06 September 2010

Pierre Schoendorffer's Vietnam

My copy doesn't have a box, but it is an Interama release which used this (low rez) art.
Original Title - La 317eme Section
France - 1964
Director - Pierre Schoendorffer
Interama Video Classics, 1990, VHS
Run Time - 1 hour, 34 minutes

Most of the cinematic output that we in the States are exposed to is centered on the U.S. war in the 60’s, and with the exception of The Quiet American, ignores even the French conflict in the 1940s and 50s, much less any Vietnamese input on the subject. Not surprisingly, the Vietnamese and the French have made films about their own experiences of conflict, it’s just that there is little interest in the U.S. and so, the films are not readily available here. It’s not so much that the output exclusively focuses on the U.S. war then, just that for U.S. Americans that’s all that’s really interesting.

During the French war, which was largely bankrolled by the Eisenhower administration, French troops attempted to reassert colonial dominance over the entire country with far fewer men than the U.S. had 15 years later for half the country. Pierre Schoendorffer’s La 317eme Section aptly captures the strategic futility of the French position at the end of the war in 1954. The film centers on a tiny border outpost where two French Foreign Legionaires command a platoon of indigenous troops. They are ordered to leave their post and march through the mountains while evading the enemy. This turns out to be an order much more tactically and psychologically difficult than it sounds. All of this takes place during the prolonged battle of Dien Bien Phu, giving the film a lingering sense of doom (assuming you know, as a French audience would, the significance of that battle).

Considering that I am not French, much of the plot’s more subtle cultural implications are likely lost on me, but the platoon’s leadership suggests some important themes. The commanding lieutenant is a freshly minted French officer with little practical experience in the field, while his platoon sergeant is a German veteran of the Wehrmacht in WWII. Together they represent the profound change that France underwent in the aftermath of the Second World War as it transitioned from an outward looking colonial world power to a self-contained, modern nation-state. After the Second World War, the Indochinese War was one aspect of France’s attempt to reassert what it had been before. The fate of the 317eme section parallels this mission as past experience increasingly fails to provide insight into present circumstances. This is driven home in the concluding text which informs us of the Sergeant’s subsequent fate in Algeria. The platoon is a microcosm of France undergoing a traumatic, forced transformation at the hands of her own history.

Original Title - La Section Anderson
France - 1966
Director - Pierre Schoendorffer
Home Vision Public Media, 2000, VHS
Run Time - 1 hour, 5 minutes

Long before it reappeared in Full Metal Jacket, Nancy Sinatra’s 1966 #1 hit “These Boots are Made for Walkin’” captured the brilliant irony of the U.S. experience in Vietnam in Schoendorffer’s follow up to The 317th Platoon, The Anderson Platoon. In the 1960’s the director returned to Vietnam as a war correspondent for various French magazines, and in 1967 spent six weeks in the field filming a documentary about a single platoon of U.S. Army infantrymen. The entire film is narrated by the director, and in his opening lines he explains his conclusions: “I went back to rediscover the Vietnam I had left thirteen years ago with the French Army. Except for a few poignant scenes, I discovered, above all, America.” At first this would seem to be a rather obvious claim, but its deeper significance is revealed gradually throughout the film.

Schoendorffer’s cinematography focuses on the projection of U.S. culture and worldview into its foreign policy. It focuses on the pervasive atmospheric and psychological rather than physical presence that was created. This manifests in a sense that the U.S. restructures and recreates the familiar wherever it goes. The military appears as an encapsulated but pared down version of U.S. culture, while the civilian life visible to us on screen mirrors U.S. expectations. There is the feeling that the military and economic power that the U.S. exudes creates a bubble of conformity around itself which prevents the U.S. from ever really seeing a Vietnam not colored by its own presence, and thus unable to understand what the war might be about to the Vietnamese. The feeling one gets from this is that the United States is so inward looking that it is unable to perceive the unique identities and desires of other peoples. It appears as a cultural juggernaut, so monumental and diffuse that its disparate parts act independently around an ambiguous goal. It becomes oblivious, ineffective and self defeating, a blunt instrument of cultural hegemony.

Schoendorffer fortunately doesn’t try and ascribe a moral value to this phenomenon, he merely observes and reveals the way it manifests. The Anderson Platoon could be seen in this sense as the flip side of The 317th Platoon. It contrasts the overwhelming and potent presence of all things U.S. with the fragility of Frenchness in 317th. They are different national experiences separated by a great deal of history, but as a veteran of both wars (a combatant in the first and what we now call “embedded” journalist in the second) Schoendorffer is able to see the beginnings of a tragic similarity that wouldn’t be visible to most of us for at least another decade. It is important to remember that both of these films privilege a very limited Franco-American perspective, leaving out entirely any Vietnamese perspective. Despite the fact that they cannot tell us the whole story of these wars, Schoedorffer's films remain a powerfully reflective experience.

Some alternate cover art for Schoendorffer's films:

The first of the Anderson Platoon covers looks like someone's Photoshop project. To the best of my knowledge neither film has been released on DVD in the U.S.

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