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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L’Honneur d’un Capitaine – A Captain’s Honor (1982)

What an excellent movie. Even better than I thought it would be. It’s my second Schoendoerffer and it is as good as the more famous Dien Bien Phu.

L’Honneur d’un Capitaine or A Captain’s Honor is part court-room drama, part infantry combat. It is a thought-provoking look at the way France tried to come to terms with the war in Algeria. It shows one nation’s struggle to face the injustice it committed in the name of peace-keeping.

20 years after his death on the battle field Cpt. Caron is publicly accused of having been a torturer and an assassin. The man who accuses him is a famous professor of sociology who claims having known Caron well enough to be sure of the accusation. The accusation happens during a TV show. Some of the guests leave in outrage. It isn’t only about Caron. It is about what really happened in Algeria. To this day there is a rift in France. On one side are those who claim that the French army has tortured in Algeria and on the other are those who say it didn’t.

Caron’s widow decides to drag the incident to court. She wants justice for her husband and his reputation. Her uncle, a famous lawyer and member of the Parisian high-society, advises against it but finally gives in and even wants to help her in court.

Before they go to court, they try to gather information and this part gives the movie another dimension. It links WWII, Indochina and Algeria.

At 17 the future Cpt Caron was part of the French Resistance, he later served in Indochina and was captured by the Vietminh. This is illustrated by original footage, many of it taken in battle and in the prison camps during the liberation. Those French soldiers looked exactly like the Jews in the German camps.

The drama that unfolds in court is very gripping. We really want to know what happened. Did he, or did he not do it? In order to find out, they have convoked former soldiers and officers who served with or under him. They take apart each and every element of the accusation. The film moves back and forth between the court in the 70s and the battlefield in Algeria in the 50s.

During 18 days Cpt. Caron led a special alpine infantry unit. Three of the men of this unit had been captured by the fellaghas (anti-colonialist rebels). This usually meant torture and slow death at the hands of those rebels. The Cpt. tries everything to get the men back. During these 18 days many unpleasant things happen. Algerian informants are tortured, killed and disappear. After a while it becomes apparent that it isn’t so much about whether it has really happened, everything does indeed point into that direction, but whether Caron gave the order.

It is fascinating how they deconstruct the accusations bit by bit, but every time they have proven that it may be a wrong accusation, another one is brought up.

Without giving away too much, I’d like to describe one scene that I found particularly  amazing. Caron and a few of his men are at the foot of a mountain, while the rest of them are somewhere high up. It is said that during this part of the campaign an Algerian prisoner was killed. And indeed, the soldier in the court room states that Caron gave the order. He was up there with the men. Another officer however testified that, no, he hadn’t given the order. He was standing next to Caron during te whole incident. What had happened? Caron told them to bring the prisoner down (descendez-le in French) but they had understood to take him out (also descendez-le in French). Depending on where a person who says “descendez-le” stands, it could either mean “take him out” or “bring him down”.

This is just an example how the movie works, what type of complexities it shows.

It is a movie that makes you feel very uneasy (if you are French). The thing is, if the Cpt, who was such an exemplary officer, is found guilty, one can assume that torture and murder was a fairly common practice. But if he isn’t found guilty, if he is innocent, this does not automatically mean that these atrocities didn’t happened. This is where the movie excels, it it is excellent at showing the psychology of those who want to believe either the one or the other.

I haven’t found a trailer but attached the scene in which Caron’s widow watches the Indochina footage. There are no subtitles but that doesn’t matter as they only speak a few words in the beginning.