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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12 French War Movies You Must See Before You Die

France, a country that has endured and fought many wars, was at the center of many a battle and armed conflict, a country famous for its outstanding filmmaking has produced a very modest amount of war movies. You will find numerous WWII movies on the Resistance and a fair amount of rather psychological war-time movies but if you are looking for combat movies, you will not be lucky. I know of no French air combat or submarine movie at all.

There may be many reasons and I can only attempt an interpretation, comparing French cinema in general to the cinema of other countries. What becomes apparent soon is that the French are not keen on producing large-scale, epic or very action driven cinema. French movies are psychological and intimate. They focus on the dynamics between a few people, their interaction, the dialogue. Many of the most famous French movies focus on tiny details, small things. It’s easily understood that this doesn’t fit in with infantry combat movies with their huge casts and more action driven story lines.

In choosing 12 movies  I tried to pick the few real combat movies I knew and added the ones that I think excellent or that absoultely need to be watched. I also tried to covera wide range. I left out good ones, I’m sure.

For those who want to further explore French cinema the website French War Movies offers a great overview.

I discovered one huge problem for the non-native speaker when I watched La Grande Illusion recently as I bought a movie with English subtitles. Almost 2/3 of the dialogue was missing. I noticed the same when I watched and reviewed the Italian Rome, Open City (here is my review). Since French and Italian movies are dialogue driven, it’s very hard for a non-native speaker to fully appreciate them. I’m sure this is done better in more recent movies, still it is a problem.

With all this said, let’s open the curtain for twelve stunning movies:

La Grande Illusion aka Grand Illusion (1937): WWI. Jean Renoir’s movie is one of the great classics of European cinema starring the late great Jean Gabin. A POW movie that offers a lot. Interesting German characters included. (Here is the review)

Nuit et brouillard aka Night and Fog (1955): WWII. Alain Resnais’ Holocaust classic. Death Camps. Final Solution. Documentary/original footage about the horrors of the concentration camps. Gut-wrenching. Impressive. A must-see. (Here is the review)

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959): WWII. Another movie by Alain Resnais. A love story between a French woman and a Japanese man from Hiroshima. Interspersed with original footage of Hiroshima. Very special and poetic based on the scenario by Marguerite Duras. A must see for French cinema aficionados. (review upcoming)

L’armée des ombres aka The Army of Shadows (1969): WWII. Jean-Pierre Melville’s Resistance masterpiece. Another classic. Claustrophobic, impressive, sparse. Excellent actors. One of the most depressing movies I’ve ever seen. (Here is my review)

L’honneur d’un capitaine aka A Captain’s Honor (1982): Post war. Algeria. A captain who died on the battle field in Algeria is accused of having been a torturer and a murdered. His widow tries to prove that he wasn’t guilty. (review upcoming)

Dien Bien Phu (1992) : Indochina. Infantry Combat. Schoendoerffer’s movie shows the final defeat of the French in Indochina. Not nice to watch at all. (review upcoming)

Le pianiste aka The Pianist (2002): WWII. Holocaust. Tells the story of a Jewish pianist in the Warsaw ghetto. Harrowing and beautiful. My favourite Holocaust movie. Very moving. (review upcoming)

La chambre des officiers aka The Officer’s Ward (2001): WWI. Everything you never wanted to know about the horrible facial wounds that were so frequent during WWI. Made me quite sick. Painfully well-done  (Here is the review)

Un long dimanche de fiançailles aka A Very Long Engagement (2004): WWI. Based on Sébastien Japrisot’s eponymous novel it tells the harrowing story of young Mathilde who travels to the no man’s land of WWI in search of her lost fiancé.  This is one of the darling movies of international film critics. I did like it but wasn’t awed. Starring the much-loved Audrey Tautou. (review upcoming)

Joyeux Noël aka Merry Christmas (2005): WWI. The story of the little peace during the Great War. During the first Christmas in WWI, German, French and British/Scottish troops cease fire and play football together. Wonderful movie with great actors. One of  my Top 10 all-time favourites and one of the bestanti-war movies that exist. (Here is the review)

L’ennemi intime aka Intimate Enemies (2007): Algeria. One of the very few French Infantry Combat movies. Very good and very critical. About the ugly side of an ugly war that was officially no war. If you want to find out why I found this hard to watch, you’ll have to read the About page. (Here is the review)

L’armée du crime aka The Army of Crime (2009): WWII. French Resistance. Based on the true story of a group of young people and immigrants who fought a desperate fight against the Nazis. They were led by the poet Manouchian. This is an absolutely stunning and very tragic movie. One to watch and re-watch. It went directly on my Top 10. (Here is the review)