La 317ème section

France, 1965

Directed by Pierre Schoendoerffer

With Jacques Perrin (Lieutenant Torrens), Bruno Cremer (Sergeant Willsdorf), Boramy Tioulong (Ba Kut)

On May 4, 1954, a French army platoon leaves the outpost it has been holding on the frontier between Cambodia and Laos, then parts of the Indochinese colonial system, to reach a distant, bigger, base. It is made up in large parts of indigenous recruits and is led by Lieutenant Torrens, a rookie officer who is assisted by two deputies, Sergeant Willsdorf, an Alsace-born career soldier with a stunning resume, and a young Vietnamese temporary non-commissioned officer named Ba Kut.

Soon after they started to plod through the jungle, they meet a Vietminh battalion. The skirmish leaves many wounded among the platoon. Torrens decides to keep walking to their destination with them, even if it means hampering their progress. His move is bluntly disapproved by Willsdorf, who chooses to stay on the frontline with a few men to keep the enemy busy in order to give more time to the rest of the team to go ahead; both groups are to meet later. The journey of the biggest part of the platoon turns out to be harsh, exhausting and merciless: three of the wounded die as the group trudges through a thoroughly hostile countryside, which raises questions on the wisdom of Torrens’ decision.

Lost in the fog of war and trying to make sense of things: Bruno Cremer (center) and Jacques Perrin

A new part in the story begins when Willsdorf and the few men he took with him can reunite with the platoon’s other survivors. The trek to the base is less grueling but ends with a bitter disappointment, as the base has been destroyed after a Vietminh siege. Torrens and Willsdorf reckon then that they could reach a tribal area still supportive of the French rule but a surprise attack decimates the platoon, eight days after it left the outpost. Only Willsdorf, Ba Kut and a few indigenous soldiers can run away.

The camera is strikingly close to the ground and to the soldiers’ bodies. It relentlessly focuses on the practical difficulties they face as they cross the endless and huge forests of Indochina that engulf them and their story; indeed, dramatic aerial images of those forests bookend the movie while a narrator gives a matter-of-fact, curt, description of their military situation, first the orders to follow and at the end the brutal recognition that the platoon no longer exists.

The film describes how a group of soldiers can be slowly dismembered by fight, attrition and miscalculations. Actual fighting stands for a small part of the action; the depiction is based on a series of scattered and confused shots (generally various precisely composed medium shots), a viewpoint probably close to what the soldiers caught in the heat of the fight could be actually hearing, seeing and doing; the enemy is rarely within reach but rather becomes the distant dark figures noticed through binoculars (shots based on the supposed vision those lenses give are a recurring feature). The physical price the soldiers must pay as well as the varied expressions of their mettle are the real objects of the camera’s painstaking scrutiny. The awkward camaraderie, the deep weariness, the occasional bravado and the convenient cynicism are straightforwardly conveyed and feel as obvious and searing as a body writhing in pain or a haggard face or a wistful gaze. Their attitudes ring true and their ordeal shocks.

The story is also the heartbreaking confrontation between two leaders. Torrens is a fresh graduate from a military academy who wanted to help his country win but the events on the ground are more challenging than what he has thought. Willsdorf is an older fellow who was enrolled in the Nazi armies in the course of World War Two (Alsace was then a French region annexed to Hitler’s Reich) and had never ceased fighting. He knows and loves Indochina out of experience; it has nothing to do with the abstract political principle Torrens stands for. Torrens is clearly tormented by the fate of his men while Willsdorf seems to be only interested in efficiency. But they eventually manage to bridge the gap lying between their divergent expectations and standards. Theirs is the tale of the complex relationship between commissioned officers and non-commissioned officers, between the rookie and the battle-hardened soldier, between the idealistic and the pragmatic, between two forces striving to get in sync. The cast’s performances are striking and increasingly elicit sympathy for their strengths, flaws and tentative friendship, which makes the lieutenant’s tragic end definitely heartbreaking.

The narrative is put into a wider context. The narrator, radio broadcast and soldiers’ chats indicate that another fight is taking place at the same time, at the Dien Bien Phu camp, while diplomats are gathering in Geneva to hold peace talks. The platoon is broken apart just after the fall of the famous base. The disaster befallen the section looks like a metaphor of the wider failure of France to keep its Asian colonies and Torrens’ death poignantly symbolizes the end of many illusions (in a sharp departure from previous fighting scenes, the last and destructive attack on the platoon is shot at a great distance, from a higher ground, next to an observer who is Willsdorf; he stands as a powerless and fatalistic witness and the shots as well as the editing oblige the audience to share that tragic vision; it feels as we were a helpless community doomed to watch from far away fellow companions losing everything under a cruel and unavoidable assault by a stronger force, the fate of the nations, perhaps).

Pierre Schoendoerffer stunned the French critics and moviegoers at the time (and they were not alone: among the many viewers wowed by the film, there was a young American director named Francis Coppola, who would later claim it as one of his sources for the shooting of “Apocalypse Now” [1979]). War movies had been few in French cinema history and action movies in general might not have sounded so compelling. But it was not the first fiction Schoendoerffer directed; more crucially, he used to work in the film department of the French military. He took part in the Indochina conflict, where he met this film’s cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, who was in 1965 well-known and well-appreciated for the technical support he had been provided to the French Nouvelle Vague filmmakers. Meanwhile, Schoendoerffer was pursuing a literary career (“La 317ème section” is an adaptation of his eponymous novel) that was influenced by the works of Joseph Kessel (who did help him in his activities).

“La 317ème section” is built on those experiences and a summation of the author’s efforts and inspirations; the impressive visual achievements and psychological portrayals are what Schoendoerffer was readying himself to make, stirred by a deeply honest and stubborn dedication to the real lives, warts and all, the soldiers have ( Schoendoerffer’s career brings to mind, to some extent, the arc followed by Samuel Fuller; the American was another willing observer of war events, as a press reporter, and later chose cinema to convey his ideas and feelings on his native country. A big part of Fuller’s filmography is made up of war movies, which paid emphatic attention to the soldiers’ ungrateful tasks and painted war felt as an essential fact of life and history that deserved to be recorded in a fair but also remarkably lucid way). It also had the courage to deal with a historical event still painfully fresh in the country’s memory and that many found tough to evoke (and arguably an event that did not finish with the Dien Bien Phu defeat but continued with eight more years of war in Algeria and dramatic political changes in Africa: the endless destruction of the French Empire).

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