Crossing through Algeria to Italy, then France with emotions running high from the start of the film, we first focus on one soldier, Saïd Otmari who leaves poverty and his mother behind for the cause of freedom for France. Why give one’s blood to free a country that looked down upon you? Despite being referred by a French officer as mountain men who were France’s fierciest fighters, the Algerian soldiers battled more than bullets yet continued to defend France. One wonders…why fight? The whys are explained in the hearts of these men.
The fight for equality, escape from poverty and the desire to be accepted were all reasons for joining the French military in its fight to restore glory to the hailed “motherland”. Used by the French military but given nothing in return just their servitude, we follow these men who took the frontline in haste in hopes of being given their fair share. Such was not the case.
With a resounding victory under their belts of Vichy France, and the singing strongly of “La Marseillaise,” the closely knit unit marches on to engage the Germans. We get closer to each character as we dig deeper into what makes these men fight and love the country that does not return the love.
One soldier, Messaoud Souni (Roschdy Zem), who became the marksman of the unit falls in love with a Marseille woman named Irene, whose letters to each other were censored by the military, and in retaliation, Messaoud goes AWOL (The French were granted leave but not them) and was imprisoned as a result. Yassir (Samy Nacéri) whose stunning bravery became paramount during their final battle against a German battalion, Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) is a soldier with great commanding ability; and Saïd (Jamel Debbouze) who once considered himself just an illiterate poor man becomes one whose pride and courage outshines the rest.
Heading the unit and caught in the emotional crossfire between his men and his commanding French officers is their Staff Sergeant Martinez (Bernard Blancan), who takes Saïd under his wing much to the dislike of his comrades who attempt to taunt him with being the sergeant’s favorite. With a hard shell on the outside yet masking a softer, sensitive inside which Saïd discovers, places him in a perplexing situation where doing right by his troop is crucial but at times difficult to achieve.
From the “tomato scene” in which a North African soldier was denied even a tomato by a French cook to the apparent denial of upward mobility to the soldiers into high ranking officers makes it apparent of the struggles these gallant men faced day in and out. To shake their unswerving loyalty, the Nazis dropped propaganda pamphlets from the sky in order to test their allegiance by trying to sway them to the other side promising freedom from slavery. Unshaken by
this tactic to seduce them, the soldiers marched on toward their prime directive…French liberation.
The raw battle scenes drop you in the center of the action, however there are points where the film seems to drag and once you become vested into the emotions of one character in the unit, you are pulled away to enter the inner thoughts of another always wanting to see more. The most humorous scene by far (yet the most subtle) in the film happens to be during a ballet in which the infantry sits inside a tent to watch a ballerina and her counterpart pirouette and plié across stage which eventually incites a mass exodus out of the tent. Transitions from black and white to color at various locations during the campaign are beautiful.
The most gripping happens to be the sea of Muslim grave sites amongst Christian ones at the aftermath of the film- 60 years ahead; and was a bold statement to the government of France to restore the pensions in full to these forgotten warriors after decolonization.