It. tit.: 317° battaglione d’assalto; Sog.: dal romanzo omonimo di Pierre Schoendoerffer; Scen.: Pierre Schoendoerffer; F.: Raoul Coutard; Mo.: Armand Psenny; Mu.: Pierre Jansen; Su: Jean Nény, Te Hak Kheng; Int.: Jacques Perrin (lieutenant Torrens), Bruno Cremer (marshal Willsdorff), Pierre Fabre (sergent Roudier), Manuel Zarzo (corporal Perrin), Boramy Tioulong (auxiliary sergent Ba Kut); Prod.: Georges de Beauregard, Benito Perojo per Les Productions Georges de Beauregard/ Producciones Benito Perojo/Rome Paris Films; Pri. pro.: 31 maggio 1965. 35mm. D.: 94’. Bn.
Georges de Beauregard had produced my first three films – La Passe du Diable, Ramuntcho and Pêcheurs d’Islande – which were successful. I told him about an idea for a film about the Indochina War. “I’m not interested in your boy-scout story!” he answered. The idea spent the following five years on a shelf. Instead of throwing all the notes I had taken in the bin, I decided to write a book, which indeed did quite well. At that point, Beauregard figured that a film based on the book could be worth considering. We made it on a shoestring, but that didn’t really bother me because I always used to say that the Indochina War had been a ‘poor man’s war’. So making a ‘poor man’s film’ actually made my case. (…) One of the things I remembered from the Indochina War were the long, exhausting marches in the jungle under that relentless rain. (…) We had that paradoxical feeling of danger, of isolation in a foreign country, and that joy we got just looking at the scenery, as Willsdorff (Bruno Cremer’s character) said: “It’s so beautiful…” That country fascinated us. (…) The découpage was all based on the type of terrain. The backdrop was as important as the characters. Coutard had a team of assistant cameramen who had also been in Indochina. They were this sort of hard core (…). I wanted us to stay with the platoon all the time, without leaving the jungle. (…) I wanted the camera to be an invisible soldier, part of the group. (…) I didn’t want the camera to see the Viets any more than the soldiers saw them. You see the Viets when they see them too. (…) The film reflects the experience I had during my three years in Indochina. I was a cameraman. I filmed generals-inchief who came in to get a feel of the Indochina War, kings… And I was there with the troops on their long marches. I was there when it was sunny, when it was raining, and when we were being shot. I was injured, taken prisoner, and hit the rock bottom of human misery: three-quarters of my comrades didn’t come back, they died on the road, in the camps. In those three years, I lived through more than most people see in a lifetime. I felt a need to bear witness to that, at a time when I was trying to find my real role in the filmmaking world.
Pierre Schoendoerffer, Entretien avec Pierre Schoendoerffer, edited by Bernard Payen, aprile the 13th 2010, from La 317éme Section, Ciné- mathèque Française, Paris 2010
This Pierre Schoendoerffer film – which is beyond a doubt France’s most beautiful war film – is a documentary fiction. Every detail in the story is true and firsthand. Everything is true to life, and stems straight from what the two men who made this film – Pierre Schoendoerffer and his photography director Raoul Coutard – saw and lived through on the ground. They met during the Indochina War: one was a war correspondent, the other a photographer working with the armed forces. This magnificent black-and-white film, besides the grey soaked uniforms and thick foliage in Cambodia (where the film was shot), is withdrawing and rigorous. It is brimming with their military experience during the May 1954 clashes, i.e. the last days before French endured a decisive defeat, when Diên Biên Phu fell. The story is about a platoon led by young Lieutenant Torrens (Jacques Perrin) and his right hand Adjudant Willsdorf (Bruno Cremer), a Wehrmacht veteran. It is about their adventure, crossing enemy lines, the skirmishes, the ambushes, the harsh weather, the water, the mud, the dysentery, about crossing rice paddies and rivers, about the wounded and the dead. The beauty is in the framing, the uncanny zooming in, providing the impression that you can reach out and touch every leaf, every blade of grass, and follow this platoon’s haphazard, chaotic moves through a jungle that is ensnaring them. Pierre Schoendoerffer’s cinema is true to life. Its aim is not to please as much as it is to leave a trace of the events in people’s memories. (…) There is only Pierre Jansen’s lovely, modern and liturgical music that rises above them – or lingers there ominously. La 317ème Section was shot in 1964, and Jean Rouch and the Nouvelle Vague, which that had surged a few years prior, influenced it. (…) The military codes, hierarchy among soldiers, the language and gestures are reconstituted in the way the film moves. The danger, precariousness and feeling of defeat are clear in a new, unexpected, way. Above everything else, however, Pierre Schoendoerffer filmed this war with a code of honour.
Serge Toubiana, Le plus beau film de guerre du cinéma français, from La 317ème Section, Ciné- mathèque Française, Paris 2010