The weight of tragedy adheres to no human collection like an infantry platoon, as the French film (and Oscar nominee) "Days of Glory" makes clear.
Many of its members end up dead or maimed, the survivors dazed and bitter. They ask, "Why?" And the answer -- "To save the world" -- has little meaning.
Yet add to that already dreadful burden two more historical anvils, racism and imperialism, and you have a sense of what happened to the men of the French Expeditionary Corps, formed in 1943 of the Algerian Infantry Division, the 2nd Moroccan Infantry Division and the 4th Moroccan Mountain Division. These were not native Frenchmen but native North Africans: They lived in far lands of desert and scrub vegetation until an army marched in one day a century earlier, raised a strange three-colored flag and said: This is your destiny.
And, as "Days of Glory" points out angrily, this is still happening to them since the French government has tried to bilk them -- veterans of some of the most brutal fighting in the war for a "homeland" most had never seen and only learned about at the toe end of a boot -- out of their pensions.
"Days of Glory" tells their story, and like many unit tributes from that war, it could be a better movie but it certainly convinces you of the nobility of the souls of the men whose boots were on the ground and whose bodies went into the same ground.
The director, Rachid Bouchareb, employs a familiar structure, the one so overused in the films of the late '40s and '50s that it became a cliche; it could be "Go for Broke" or "Battle Cry" or "Sands of Iwo Jima." A group of country boys, each with a unique yet universal background (poverty, oppression, hardscrabble lives, hopelessness), joins up, despite the doubts of parents. To save the motherland? Hmm, or is it a fatherland? Maybe it's an Uncleland or an Auntland or even a Bigwhiteguyland. Whatever, they climb aboard trucks, and soon find themselves in boots that don't fit, with rifles that are too heavy, climbing hills they don't recognize and being yelled at really loudly by a force of nature called a sergeant. They could be named Jack, Moses, Bill, Tom, Hans, Luigi, Taro or Ming. Their names happen to be Yassir, Messaoud, Said and Abdelkader.
The sergeant is a tough little popinjay named Martinez, who is hard to please and always knows what's right. They fear him, they love him, they hate him, they need him. Bouchareb is extremely good at the dynamics between enlisted men and noncommissioned officer, and his Sarge is played with leathery invulnerability by Bernard Blancan. Meanwhile, a distant French officer class hovers over the multi-ethnic fighting force, with its conglomerations of Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians, but seldom gets involved.
Is there anything new here? Honestly, not really. The content is the same, the plot the familiar litany of ordeals leavened by soapy interludes and the occasional title card "Provence -- fall 1944." When it turns out the Algerian troops aren't getting tomatoes, the fiery Abdelkader (Samy Bouajila) protests and shames first Sgt. Martinez and then the snooty white Frenchmen into making sure every guy wearing the uniform of the Republic gets a tomato; at the same time, we're aware that protest has created a bond between the soldiers.
Individual issues alternate with well-staged scenes of slaughter. The poor Algerians and Moroccans always get the tough jobs, the suicidal attacks through rocky terrain on emplaced machine-gun positions through heavy artillery bombardment. Then Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) falls in love with a French girl and she with him, in the delirium of liberation. His drama: Was it just her freedom that made her romantic on a single evening or indeed, does she love him?
Yassir (Sami Naceri), with the tommy gun, joined for the simple pleasures of looting. It turns out to be a very good thing, in the last fight, that he never chucked the 10 pounds' worth of machined steel for something lighter because in certain situations, as the movie documents, nothing says "I will kill you" better than General Thompson's trench broom.
Said (Jamel Debbouze), the cute one who loved his mother, gets tired of being the company goat and stands up for himself; then, promoted to Martinez's gofer, he becomes a valuable and giving infantryman.
Bouchareb, of course, hadn't anything like Spielberg's budget for "Saving Private Ryan," so he can't afford a fleet of German armored vehicles grinding through French villages for his climax. But he does concoct one hell of a fight, which is similar to the carnage in "Ryan" in intensity, if not spectacle. The four guys manage to make it through to a town in Alsace out of which the Germans have just been pushed. But the Germans will be back, and the issue is simple: Do we cut and run? This isn't even our country, really, is it? Why stay and die in this strange, cold green place for people who think we're scum?
But the fight that develops is taut, tough and extremely bitter; it's never showy in the grinding big-movie Spielbergian way, but a portrait of the war's daily interface with hell in a very small space, as the four stand against a much larger unit. You think: Thank God for courage. And you think: Thank God for tommy guns. And you think: They're not peasants of color, they're heroes, and the French were lucky to have them, even if they seem not to have figured that out yet.