Pierre Schoendoerffer’s 317th Platoon – La 317ème section (1965) The Final Days of the French – Indochina War

I am not sufficiently familiar with the war in Indochina or the history of the French occupation although my great grand-father was posted there as a prison guard but I’m interested in the topic. I think studying it would help us understand the war in Vietnam much better.

Pierre Schoendoerffer is the go to director for those interested in the war in Indochina from a French perspective. I’ve seen his Dîen Bîen Phû (1992) a long time ago, pre-blogging, and remember having been impressed. Usually it is considered to be one of the top war movies. However, critics seem to agree, as great as Dîen Bîen Phû is, it’s nowhere near as outstanding as one of Schoendoerffer’s other movies, namely 317th Platoon – La 317ème section . It’s one of a very few 5/5* movies in Gary Freitas’ excellent book War Movies.

Schoendoerffer is a veteran of the Indochina war. He was an Army cinematographer and became a POW during the battle of Dîen Bîen Phû. After his liberation in 1954, he wrote books and directed movies. One of those novels was the 317th Platoon (French only) which he made into a movie later.

317th Platoon tells the story of a platoon which was trapped  behind enemy lines. In 1954, the war in Indochina is about to end. France was defeated by the Viet Minh and had just lost the bloody battle of Dîen Bîen Phû. The French forces are in full retreat. The risk to be overrun is constant. The 317th Platoon, a unit of French soldiers and Laotian allies, is one of them. The platoon is led by a very young and idealistic and inexperienced sous-lieutenant Torrens (Jacques Perrin) and his adjutant Willsdorf (Bruno Cremer), a former soldier in the German Wehrmacht during WWII. Torrens has just arrived in Indochina, barely two weeks ago, while Willsdorf has been there several years. The survival of the platoon depends on completing a trek through enemy territory, right through the dense jungle that lies between them and the next French outpost.

The movie has an immediacy you do not see often. The spectator is very close to the people in the movie, feels like being part of it. The grainy black and white pictures are like documentary shots and the sound is amazing. We hear all the animals in the jungle screaming and screeching. The jungle is a loud place to be, especially at night. For the soldiers this is an additional difficulty. The Viet Minh swarm the forest, the noise is deafening, the monsoon rain is constant, it’s hot and humid, they suffer from stomach cramps and diarrhea, dysentery. In the first few minutes, some are wounded horribly and to watch them suffer and die is agony. The death scenes are uncomfortably realistic.

The movie offers excellent character studies. The men portrayed, especially Torrens and Willsdorf are complex and arresting. While Torrens makes bad choices because he is kind and caring, Willsdorf has become a cynic but he is always right about his assumptions and predictions. The unlikely men come to appreciate each other in the end.

I liked that we get a feeling for the country and the terrain. We see this when they stop at a village to rest and treat the wounded. The wounded are given opium in the villages, Willsdorf tells Torrens how much he loves the country and that he cannot wait until he can leave the army and settle somewhere with a nice woman.

There are many quiet scenes in the movie but it’s never boring. The actors are excellent. In some of the shots their faces express more than others with words. We see that they feel lonely, how much they despair, the fear, pain and agony. It’s all there and palpable.

The way the wounded are treated is another excellent example of the movies realism. There is not shooting morphine without assessing the condition of the wounded first. The way they treat them is with  a lot of understanding and empathy.

The only other movie I have seen so far which offers such a compelling mix of character studies and combat scenes is When Trumpets Fade, one of my Top 10 favourite war movies.

I’m certain of one thing after having watched 317th Platoon, there is no way around Pierre Schoendoerffer’s movies for those truly interested in war movies. 317th Platoon – La 317ème section deserves to be on a Top 50 list, at least.

I found two things on YouTube. The French trailer and a dubbed version, Spanish with English subtitles, of the entire movie. It’s a bit weird for me, from a French perspective to hear it spoken in Spanish but if you are not a native French speaker you might not mind. At least you get a chance to watch, right?

