Pierre Schoendoerffer’s The 317th Platoon distinguishes between being moral and moralizing by crafting characters who respond to the present-tense demands of battle-torn Indochina rather than stand around and wax poetic about the nature of war. Released in 1965, a year ahead of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, the film functions as an antidote to the decades of propaganda films made in Europe and the U.S. that espoused national pride as a form of political maintenance. Cinematographer Raoul Coutard uses close-ups of ambivalent, rain-soaked faces to render the seemingly unending tumult of taking aim at unknown men on the battlefield. The cumulative effect of Schoendoerffer’s realist approach reinforces the unsparing nature of international conflict, as one of the surviving French officers, a concluding voiceover states, will be killed just a few years later in the Algerian War.
Structured like a newsreel that’s been zapped of extensive context, with only sporadic on-screen text explaining the date and circumstances of the events depicted on screen, The 317th Platoon implicitly questions the possibility of moral warfare. The eponymous platoon’s leaders, Lieutenant Torrens (Jacques Perrin) and his assisting officer, Willsdorf (Bruno Cremer), preside over a group of French and Laotian soldiers who’ve been ordered to abandon their post in Laos and rejoin French forces stationed in Diên Biên Phú. Their trek is immediately halted by a firefight with the Viet Minh, whose violence prompts a series of unexpected detours and stops as the platoon makes its way through the jungle. With only occasional access to a radio, the men are left to process the war largely through their own sensory experience of battle and bloodshed. Schoendoerffer’s focus solely within the confines of the platoon makes incoherent the underlying justification for its predicament, in turn catalyzing each man’s isolation. Merely given a number, the platoon becomes less a brotherhood than a group of men vying to see another sunrise.
Valor, bravery, and heroism are illusions in The 317th Platoon, laid bare through a sequence in which Sergeant Roudier (Pierre Fabre) is wounded and endures much pain before his death. Along the way, he sucks down cigarettes and takes shots of morphine. The soldiers know only the tangibility of their rations, searching the pockets of dead soldiers for anything that can be consumed. Before being shot, Roudier fantasizes with other troops about a cold glass of Pernod, and when several bottles are parachuted in late in the film, well after Roudier’s death, several are broken, now useless—except as a potential weapon. An almost literal instance of “shattered dreams,” the moment expresses Schoendoerffer’s defection from the notion of French nationalism being tied to domestic economic strength. The imagined cold drink mirrors the mirage of killing other human beings to promote peace.
Adapted by Schoendoerffer from his own novel, The 317th Platoon is chock-full of bits of business that point to warfare as an industry that stocks platoons with fresh bodies, not unlike a department store promoting a seasonal line of products. Dying soldiers plead for cigarettes rather than painkillers. Memories of an idealized pub—and the promise to return to it—fuel the group’s onward push toward their ordered destination. As in more conventional war films, each man reveals bits and pieces of a life before battle. But instead of sentimentally reveling in these details, Schoendoerffer characterizes these men as caught between colonial-era politics and an impending postcolonial France. In hindsight, the pleasures that once were could only be enjoyed in ignorance of those on the receiving end of oppression. The film suggests history, as an objective concept, becomes immoral when it’s written without both philosophical and moral consideration from multiple points of view.
Early in the film, Willsdorf says that, having spent more than two years in northern Laos, he won’t return to France. Instead, he will stay, build a place, and take a wife. In doing so, he remarks on the physical traits of Laotian women, admiring what he takes to be a prepubescent look, given their lack of body hair. By including this admission from Willsdorf, Schoendoerffer alludes to the French officer in Alain Resnais’s Muriel, released in 1963, who spoke of Algeria with a fondness that suggested he wished he’d never left. In both cases, one country is idealized as a substitute for the other, but each man’s longing is merely a fantasy of self-control and leisure. Herein lies the problem, as the film sees it: When an allegiance to the idea of a place supersedes a commitment to equality and sustained humanity, psychosis results. Thus, it’s not individuals who breed new wars, but the underlying system that manufactures irrational pursuits of pleasure. Since the soldiers in The 317th Platoon are too close to death to be able to communicate the horror of their charge, Schoendoerffer uses the film to articulate it for them.