France's hubris keeps warning us, and so does international cinema. Military brass and George W. Bush administration muckety-mucks famously set aside hours in the early 2000s to screen Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers in an effort to grasp the success of insurgents against an occupying force. And now a new restoration of Pierre Schoendoerffer's 1965 masterpiece The 317th Platoon arrives as a reminder that nothing in the bungled tragedy of Americans in Vietnam should have been a surprise. Surveying the doomed 1954 retreat of French and Laotian soldiers, Schoendoerffer exposes, with a reporter's eye, the horrors that were and the horrors to come. His film is a grunts-in-the-boonies travelogue that anticipates not just the experiences of thousands of American soldiers but also most of the American films that, decades later, would grapple with those experiences.
Here's a squad outgunned behind enemy lines, trying to get back to a base under siege, freighted with wounded, led by Torrens (Jacques Perrin), a naif right out of the military academy desperate to maintain order. He insists that his men not raid the villages they encounter. His second in command is the career soldier Willsdorf (Bruno Cremer), a somewhat cynical bruiser whose backstory is the military history of 20th century France. Don't expect anyone to thumbnail France's ambitions of empire or Ho Chi Minh's Communist revolution. They're simply trying to escape a jungle that teems with enemy soldiers who do know what they're fighting for -- and how to win. Schoendoerffer and crew shot in Cambodia, the actors hunkered down in weeds and creek beds, the nights deeply black and nothing more terrifying than a sudden quiet.