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The Front Line aka Go-ji-jeon (2011) A Stunning Korean Movie

The Front Line aka Go-ji-jeon is a stunning movie. I wasn’t all that lucky with Korean war movies before. Something was always off. Either the acting was over dramatic or they were too intense, or lacking a story and appealing characters. But this movie get’s everything right.

The story about the final battle of the Korean war is heartbreaking. One of those utterly pointless we-fight-to-the-last-man battles which didn’t serve anyone. What is more harrowing here even than in other instances is the fact, that the battle took place after the armistice had been signed. For absurd reasons the cease-fire was only to be implemented 12 hours after the signature.

But I’m starting with the end. The final battle takes up less than half an hour. Until we get there the movie has plenty of time to tell back story, side stories and to develop many arresting characters. Some will die, some make it but it’s painful every time, one of them is killed.

In 1953, just before the end of the war, Lt Kang Eun-Pyo (Ha-kyun Shin) is ordered to the Eastern front line to investigate the murder of an officer who has been shot by someone of his own company. The front line lies in the Aerok Hills. The border between the enemies is constantly changing. Some days the border lies more to the north, some days it’s more to the south. Some of the trenches and dugouts are changing occupants every other day. The fighting is intense, the morale is low.

When Kang Eun-Pyo arrives he is surprised and happy to find his old friend Kim Soo-Hyeok (Soo Go). He thought his friend had been killed a long time ago but it seems he isn’t only alive but in charge of things. The commanding officer is a very young guy showing signs of severe trauma and a serious morphine addiction. It’s obvious the heavy fighting has taken its toll. The men have had enough. They don’t even know what they are fighting for anymore. They show signs of insubordination and there are even rumours of contact between the enemy parties.

“Two Seconds”, as they call an enemy sniper, is giving them a particularly hard time. They stand no chance against this incredible and cunning shot. Every time they are on patrol or attacking, “Two Seconds” gets some of them.

The group Kang Eun-Pyo has joined is very composite. There are young recruits who have never fought and battle-hardened older men who already saw combat in WWII. This is quite traditional for war movies but the characters are likable and well-developed.

There is conflict due to the fact that the men are so battle weary and a crime has been committed which needs to be solved. Kang Eun-Pyo is very strict in the beginning, he wants to find the culprit but after a few days and some heavy combat he has to understand that the officer may have been shot as a result of bad leadership. The situation in these hills is so precarious any wrong decision is fatal. On top of that, everybody knows the war is about to end and the men do not understand why they are sacrificed for nothing.

There is another secret to uncover which has nothing to do with the murdered officer. The company which is called “Alligator company”, because they are so great at surviving, has gone through something very horrible in the past. More than one man shows sign of PTSD but nobody tells Kang Eun-Pyo what has happened. He will find out eventually but only after a long time.

The movie combines a great story line with a succession of amazing and surprising scenes. Some of the scenes are quite drastic, there is even one reminiscent of the Omaha Beach landing in Saving Private Ryan. Still, the movie manages to do without the usual Korean gore. It only gets gruesome at the very end.

What I really liked is the fact that this is an intense combat movie that combines action, suspense and emotion, something that you don’t find all that often. The actors are very good, the music is well-chosen and the cinematography is great.

I’m really happy that Show Box Media offered me a review copy of this movie. The Front Line is an exceptionally good movie. A real must-see.

Poll Results – Is Black Hawk Down Too Combat Intense?

More than a year ago I asked the question on this blog whether  Black Hawk Down was too combat intense. Someone had made this comment and I was astonished because I thought the intensity of the combat in Black Hawk Down was one of the reasons why it was such an extremely powerful movie. I checked the poll a few times in the beginning and the forgot about it. The other day I had a look and the result is interesting.

26 people have answered the question. 50% think that it isn’t too combat intense, 13% however thought, that yes, indeed it was too intense. Another 20% thought that it should be even more intense and the remaining people didn’t care.

