The 317th Platoon and The Anderson Platoon.

Not that you would know it from Anglophone publishers, but sometimes Frenchmen get bitten by the adventure bug. The results can be fascinating.

Henri de Monfried (1879-1974) was the son of a French painter. One of his father’s friends was Paul Gauguin, which explains a lot. When he hit thirty, de Monfried junked conventional life. He went to Djibouti, built a dhow, and went into the smuggling business around the Red Sea. He smuggled guns and opium, and fished for pearls, but insisted that he had never been a slaver. He became a well-known, respected, and prosperous figure. Which ought to tell you something about the neighborhood. In 1930, he encountered Joseph Kessel, who was passing through looking for adventure. Kessel (1898–1979) was a Lithuanian Jew born in Argentina, then raised in Russia and France. He served in the French air force in the First World War. Between the wars he wrote ten books. One of Kessel’s interwar books was Fortune carree (1932), based on some of Monfried’s experiences (or, at least, on his stories).[1]

Pierre Schoendoerffer (1928-2012) lost his grandfather (1917) and father (1940) fighting the Germans. When he was fifteen he read Kessel’s Fortune carree and decided that was the life for him. He spent the summer of 1946 on a fishing boat in the Bay of Biscay, then traded on that experience to get hired on a merchant ship in 1947. He did this for a couple of years, then spent a couple of years doing his military service in the “Chasseurs alpins” (mountain troops). Peacetime soldiering had been dull, but a rebellion had broken out in Indochina. In 1951 he re-enlisted and volunteered for a documentary film unit that was going east. He spent three years in Indochina, including serving with the “paras” and the Foreign Legionnaires at Dien Bien Phu (1954) and in the brutal Vietminh prison camp afterward. Back in civvy-street, he went into making documentaries and films based on his experience. Several are about the Vietnam wars.

“The 317th Platoon” (1965) takes place in French Indochina in 1954.[2] Dien Bien Phu has just fallen and the Vietminh are on the offensive. The garrison of a tiny post of Foreign Legionnaires out in the boonies is ordered to retreat to the main lines. The dominant figures are the commander—a high-minded, but wet-behind-the-ears lieutenant—and his top-kick—a German veteran of the Eastern Front. Most of the troops are Vietnamese now caught on the losing side of a civil war. The retreat begins in a light-hearted fashion (they lug their refrigerator along), but soon turns grim. A spectacularly filmed ambush of some Vietminh brings the hunters down on the little group. They are gnawed away to nothing. You can watch the trailer at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oiHhA8p8Ous

“The Anderson Platoon” (1967) takes place in South Vietnam in 1966. It is a documentary record of Schoendoerffer’s six weeks with a platoon of the 1st Cavalry Division commanded by Lieutenant Joseph Anderson. Hence, the film has less of an overt structure and message than does “The 317th Platoon.” The platoon marches through the countryside seeking the enemy, fording streams, pushing through tall grass and trees. Occasionally they make contact in little fire fights that seem to accomplish nothing. Occasionally they go on morose leave in Saigon. You can watch the movie at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iw_7AJjd6Yo

[1] Later on, Kessel answered Charles de Gaulle’s “appeal” for support in June 1940 and flew in the Free French Air Force. One of his fellow flyers was Romain Gary, another Lithuanian Jew turned French author. Later on, Gary wrote the adventure novel The Roots of Heaven (1956), then co-wrote the screen-play with Patrick Leigh Fermor. Later on, de Monfried retired to a little French village. He raised opium poppies in his garden.

[2] One of the production assistants was Brigitte Friang (1924-2011). A remarkable person.

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