It's unbelievable that it's been over 60 years since World War II ended, and there are still so many stories left untold in this chunk of history. Traditionally, it's the American perspective given the four-star cinematic treatment, but the recent "Letters from Iwo Jima" and now "Days of Glory" show that there are significant tales of sacrifice still unexplored.
At the violent midway point of WWII, a group of nervous North African men (including Jamel Debbouze, of Luc Besson's upcoming "Angel-A") enlist with the French army to escape poverty and instill themselves with a sense of loyalty to a cause and a country under siege. What begins as a study in pride soon dissolves into basic survival as the men are subjected to racism and the horrors of combat as they fight their way through war-torn Europe.
What's extraordinary about the way "Days of Glory" is realized is how much you trust the integrity of these characters. Through an absence of saccharine filmmaking, director Rachid Bouchareb embarks on a tale of war where time and vulnerability bond the viewer to the characters, not the greasy fingerprints of pretense.
"Glory" doesn't boast the polish of other recent war epics nor does the film's languid pace always keep the viewer riveted to their theater seat; but somewhere in the midst of the horrendous setbacks these soldiers are forced to confront, the movie starts to reach beyond a negligible history lesson to become a chronicle about people you care deeply for, in treacherous locations that border hell.
The acting is incredible in the way is walks a slippery tightrope of melodrama, but remains sincere about matters of the heart and soul. The actors have to convey the delicate conscience of these confused and overextended men and their mental collapse, each solider coming unglued as the combat reaches a point of no return and wartime efforts are ignored due to issues of skin color and class. Bouchareb has quite an ensemble here and uses the talent wisely; each character contributing to the overall mood of dejection and frustration.
What's distinctive about "Glory" is that it saves its sharpest argument for the very end, long after the gunfire and death toll is halted. The postscript of the film follows one character as he visits the gravesite of his fallen comrades (shades of "Saving Private Ryan"). Here, feelings of agonizing guilt wash over him, and soon he solemnly rejoins the modern French society; a nameless man in a country that has long forgotten his sacrifice.
Before the end credits roll, Bouchareb reminds the audience that the French government long ago elected to stop payment of military benefits to officers from countries that declared their independence from France. While movements are underway to help get the money reinstated, in true governmental fashion, the efforts have been deflected. It's a striking way to end this film, corralling all that heartache and bravery into a single statement of disrespect and French shame that knocks the wind right out of you.
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