France’s hubris keeps warning us, and so does international cinema. Military brass and George W. Bush administration muckety-mucks famously set aside hours in the early 2000s to screen Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers in an effort to grasp the success of insurgents against an occupying force. And now a new restoration of Pierre Schoendoerffer’s 1965 masterpiece The 317th Platoon arrives as a reminder that nothing in the bungled tragedy of Americans in Vietnam should have been a surprise. Surveying the doomed 1954 retreat of French and Laotian soldiers, Schoendoerffer exposes, with a reporter’s eye, the horrors that were and the horrors to come.
His film is a grunts-in-the-boonies travelogue that anticipates not just the experiences of thousands of American soldiers but also most of the American films that, decades later, would grapple with those experiences. It’s in black-and-white, there’s no Creedence on the soundtrack, and its style is spare and observational, but The 317th Platoon tells much the same story as the grandiose American Vietnam films of the 1970s and ’80s. It got to the heart of darkness first — and we were fools to follow.
Here’s a squad outgunned behind enemy lines, trying to get back to a base under siege, freighted with wounded, led by Torrens (Jacques Perrin), a naif right out of the military academy desperate to maintain order. He insists that his men not raid the villages they encounter. His second-in-command is the career soldier Willsdorf (Bruno Crémer), a somewhat cynical bruiser whose backstory is the military history of twentieth-century France. Why they’re fighting isn’t something anyone has time to worry about. Don’t expect anyone to thumbnail France’s ambitions of empire or Ho Chi Minh’s Communist revolution. They’re simply trying to escape a jungle that teems with enemy soldiers who do know what they’re fighting for — and how to win.
Early on, we see Torrens’s squad mostly intact and setting up an ambush. A band of Viet Minh bearing supplies are exposed as they ford a river. Torrens’s soldiers observe them from the brush, waiting until their prey is most vulnerable, and then open fire. Schoendoerffer’s violence is frank but unsensational, often shown from the vantage of the soldier perpetrating it: The Viet Minh, in silhouette in the shooters’ crosshairs, collapse into the water, the gunshots quick cracks rather than the fireworking hell of Apocalypse Now. The most suspenseful sequences involve peering through binoculars at the tree line, searching for a shooter. Later, the surviving members of Torrens’s platoon will have to cross a river themselves, and both they and the audience wince in anticipation of the inevitable attack.
Soon the 317th is split up, burdened by men dying on bamboo stretchers, cut off from safety. Schoendoerffer and crew shot in Cambodia, and the jungle presses in on most scenes, the actors hunkered down in weeds and creek beds, the nights deeply black and nothing more terrifying than a sudden quiet. (New Wave lion Raoul Coutard served as director of photography; like Schoendoerffer, he was a veteran of what was known as the First Indochina War.) Drugs help, morphine and opium, as does the occasional bottle of wine (stolen from a village) or Pernod (shattered in a supply drop). The narcotic haze never infects the clear-eyed filmmaking, but we see some soldiers lose focus, stop caring whether they make it back. It’s clear early on that the usual war movie heroism is out of place here: There’s no bridge to blow up, no day to save, no cause worth dying for. The heroism of these men, the colonizing French and the local anti-Communist Laotians, is in perseverance and their dedication to each other.
Later films about this war and subsequent ones would be more frank about civilian casualties, about what happens when scared and desperate soldiers meet scared and desperate villagers. But in the offhand tenderness its men exhibit toward each other, The 317th Platoon established a model that persists today even in Hollywood movies, the ones that celebrate the warriors while remaining politely ambivalent about the wars.
The 317th Platoon
Written and directed by Pierre Schoendoerffer
Opens August 10, Metrograph
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