There aren't many films that can bring into effect a change in the law, but Days of Glory (released under the title of Indigènes, in its native France) did just that. Focusing on the way African Moslem soldiers were treated very much as second class citizens during the Second World War, President Chirac's wife was so moved by the film that her husband changed French law to ensure that soldiers from former colonies who'd fought to defend France received the same pension rights as their native French counterparts.
Although the film has ultimately righted an injustice with this change in law, the film-makers make it clear there are still some changes that need to be made, pointing out parallel scenarios elsewhere in the world, including the lack of rights of the Ghurka's who sacrificed everything to help Britain out in past World Wars.
The story is not a pretty one, but is beautifully told in this extraordinary film, which was rightly nominated for a 'Best Foreign Language Film' oscar at this year's Academy Awards.
Unfortunately, for this viewer, the key message of the film was somewhat diluted, by what appears to be somewhat exaggerated saber-rattling, as evidenced in the extra's. As the film becomes more successful the story of how many African soldiers were affected gets more and more exaggerated. Initially we're told that 200,000 Moslem soldiers fought for France, then suddenly the number becomes 230,000 and by the time we get to a Q & A with the director, as recorded for Al Jazeera TV, the number has miraculously leapt to 500,000! Such propaganda can only dilute and lessen the impact of the important message which the film has to impart.
The film follows four soldiers making their way from Algeria, through Italy and France to Alsace between 1943 and 1945.
Said (Jamel Debbouze, last seen in the under-rated Angel-A) is a naive, poor Moslem who works as an orderly for a weary sergeant, Martinez (Bernard Blancan). Martinez is a pied noir who tries to speak up for his Arab troops, but seems to lack initiative on too many occasions, seemingly because he appears to be full of self-loathing for his own mixed parentage and doesn't want to rock the boat with his superiors.
Abdelkadar (Sami Bouaijila) has no such fear of his superiors. An excellent sniper, he fights injustice wherever he sees it and is keen to get promotion, not for reasons of blind ambition, but so that he can be seen to be equal to the French soldiers he fights alongside.
The movie has already drawn critical comparisons to Saving Private Ryan, primarily because of its identikit ending. Thankfully Days of Glory lacks the saccharine sentimentality that Spielberg lays on with a trowel at various points throughout that earlier, admittedly impressive, film. Here, the War set-pieces, whilst impressive, are not in the same league as Spielberg's earlier opus, and the gore is thankfully less in-your-face, but this is, I think, the better film.
The narrative thread is relatively loose, with the emphasis being on anecdotal scenes that stay in the mind long after the film is over: The meal menu which meant that only native French soldiers could have tomatoes with their lunch; the freezing feet of those Arab soldiers who wore sandals, not realising they'd have to march through snow; the innovative use of German propaganda leaflets dropped for Moslem soldiers, to fix holes in foot ware; the looters who refuse to rob a Church alms box because, on seeing a statue of Jesus on the cross, realise that it would be wrong to steal from an enemy's God when that God has clearly suffered pain.
Director Rachid Boucharab rights a terrible injustice with this powerful, moving tale of friendship and loyalty at a time when the French promise of liberty, equality and fraternity for the African soldiers proved extremely hollow. The two-hour film has an epic feel which, thanks to a superb, if largely unknown, cast delivers a powerful punch that pulls at the heart strings in all the right places.
The picture quality on this high definition Blu Ray disc, is quite simply stunning and shows that when the format actually tries to introduce quality it can easily be the equal of HD-DVD. The sound is equally impressive, and unusually for a Fox title this appears to be a region-free release, possibly because it's been released in Europe and not the USA, as of the time of writing.
The extra's are, unfortunately, presented in non-anamorphic standard definition, but include a 'warts and all' hour long Making of documentary that was made for a French television station. The disc also features a 10 minute introduction to the film from director, Rachid Boucharab, a 'UK Exclusive' copy of am Audience Q & A with the director and writer, filmed for Al Jazeera television, clocking in at just over 15 minutes, and an on-screen Historical Background essay which documents the research that was carried out before work was started on the film.
Films with subtitles always struggle with British audiences, but to dismiss this minor masterpiece based solely on the fact that it is in a foreign language, would be a minor crime. It's a film that needs to be seen by everyone, with its plea for tolerance and understanding all the more relevant given the current situation in Iraq.
Days of Glory, which is also available on standard DVD, is a great advert for the high definition Blu-Ray format, and has sufficient depth to pay repeated viewings. As such it's a recommended purchase over a rental, and comes highly recommended.