initial attack. Instead, I decided to not just get Days of Glory from the Library, but also its pseudo-sequel from 2010 called Outside the Law. This follow-up movie is essentially about a group of Algerians living in France who fight a violent campaign against the French government during the 1950s and early 1960s. Inappropriate? Really bad timing? Well, freedom of speech, right? Yep, I’m doing this.

 

Days of Glory

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When I first heard about the movie Days of Glory, what struck me was not necessarily what the movie was about, but that French government policy towards foreign combatants changed as a direct result of the movie. That is more than starting a conversation; that is an actual result, albeit only partial. So, what was in the movie that could bring about such change?

The movie begins in 1943. At this point, Algeria has been under the control of France for around 113 years and even many native Algerians consider themselves to be practically French.

The movie focuses mostly on six men. For some reason, the movie holds back on revealing most of their names until way into the runtime, but anyways…There is Said, a young innocent Algerian who has nothing to live for in his little village. When the village elder calls upon the men to free France from the German occupation, Said signs up almost immediately, despite the protests from his grandmother. There is Abdelkader, who has taken an exam to become a corporal and hopes to use his time in the military to move up in the world. There is Messaoud, somewhat of a hopeless romantic, who eventually gets it into his head that he wants to settle down and raise a family in France. There is Sergent Roger Martinez, a pied noir (French settler in Algeria) who oversees the African troops and tries to be an advocate for them to his French superior officers. Finally, Yassir and Larbi are two brothers from a group of Moroccan mercenaries, and they are basically there to loot from German corpses in order to pay for Larbi’s hypothetical wedding. As Morocco came under French control only in 1912, these two young men have less of a connection to France as the Algerians do, and they have vivid memories of the brutal French repression against their own family. Got all that?

Said, Messaoud, Yassir, and Larbi find themselves under the command of Abdelkader, who reports to Martinez. They all end up in Italy, I am guessing after Mussolini was ousted and the Germans took over the fighting. Abdelkader’s men, along with around a hundred other inexperienced African troops, find themselves cannon fodder in a mission to destroy a set of German big guns on a mountain. The French forces manage to take out most of the guns with their artillery, but I am not entirely sure whether they avoided killing African soldiers in the process. Probably not. In any case, the battle is won and the men all get on a ship headed for France.

When a White cook refuses to serve tomatoes to a Black soldier, Abdelkader comes to the soldier’s aid and a mutiny almost breaks out. Without giving a for not prohibiting tomatoes for Africans, the White company captain suddenly says that they are allowed, leaving Martinez looking like the bad guy for simply sticking to the rules.

The Africans arrive in Provence and are treated as heroes by the French citizens. Messaoud gets romantically involved with a French woman it is here that he decides to settle down in France. However, the African troops have to keep going, fighting the Germans and dealing with other French people who are not quite as friendly.

Some of the main characters may be a little hard to differentiate at first, but they distinguish themselves, particularly in their attitudes towards France and their own status. Messaoud believes that Arabs and Africans are equal to the French or, at least, they can be. He starts feeling more than a little bit of contempt for Said, who becomes much more cynical about the prospects of African advancement under French rule and resigns himself to acting as a lackey for Martinez. Abdelkader believes in equality between Whites and Africans, but he believes that it can be achieved through showing bravery on the battlefield and making sure that White people are kept honest. Martinez also wants equal treatment for the French and Africans, but feels that his own status is kept in place by emphasizing his Frenchness and suppressing his Algerian history. Yassir and Labir begin rather distant from the French in general, but that gradually begins to change as the movie goes on. It is hardly a spoiler to tell you that not all of these six men survive the war. I will not give away who does survive, but I will say that I believe that there was most likely a symbolic reason behind who survives, at least in regards to Franco-Algerian relations.

So…is this a good movie? Well, it is fine. That it takes place over a span of two years or so kind of stunts the narrative. And, again, I do wish that we at least heard the names of the characters a few more times near the start of the movie. I am pretty sure that at least one of them did not get named until a third of the way into the movie. The actor who plays Said is missing one of his hands and the movie goes to some awkward lengths to not acknowledge this. Still, if you are in the mood for a war film, there are far worse movies.

One main point of criticism is the final act of the movie. Martinez, Abdelkader, and the company have to defend a French village from German forces until a larger Allied force can arrive and take over. From this point on…and maybe even earlier, it is extremely tempting to view the movie as a cheap rip-off of Saving Private Ryan. There are a few differences, such as there being French villagers in the village instead of American troops, and the absence of tanks. Still, this scene, and the end of the movie, is really similar to Saving Private Ryan. In terms of being a film, it is hard for me to not knock points off for this.

At the same time, I have the sneaking suspicion that the people behind this movie were aware of the similarities and deliberately played them up to make a point. These African soldiers did the same things in France that the American soldiers did. They fought and died on French soil to defend freedom. That deserves celebration and recognition. The movie shows that that does not happen.

Again, it is not a spoiler to say that the African troops hold off the Germans, at great human cost, until the reinforcements arrive. Now, the reinforcements are mostly other African troops, but it is the White soldiers who get photographed with the villagers. The villagers may applaud their African rescuers, but that story is not the one that will get passed down to future generations. Speaking of which, the movie cuts to 2005. Now, one could take this epilog as yet another rip-off of Saving Private Ryan, but the tone is all different. One of the main characters is now an old man, living in France. Whether he has family or not, he goes around the city by himself. He goes to visit the graves of his fallen comrades by himself. He goes back to his little apartment and just sits down. Alone. There is no wife to assure him that he is a good man. There are no children or grandchildren. There is no triumphant music to accompany his manly tears. There is just a text that says that the French pensions for foreign fighters were frozen in 1959 as many colonial countries began declaring independence, and that previous attempts by the French government to address this have been stalled. Nevermind the faults of the GI Bill, these men did not even get that.

