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?