Monday, October 10, 2011

[Visions of the East: Asia through French Eyes] The 317th Platoon (La 317ème Section)

Smoke While You Can

The National Museum of Singapore Cinematheque continues in its provision of specially curated film programme with a special focus of Asia being seen through French cinema, with screenings and talks being organized around the theme, which you can find out more about at their website here. The 317th Platoon piqued my interest for being a war film made by filmmakers who have actually walked the talk and experiencing the conflict themselves, and you can just about trust director Pierre Schoendoerffer and renowned French cinematographer Raoul Coutard to bring about a film of cinematic quality even when dealing with what I deem as a taboo subject for French filmmakers, since the era of the French-Vietnam war in the 50s is something rarely seen put on film, with this being an exception, and a stunning one at that.

And with screenings at the Cinematheque you can just about trust the programmers to hunt down the perfect version of the film to be put on screen, this being the restored film by La Cinematheque francaise and by StudioCanal in collaboration with The Franco-American Cultural Fund, cleaned up from its pops, cackles and whistles to bring about an exceptionally beautiful presentation that does justice to Coutard's cinematography, one that is restored with the assistance of the filmmakers themselves, in a process detailed at the beginning before the opening credits. Filmed in Cambodia with help extended by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, it brings about one of the best war stories ever told in the extended Vietnam War from the French point of view, which is rare in itself, and sucker punches its peers, especially those done by Hollywood, set around the same era.

Told in a day by day account, we follow the titular platoon who got ordered to abandon their fortified position in order to retreat southwards, but little do they know that once out of their comfort zone, they're plunged right into warfare with the enemy Vietminh soldiers hot on their heels, turning into a cat and mouse pursuit of trying to gain the upperhand against the enemy rather than to constantly be on the run. It's the time where the winds of change in Indochina see the Viet Minh soldiers relentlessly pushing the French troops from their soil, even urging their brothers on the side of the French to mutiny and betray their Caucasian commanders, who are headed by quite the inept military commander lacking savvies of warfare.

Its portrayal of war is something that only those who have gone through warfare or at least some basic military training will be able to ascertain how accurate things got portrayed, from the fullpack inspection (which uncovered a tied up piglet!) to how commanders aren't sometimes the most experienced or smart on the battlefield, with the warrant officers, specialists and men, in this case, the locals, being shown to have more courage, loyalty and all round shrewdness in fighting an non-fightable war given being grossly outnumbered to begin with. Many situations put on screen undoubtedly come from the director Pierre Schoendoerffer having witnessed how it's conducted and having their fair share of experiences on the battlefield, and this helped to translate authenticity to the movie despite having to shoot in very harsh environments.

In black and white which contributed to its very stark, gritty and no nonsense imagery to war and its horrors, The 317th Platoon also takes a look at warfare itself and how it impacts the most immediate soldiers who have to partake in it, following orders to a T in order to survive as a group. Quintessential war film themes like courage and camaraderie also feature prominently, with Coutard's cinematography putting the audience into the thick of the action as if one of the troops listening to orders, and executing combat movement with the rest.

If you'd think Oliver Stone's Platoon, Brian De Palma's Casualties of War and Randall Wallace's We Were Soldiers are some of the best about the Vietnam War put on film, then you surely must get your hands on this to have a go at what would be a presentation outside of Hollywood, and a Franch one at that which served as the pre-cursor of events to everything else aforementioned. Recommended!

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