The 317th Platoon (1965)





THE SCOOP
Director:  Pierre Schoendoerffer
Cast:  Jacques PerrinBruno CremerPierre Fabre
Plot:  In Vietnam, 1954, a French platoon isolated behind enemy lines tries to come back. It is led by the inexperienced, idealistic sous-lieutenant Torrens, and by adjutant Willsdorf, a WWII veteran of the Werhmacht.

Genre:  War / Drama
Awards:  Won Best Screenplay and nom. for Palme d'Or (Cannes).
Runtime:  100min
Rating:  NC16 for some violence.

IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
Shot entirely in Cambodia, this war film by French director Pierre Schoendoerffer is impressive for the right reasons, yet it does not feel like a great film.  Winning Best Screenplay at Cannes, The 317th Platoon is one of the first films to touch on the subject of war in post-WWII Vietnam.  

It does so reasonably well, with a strong emphasis on realism, both in terms of cinematography and the way situations unfold in the film.  This is not surprising as Schoendoerffer was a veteran of the Indochina war, and had subsequently made The Anderson Platoon (1967) that won the Oscar for Best Documentary.

The 317thPlatoon stars Jacques Perrin as Lt. Torrens, an inexperienced officer who seems to know how things should be done ideally, but not practically.  He leads a section of men comprising of French soldiers, aided by armed locals, as they struggle to survive behind enemy lines.  

His adjutant Willsdorf (Bruno Cremer) is a tough-talking WWII veteran who is very much a realist and understands fully the Darwinian dynamics of warfare.  While there are scenes of Torrens and Willsdorf at odds with each other, the film does not see this inter-comrade tension as its main narrative propellant.

Schoendoerffer’s direction is neither sensational nor even highly entertaining, but the understated rawness of the interactions amongst soldiers on a mission to save themselves, and in between soldier and nature (which is most effectively portrayed in the scenes of Man vs. moving waters during several river crossings) are beautifully shot in all of its harsh reality by the famous Raoul Coutard, who cinematographed Godard’s Breathless (1960) and Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962) among countless others. 

The black-and-white cinematography here is quite astonishing, with the capturing of the interplay of natural elements such as mud and rain perhaps a homage to the climactic battle sequence in Kurosawa’s influential Seven Samurai (1954).

While much of what transpires in the film would be considered perfunctory in contemporary war cinema, The 317th Platoon still manages to engage with its strong dialogue as brought forth especially by the rich interplay between Torrens and Willsdorf.  Their performances are also even and consistent.  

However, the general feeling I get after seeing the film is not as highly favorable as I would have expected it to be.  Mainly for fans of Coutard, or those who are curious and lucky enough to get the chance to see this, The 317th Platoon is a war film that while not entirely satisfying, still questions the fruitlessness of war in a way that resembles true cinematic realism.

GRADE: B 






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