I’m still surprised anyone would think it is too combat intense but maybe we would have to know what they mean. Black Hawk Down depicts the Battle of Mogadishu, an army operation that went seriously wrong. The result of the operation shook everyone who knew about it or who was involved. The special units deployed got under heavy fire and faced an incredible aggression. They weren’t only fighting other soldiers but a huge, armed mob. Depicting something like this as realistically as possible requires intensity.

I would say, that from the point of view of  a soldier who was under heavy fire, I guess, it’s not intense as nothing can equal the real thing. But maybe for someone purely watching it, it could be too intense, meaning, “too intense to watch”.

In any case, I will check back on the poll from time to time and keep you posted.

A little question for you. Do you think there is any other war movie which depicts such intense combat scenes? I think some of the more recent South Korean war movies I watched do but can’t think of an older one as intense as this.

You can find the original post with the poll here. Please vote, if you haven’t done so already.

Bertrand Tavernier’s Capitaine Conan – Captain Conan (1996)

Have you seen Capitaine Conan? You haven’t? Well then I’d like to know why you are sitting here, reading this blog when what you should really do, is chase a copy of this unique and brilliant movie? This is one of the best war movies I have seen in a while. I’m doing pretty bad with movies these days and have found my attention span is quite short but this movie had me glued to the screen. WWI movies tend to be a bit repetitive, it’s either the atrocity of the trenches, facial wounds, the analysis of the shortcomings of the high command or the incredible amount of dead and lost soldiers. All of it worthy themes but done a few times and quite brilliantly too. That’s why it was such a surprise that there is hardly any of this in Capitaine Conan. 

Capitaine Conan is based on the largely autobiographical novel Captain Conan by Roger Vercel who won the prestigious Prix Goncourt for the book. Vercel based the main character on one of his comrades.

The most interesting aspect is that the movie (and the book) takes place on the Bulgarian border where French and English troops fought a guerrilla like war against Germans and Bulgarians. There are trenches but a lot of the combat is hand-to-hand combat, man against man.

The lieutenant Capt Conan is an insubordinate, extremely wild and brutal soldier. But also someone who cherishes camaraderie. Instead of eating with the fellow officers, he rather sits somewhere with the men. He leads a group of 50 men that he calls his wolves. They are all equally fearless, brutal and, as it seems, addicted to violence but also a tight-knit group, ready to do anything for each other. There is nothing they like more than fighting man against man and mostly with knives. Because Conan is highly efficient and can turn around the course of hopeless battles, his superiors let him do as he pleases but when the war ends, things go wrong. His bloodthirsty men are too easily bored. They start to commit one crime after the other. Pillaging, raping, robbery. Conan who calls himself a warrior, as opposed to a soldier, isn’t any better and let’s his men get away with everything. Conan has long-lost his sense of right and wrong and all that he cares about are his men. War has turned him into a brute.

Among this violent crowd is a more gentle lieutenant, who wants to become a school teacher in peace time. If it wasn’t for him, who is appointed as prosecutor, Conan and his men would be court-martialled. The friendship between these two men grows slowly but once it’s established, it is indestructible.

It’s quite difficult to do this movie justice as it is very complex and quite fast-paced. Conan is a fascinating character and the way Tavernier depicts him we can’t help but admire him. In the world of WWI, in which there are so many officers who never dirty their hands but make the most important decisions without having a clue, someone like Conan, with a sense of honour and dignity, despite the brutality, becomes admirable. He is ruthless but he has a sense of loyalty and justice. The problem is, that men like him cannot go back to a normal life, once the war is over. They have gone too far.

After the war has ended, they are boarding a train and sent around without really knowing where they go. They stop in Sofia for a long time and are finally sent to the Russian border to fight the Bolsheviks. The scene in which the general informs them of the Armistice is one of the greatest scenes in any war movie ever. It’s so absurd. We see the guy talk about victory and glory, while the rain is pouring down, half of the men are running away because of diarrhea and the highly decimated band plays an off-key Marseillaise and looks like a bunch of flea-infested hobos.

