This movie was released in America under the perfectly awful title of Days of Glory. Unless you take that as supremely ironic, it’s hard to think of a worse title, as there is nothing of glory in it, not for France, and not for the ever-suffering infantry, which in this case is North Africans from Algeria and Tunisia and Morocco, Muslims in French colonial countries who were hoodwinked into fighting to free the “motherland” from Nazi occupation. Most of these men had never even been to France. The French title translates as “Natives,” and that is how these men are treated, in the worst sense of the word. There were basically three types of men in the French army of liberation: “Real” Frenchmen (white, born in France), pieds-noirs (white Arabic-speaking Frenchmen born in Africa), and wogs. The name says it all: Brown or black-skinned Muslims. (In our army at the time, black men were seldom allowed to carry a weapon into actual combat, though there were exceptions such as the Tuskegee Airmen who flew P-51s with distinction. Black soldiers tended to be truck drivers and potato peelers.) The French handled the race and religion problem differently. If there was an impossible hill to be taken … send in the wogs! There were separate messes for French and African soldiers, and guess who got the best food. Frenchmen were allowed rest leave at home, as their hometowns were re-taken. Africans … well, we don’t have enough ships to take you back, you see. (“You had enough ships to get us here,” one African points out.) It goes on and on like that.
This film is in the long tradition of following a group of grunts through their day-to-day experiences, from boredom to battles. The first one I recall is The Victors, which may have been the first movie I ever saw that not only didn’t glorify war, it made it look … well, awful. It was real, in other words. (It isn’t available on DVD. I don’t think it was even on VHS.) Then, of course, everybody knows about Saving Private Ryan. This movie isn’t as good as that one … but SPR was a rather artificial story, and this one is real. Then there was the excellent Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier), from Finland. And more recently, HBO’s Band of Brothers and Clint Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers and Letter From Iwo Jima. Take these movies together and one message is loud and clear. All grunts in all armies are the same. They just want to survive, help their buddies survive, and get home in one piece.
This movie tells of an injustice that has persisted until only a few months ago. Because though these men fought as valiantly as the Japanese-American 442nd Combat regiment, and with as little reason other than patriotism to a country who had done them a terrible wrong, and though they were promised promotions and other bullshit, none of it ever happened. Those who weren’t dead at the end of the war found themselves at the same rank they enter it, while Frenchmen moved up the ladder.
It gets worse. In the 1950s, when the French colonies were forcing “Mother France” to get her boot-heel off their necks (see The Battle of Algiers, one of the finest movies about revolution ever made), the government froze the pensions of these brave men, spit in their faces, and finally revealed out in the open the racism that had dogged them all their lives. And still they fought, this time in the courts. Finally, several years ago, a ruling came down that the men must be paid the same pensions as white veterans … and the government ignored it. (The Bush Administration apparently isn’t the only regime that ignores stuff it doesn’t like.) The thing was, hardly anybody knew about this shit. All the four main actors had been ignorant of it until they read the script! It took the release of this film to finally shame France into agreeing to equalize pension payments. I hope it was retroactive, but I wonder …