This is what the movie was about. It is not a historical movie about a mistreated group triumphing over adversity and becoming heroes. It is about how that mistreated group of heroes is still mistreated NOW. This is not about the sins of past generations, but sins of this generation. Okay, well, sins of nine years ago. This movie was directly responsible for partial recognition of pension rights for soldiers in former French colonies, though this recognition may not have gone far enough. Now, could the movie have been as effective had it addressed my criticisms or had it done something less reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan? Maybe, but maybe not. Saving Private Ryan ended as a rousing tribute to the Veterans of the Second World War. Days of Glory ended as damning critique of the French government. In fact, the movie could have gone even further about how France callously neglected and deliberately pushed aside its African saviors, but maybe it contained just the right about of damnation to actually get France to do something about anything. And, maybe, that is more important than whether the movie is original or not.

 

Outside the Law

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If Days of Glory showed how North Africans endured mistreatment by the French, then Outside the Law shows them fighting back. The actors playing Said, Messaoud, and Abdelkader are back. They are playing different characters, but have the same names. Got that? They are brothers whose family was kicked out of their ancestral home in 1925 by the French. Flashforward to May 8th of 1945, when France was liberated. That very same day, there was a protest in the Algerian town of Setif against French occupation that broke out in violence. Now, the movie has received criticism for portraying the violence as one-sided, whereas showing subsequent French repression would have been just as effective in painting the French authorities in a bad light. Still, it did what it did. In any case, Said, Messaoud, Abdelkader, and their mother are the only survivors of a massacre, and Abdelkader is arrested for taking part in the protest.

The point here is that, as inappropriate as the timing may be now, at least I did not post this in on the 70th anniversary.

Flashforward a few more years and Said takes advantage of the violence rocking Setif to get revenge on the Algerian elder who took part in evicting his family from their home. He then takes his mother and they flee from France. They end up in an Algerian shantytown in Paris. Said almost takes a job in a factory before becoming a pimp’s enforcer. His mother is not too happy about that.

At this point in time, Abdelkader is still in a French prison and Messaoud is part of the French Armed Forces fighting the Viet Minh. Abdelkader has become a member of the Algerian revolutionary group called the National Liberation Front (not to be confused with the National Front), while Messaoud is exposed to anti-colonial propaganda once he is captured by the Viet Minh. They are eventually both released and go to live with Said and their mother in the shantytown. It is not long, however, before Abdelkader gets Messaoud to join the FLN. Said, a budding gangster who believes that more money can get him back into his mother’s good graces, has no interest in joining the FLN. In fact, it does not seem as if anyone is interested. Other Algerians are rather apathetic, or they are part of the rival MNA, which advocated electoral agitation. They get only one recruit for their troubles. It is only after French police interrupt Messaoud’s wedding that Abdelkader gets a proper platform to promote the FLN. Messaoud suspects that Abdelkader may have had a hand in bringing the cops to the wedding in the first place, but he does not really pursue that question.

Through a series of time jumps, the movie shows how the Paris branch of the FLN grows. It also shows some of the rigid anti-French policies and brutal ways that the group keeps the Algerian community in line before it spreads out to attack people in the French government. These are not followers of Martin Luther King Jr. They are violent. The movie also shows the personal cost of following the revolution. Messaoud is pretty much forced to abandon his family for a life of violence. Abdelkader has to deny himself a family as well. Said, who still has no interest in such an austere inflexible organization, is drawn into the struggle pretty much against his will. And the French authorities are starting to fight back…just as the FLN has planned. Eventually, things keep escalating until 1962, when Algeria finally gains independence.

Again, this movie is fine. Many have compared it to a gangster movie and I see the resemblance. I guess that if one sort of mushed together The Battle of Algiers with something like Scarface and set it in Paris, one might come up with something like this. Of course, it falls short of both movies (though I actually prefer this to Scarface), but that is not the point.

Outside the somewhat ahistorical nature of the narrative, the movie suffers a bit from the frequent time jumps and odd approach to characters. Also, I am a little skeptical that the French FLN steered clear from targeting French civilians as much as the movie seems to claim, though it shows that they had little problem with murdering ethnic Algerians who step out of line. The depiction of the Setif Massacre may have ruffled some feathers, but I would imagine that it was the overt parallels to the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation that many French found to be truly offensive. How dare they, right? One character in the movie argues that they are not the same thing, since France and Algeria had history. Well…if 130 years of occupation means history and two years of occupation does not, then he is right. Sort of like the “get over it” line of argument. The movie does not seem to agree.

Similar to Days of Glory, Outside the Law may not be so much concerned with sticking to factual truth as it is with poking at the common narrative. Days of Glory indirectly compares the North African soldiers to American soldiers and asks why the North Africans did not deserve even half of what the Americans got for doing the same things. Outside the Law directly compares the FLN to the French Resistance and asks why the former are branded terrorists instead of patriotic freedom fighters. These two movies show two different groups of men, one being forgotten heroes and another whose exploits are highly controversial. At a time where the number #1 movie in America is about a man who goes to other countries and kills people, it may be important to realize that the heroes that get the spotlight may not necessarily be the only ones who deserving of a story. I hear that there may be a third movie to address relations between the French and Algerians. Regardless of whatever issues I had with these two movies, I will probably check it out if it does get made. While Days of Glory showed a time when many Algerians considered themselves French, perhaps it getting to the part of the story where French people of African origin start having trouble thinking of themselves as French.  And I would not be surprised if it gives some sort of commentary, even indirectly, on the events in France this month. I would be interested in what it has to say.

By Some Jerk From Boston

I make words fall from my brain into your eye holes. I also make swear words with my mouth that attack your ears. I like me. Twitter: @SomeJerkFB

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