Historical Dictionary



Unlike its American counterpart’s interest in the Vietnam War, French cinema has paid comparatively little attention to the Indochina War. The reasons for this are hard to pin down. The fact that the Indochina War was fought by a professional army, the Expeditionary Corps, and not a draft one, lowered its impact upon French society and intellectual debates. Somewhat fewer Frenchmen died in Indochina than in Algeria between 1945 and 1962. The fact that the European settler population living in Indochina was so small also gave it much less salience than the many pied noirs in Algeria. About one million Europeans lived in Algeria in 1954 and most moved to France when the war ended in 1962, thus driving its impact home much more directly.

In 1957, some three years after the end of the Indochina War, two films on the conflict nevertheless appeared on the big screen in France: Patrouille de choc and Mort en fraude. Claude Bernard-Aubert’s Patrouille de Choc focuses on the last stand of a small group of French soldiers, holed up in an isolated post, as they came under hard Vietnamese attack. In order to head off the censors, Bernard-Aubert had to rewrite the ending so that his soldiers could be offered the chance to escape annihilation (the first title of the film was Patrouille sans espoir). While Bernard-Aubert is focused on French soldiers fighting valiantly, Marcel Camus adopted Jean Hougron’s novel, Mort en fraude (released in English as Fugitive in Saigon) to examine how the protagonist, a young Frenchman, tried to understand the Vietnamese and the reasons why they fought. By having the main character live with Vietnamese villagers and eventually die in a massacre let loose by the French army, Camus was one of the rare French directors to critique French colonialism and the war in Indochina through the cinema. Despite the fact that he took up the question of atrocities committed by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), the French government banned this film in its colonies.

Few other directors were ever as critical or as daring. Most have tended to celebrate the heroism of the French soldiers fighting on when the government abandoned the army it sent in to do the job. A veteran of the Indochina War and an official photographer for the army, Pierre Schoendoerffer, is the bestknown example. He produced the 317ème Section in 1965 as American troops headed into southern Vietnam to fight. Like Bernard-Aubert, Schoendoerffer follows a French platoon as it flees the rapidly advancing Vietnamese army at the very moment that the DRV’s troops were overruning Dien Bien Phu. Tragedy is Schoendoerffer’s favorite trope, but military honor and nationalism drive his films. This certainly comes through in his other films flashing back to Indochina through the Algerian War, like L’honneur d’un capitaine or Le crabe tambour. In 1992, he returned to the heroism of the lost French army in Dien Bien Phu just as Bernard-Aubert had also returned to the theme of the tragic French soldiers in Le facteur s’en va-t-en guerre (1966). The latter follows them this time to their capture and dispatch to re-education camps before they escape. Schoendoerffer also latched on to the camps. In his Là-haut, un roi au-dessus des nuages he has a veteran of the Indochina War go back into Vietnam in search of a Vietnamese comrade and officer escaping from a communist Vietnamese re-education camp. Henri Decoins’ Les parias de la gloire (1964) stars Roger Delpey, author of the novel on which the film is based and a veteran of the Indochina War. Le fort du fou (1963) deals with Vietnamese Catholics and French soldiers resisting the communist onslaught while Transit à Saigon (1963) is based on a drug trafficking scandal. Other French films based on or evoking the Indochina War include: Ils étaient cinq, Les tripes au soleil, Match contre la mort, Les lâches vivent d’espoir, Charlie Bravo, Ramuntcho, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud and Le souffle au cœur. See also ART; COMICS AND WAR; CULTURE; INDOCTRINATION; INTELLECTUALS; NOVELS; PYSCHOLOGICAL WARFARE