I really hope I could give a halfway good impression of this wonderful movie and how rich it is. It’s very witty with super fast dialogue that I hope is well captured in the subtitles. I have a French DVD so I turned them off. It’s one of the huge problems of French cinema in translation. French cinema does live to a large extent from the dialogue which is usually fast and a lot of it isn’t translated. This isn’t a comedy but it has a lot of funny elements because it shows how absurd war is and because it juxtaposes many different levels of French society and different French regions.

As I said, the movie is available with English subtitles but the only trailer I found is a French one with Spanish subtitles. It still gives a good impression of the movie.

War Movie Watchalong – Talvisota aka The Winter War

Talvisota -The Winter War is the second movie in the war movie watchalong. Unlike Master & Commander I hadn’t seen this one before and it is possible that I will dedicate another review to it as it has very interesting elements and I’m not sure to cover them all in answering the questions below.

Talvisota that is based on Antti Tuuri’s eponymous novel, shows the short but intense war that Russia and Finland fought at the beginning of WWII. It started at the end of 1939 and lasted until March 1940.  The movie is a very realistic and unemotional epic of over 3 hours. More about the Winter War can be found here. It seesm this was the only important movie of fim director Pekka Parikka. Parikka was born during the Winter War. It’s sad to know that he committed suicide in 1997.

How did you like the movie?

This was one of the grittier war movies I have watched so far. Gritty and bleak. It’s a very surprising movie, surprising because it didn’t go the way most Hollywood productions go and also because I wasn’t familiar with the war as such. At times it didn’t feel like watching a WWII movie but a WWI film as most of the fighting took place in the trenches. Watching it was similar to watching Battle of Britain. Both movies are excellent and give a great impression of the historical facts they cover but they are closer to documentary than movies as they hardly tell a story outside of the war itself.

Talvisota is often compared to Stalingrad, do you think that is justified?

I have it seen compared to Stalingrad but I cannot see any similarities besides the fact that both are set in winter. I also think it does Talvisota a disservice to compare it to Stalingrad. If I hadn’t expected something more similar I would have appreciated it much more but Stalingrad is and will always be one of my top 5 and it’s hard to compete with that.

Who is your favourite character and why?

The aim of the director wasn’t to pick a few remarkable individuals and tell their story but to tell the story of his people. That’s why there is really only Mattri and his brother who did stand out for me. Their story is exemplary for many others but during the fighting almost all of them are given the same amount of camera time.

Do you identify with any particular side or character? Why?

I cannot say I identified but I rooted for the Finns. This was such a David & Goliath situation, such an unjustified and brutal act by the Russians and it was amazing to see how couragoeus and un-emotional they fought this enemy that was so much stronger in numbers.

How is the enemy represented?  Are they stereotyped?  Demonized?

I saw them like a dark and malevolent mass. Their rows where never-ending. No matter how many the Finns shot down, there were more and more coming. The individual Russians are not shown and it’s also obvious that the Finns blamed Stalin and not the people as such but still, they felt negative.

Does the film present violence as the only way to solve problems?

I would say, yes, indeed, it does. There is no diplomacy or talking. The Russian’s attack was a suprise attack and could have ended like it did in Poland.

What are they fighting for?

They fought for their freedom. If they hadn’t fought so bravely they would have become part of the Soviet Union like so many small countries (Latvia…)

What hardships do the soldiers have to overcome?

The hardships are maybe the only real parallel I see with Stalingrad. The war took place in winter, it was cold and snow-covered the whole time. Maybe it wasn’t as hard on the Finns as on the Germans, as they were probably used to that kind of temperature. During most of the war they were trapped in trenches, in the dark and the cold. It must have been very strenuous. Add dirt and hunger to that and you get the picture.

Is the combat realistic?

