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Le dictionnaire

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SCHOENDOERFFER, PIERRE (1928–)


French novelist, film director, and veteran of the Indo-china War. In 1947, looking for adventure, Schoen-doerffer began working as a sailor on a Swedish cargo ship, but yearned for something more exciting. His grandparents, father, and oldest brother had served in both World Wars. In 1952, following the death of the French army’s photographer in Indochina, Georges Kowal, Schoendoerffer entered the Service cinématographique des armées and began work as an official cameraman with the rank of corporal. He was wounded at the start of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, evacuated but parachuted back in on 21 March 1954 as part of the 5th Battalion of Vietnamese Paratroopers. He went down with the camp on 7 May and was marched to a prison camp by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s (DRV) forces.

Freed from captivity four months later, Schoendoerffer began a new career as a novelist and film director. He focused his work mainly on men at war – comradeship, heroism, virility, sacrifice, and most of all honor, all major themes in his novels and films and in his work for the army’s information service during the Indochina War. Like Jean Lartéguy, Schoendoerffer’s men are brave, tragic “centurions” who keep marching on against all odds. Schoendoerffer first gained notoriety for his film, the 317ème section (1964), which followed the flight of a heroic French-led platoon trying to make its way to safety as Dien Bien Phu and the French army’s time in Indochina came to a tragic end (Norodom Sihanouk loaned Schoendoerffer troops for the film and authorized him to film in Cambodia). The film won a prize for best scenario at Cannes in 1964. He gained further notoriety for La section Anderson (1967), when he followed an American platoon into battle during the Vietnam War. He received an Oscar for this soldier’s view of war. In 1976–1977, he produced with Raoul Coutard Le crabe tambour, which re-joined his “centurions” as older, seemingly rudderless men, as they flash-backed to the Indochinese and Algerian Wars and reflected on the tragic turn of the French Army in these colonial wars.

Schoendoerffer’s work does not seek to question the reasons for the French involvement in Indochina or Algeria. To Schoendoerffer, the soldiers of France’s colonial wars were unsung heroes, who had been sacrificed by inept politicians. When asked what he felt about the Indochina debacle, he replied: La honte. La rage d’avoir été abandonné par la France, a message that comes through clearly in the 317ème section.

Schoendoerffer was no proponent of Vietnamese or Algerian decolonization. He declared in an interview in 1989 in Hommes de guerre that the DRV had not really won the war. He disdained the Algerian Front de libération nationale for failing to take on the French army in battle. Anti-communist, Schoendoerffer declared in 1984 that he would never return to Vietnam. He did, however, in order to film Dien Bien Phu (1992), another heroic commemoration of the besieged French men fighting on during the battle of Dien Bien Phu. Tragedy serves as his trope for restoring national honor. As he put it to the Association nationale des anciens d’Indochine on the meaning of Dien Bien Phu and his film on it 40 years later: “tout était donc perdu. Alors, dans un ultime sursaut, des centaines et des centaines d’hommes obscurs et ordinaires vinrent, non pour redresser une situation désormais sans espoir, mais pour maintenir jusqu’au bout et le plus haut possible quelque chose qui ressemblait à une certaine idée de la France”.

Schoendoerffer sympathized with and contacted the wayward French generals who had turned against the French Republic during the Algerian War – Raoul Salan, André Zeller, Edmond Jouhaud, Maurice Challe, and Pierre Guillaume. Schoendoerffer sent Salan his novel La 317ème section, with a photo of Salan in Indochina in the 1930s. Schoendoerffer’s favorite American film on Vietnam is The Deer Hunter, “a simply remarkable film” he said. This film traces the lives of a group of American young men drafted into the Vietnam War, who ended up in a Vietnamese communist prison camp and were tortured. Schoendoerffer also produced a film on prisoners of war in Vietnam. Despite his animosity towards Vietnamese communists, he accompanied François Mitterrand to Vietnam in 1993, thereby legitimating the French renewal with their former colonial adversary. See also ANTICOLONIALISM; CINEMA; EXPERIENCE OF WAR, DIEN BIEN PHU; MYTH OF WAR; NOVELS; PHOTOGRAPHY.