The Unknown Soldiers: Tobias Grey Introduces a Film about the North African Soldiers in the Second World War Which Has Taken France by Storm, and Is Opening in Britain on March 30th

By Grey, Tobias | History Today, April 2007 | Go to article overview

The Unknown Soldiers: Tobias Grey Introduces a Film about the North African Soldiers in the Second World War Which Has Taken France by Storm, and Is Opening in Britain on March 30th


Grey, Tobias, History Today


FOR THE FILM DIRECTOR RACHID BOUCHAREB, whose grandfather fought on the side of the Allies in the Second World War, making Indigenes (literally: natives) was never going to be easy. French-born, though of Algerian descent, Bouchareb had set his heart on making the first big budget war movie to address the roughly 300,000 'native' North African soldiers who helped liberate France and other parts of Europe.

'The story is a part of France's history which not many people know about and has all but been erased from the school books,' said Bouchareb from the French set of Indigenes some two years ago.

'Until recently France tried to whitewash the part our grandfathers played in the liberation. Because of that, there was a lot of difficulty convincing financial people that this film should be a big-budget one.'

After over a year spent knocking on doors to no avail, Bouchareb's search for funding eventually led him to Morocco, which along with Algeria and Tunisia, comprised France's former North African colonies.

As well as donating weaponry and soldiers for key battle scenes Morocco's King Mohammed, a close friend of Indigenes star Jamel Debbouze, agreed to stump up 60 per cent of the film's eventual 10 million [pounds sterling] budget.

Indigenes, or Days of Glory as the English version is called, begins with old news archive images: Hitler and Petain signing an armistice between their respective countries; de Gaulle landing in Algiers. Superimposed on the screen are the words: 'In 1940 the Germans crushed France, in what was coined "the blitzkrieg". Meanwhile in London, with France already occupied by the Germans, so as to outwit the surveillance of his enemy, de Gaulle decides to raise an army in the colonies.'

What follows is a film very much in the Hollywood mould, only the raw recruits are not GIs but Algerian tirailleurs (sharpshooters) and Moroccan goumiers (Arab scouts), plus a few Tunisians and Senegalese. Led by a stern sergeant, himself a piednoir (North African of European descent) from Algeria, we are treated to several battle sequences: Monte Cassino, the Provence landings, and ultimately an exciting firefight in a decrepit Alsatian village.

'While it's true the tirailleurs played a fairly important military role, perhaps it's a bit overstated in the film,' said the French historian Eric Deroo who for the last twenty-five years has been writing books such as L'Illusion Coloniale (2006) about France's former colonies.

'Above all they gave an enormous boost to French morale. That de Gaulle could tell the Allies that France could play its part in the war because of its empire made a huge difference.

While the indigenes certainly contributed to the war effort it's erroneous to say, as some African websites do, that without the tirailleurs France would never have been liberated. The Allies didn't really need any help from the French to liberate Europe. De Gaulle had to really insist before the French played their part.'

Bouchareb always intended Indigenes to be a film for the masses, and in France over three million people have bought tickets since its release last September. The film was nominated for an Oscar earlier this year for best foreign film. Pointedly, Bouchareb submitted it as an Algerian entry rather than a French one.

Though it didn't win an Oscar Indigenes has done that most rare thing for a work of fiction, it has provoked real social change.

'The film works on two levels, on the one level there is memory and on the other there is history,' says Deroo. 'As far as memory goes the film is very interesting because it shows young people today that their grandfathers and great grandfathers were soldiers during the war. It shows them how they behaved. Before Indigenes there was nothing out there to do that. I think as a memory aid the film is successful. On a historical level the film raises a certain number of questions but there are a lot of anachronisms that are not very accurate, though they're not so serious as all that. …

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