The combat looked quite realistic but the explosions were overdone and the blood looked very artificial. Maybe that was a choice, maybe it wasn’t. In any case it’s one of the grittier movies I’ve seen. Some of the wounds were very gruesome and one of the main characters dies a death like I haven’t seen before. It could very well figure on a list of most gruesome deaths and wounds.

Is the movie solidly anti-war?

Despite the fact that the Finns were heroic, this isn’t an uplifting tale at all. This is one of the purest anti-war films I have ever seen.

How does it compare to movies like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line?

I don’t think it can be compared to any of the two. It’s much less character driven. It’s more documentary style, as I said before.

Did you think the ending was satisfying?

This tiny country was able to defend itself against the huge number of Russians that were constantly attacking and shelling them. As such, it was satisfying but I think there should have been some additional information before the final credits, stating how many people died, and what became of Finland and Russia after this war.

I am very glad I watched it and I’m sure, if I hadn’t expected it to be more like Stalingrad I would have liked it better. Still I think it’s a very importnat movie and one that should be better known.

Other reviews

Guy Savage (Phoenix Cinema)

War Movie Watchalong – Talvisota aka The Winter War – The Questions

These are the questions for movie 2 Talvisota -The Winter War which is part of the  double watch along of two movies.

Here are the questions should you want to participate. This time most of the questions have been contributed by Kevin from The War Movie Buff.

You do not need to answer these questions, you can also just post a review on the movie, participate in the discussion and link to my site. I’ll add the review to my post.

  • How did you like the movie?
  • Talvisota is often compared to Stalingrad, do you think that is justified?
  • Who is your favourite character and why?
  • Do you identify with any particular side or character? Why?
  • How is the enemy represented?  Are they stereotyped?  Demonized?
  • Does the film present violence as the only way to solve problems?
  • What are they fighting for?
  • What hardships do the soldiers have to overcome?
  • Is the combat realistic?
  • Is the movie solidly anti-war?
  • How does it compare to movies like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line?
  • Did you think the ending was satisfying?

Tha date for the watchalong is Thursday 29 December 2011.

Glory (1989) A Tale of the American Civil War

When I first watched Glory it made my Top 10. Many movies later and after having seen it for the second time, it doesn’t make the Top 10 anymore but it is still one of the very best war movies ever. I would even argue it’s flawless. The acting is superior, cinematography is beautiful, score is great, themes are interesting. I suppose it’s accurate as well. It’s a 5/5 movie but… for me to really like or rather love a movie it needs to have something more than perfection, something like complexity. I decidedly have no problem with Matthew Broderick but I’m not very familiar with him. Some people criticized this choice because they saw him in other movies and thought he was too young at the time.

The movie tells the story of the 54th all black Union regiment led by Col Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick). This is the first all black regiment ever. The whole regiment is composed of volunteers who are eager to join, train and eventually fight. It’s not easy to train these men, many of them are former slaves, runaways, analphabets and all in all an unwieldy bunch. Especially Private Trip (Denzel Washington) isn’t one who easily takes no for an answer. If Shaw wasn’t such a truly humane, kind and just leader and if he hadn’t the support of his friend Major Forbes and the ever so wise older soldier Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) maybe the whole enterprise would have been a failure. Luckily it isn’t or we wouldn’t have this highly watchable movie in which people can be seen how they overcome the worst adversity.

Shaw has to fight hard to earn recognition and justice for his men. They are lacking everything, shoes, uniforms, weapons and when finally they get their equipment and have undergone a successful training they lack the opportunity to show that they are worthy soldiers.

There are a lot of infuriating scenes in this movie, after all it deals with racism. Racism has many faces but at the end of the day, whatever face it has, it’s an ugly one.

It’s uplifting to see the suppressed overcome obstacles and all the more because it’s a true story. Glory is based on the letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (you can find them here Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw)

I haven’t seen many Civil War movies, I think only three so far. While I had a hard time to follow Gettysburg, I thoroughly enjoyed this one but the one I prefer is Ride with the Devil.

How about you? Any preferences?