(This handout was prepared originally by Katharine Thornton)



Born in 1928, Pierre Schoendoerffer did his military service in the alpine infantry and then served as a combat cameraman for the French army in the French-Indochina war. He was captured at the battle of Dien Bien Phu (1954) and spent time in a Vietnamese POW camp until his amnesty in 1955. Is he the French Oliver Stone? (War experience in Indochina followed by films about the war.)

From 1960, he was a reporter for French television, mainly in Vietnam.


PS's films and novels are about his war experiences and love of Asia; see his novel Farewell to the King (1969) set in the Pacific in WW2. He has called Vietnam 'the country of my second birth'. PS seems to have a nostalgia for the honour and glory ideal of the French military, particularly in relation to their colonial adventures. Films include:

  • The Devil's Past (1956) set in Afghanistan; Ramuntcho (1959)
  • The Island Fishermen (1959)
  • Objective: 500 million (1966)
  • A captain's honour (1982) and
  • Dien Bien Phu (1991).
  • Won awards for documentary about US patrol The Anderson Section (1966). (Note doco was made year after 317th Platoon.)


Meaning of the Title

Based upon an autobiographical novel by the same name: Pierre Schoendoerffer, La 317e section (Paris: La Table Ronde1963).


A French platoon set out from their base to rejoin French forces. They are attacked by the enemy (Viet Minh) hiding in the jungle and then have several wounded to take with them. On their journey they hear of the fall of Dien Bien Phu. There is a brief moment of hope that they will be rescued, but it comes to nothing. It is a difficult and inevitably tragic journey.


  • Black and white film, like the newsreel footage of the war shown in French cinemas. Enhances the 'realism' of the film?
  • The 'stock players' of the war movie: the inexperienced, young lieutenant, straight from military college, who learns from the battle-hardened old sergeant
  • Note references to other wars and war myths:
    • the Charge of the Light Brigade, death or glory stuff
    • the German Occupation of France in WW2, in particular the experience of Alsatians (from Alsace) who were conscripted by the Wehrmacht
    • the Liberation of France at the end of WW2
    • the Battle of Stalingrad, WW2
    • the intimation of the other colonial conflict: Algeria
  • Note references to colonialism:
    • the education of the peasants about Asian vs. Caucasian with the egg
    • the Cambodian troops who are under French officers
    • French officers' insistence on bringing their supplies of alcohol, but making the native troops leave their scrounged supplies behind
  • Similarities to Platoon: the hostility of the environment for Europeans who find it difficult, unfamiliar and threatening
  • The connections between this journey and the siege at Dien Bien Phu: parachute drops of food, ammunition, medicine that went off target and were taken by the Vietnamese instead of the French. (It was maddening for French troops at Dien Bien Phu to smell Gauloise {French cigarette} smoke drifting over to them from the enemy lines - psych war?). Also, the soldiers' feeling of abandonment by the outside world who know nothing and care less for their plight.
  • The very sombre mood of the film, a calmness about the inevitable tragedy.