veteran filmmaker Schoendoerffer
veteran filmmaker Schoendoerffer, Pierre Schoendoerffer, who has died aged 83, was one of the few directors of war films who had actually lived out the adventures of his soldier heroes. The American film-makers William Wellman, Sam Fuller and Oliver Stone did so, but no other director explored the same subject as single-mindedly and doggedly as Schoendoerffer.
His experiences of combat as a military cameraman and as a prisoner of war during the conflict in Indochina marked his output, most directly La 317ème Section (The 317th Platoon, 1965), about a doomed French unit; Le Crabe-Tambour (The Drummer Crab, 1977), about French officers involved in the fall of the French empire after the second world war; his Oscar-winning television documentary La Section Anderson (The Anderson Platoon, 1967), which followed the lives of US soldiers in Vietnam; and Diên Biên Phú (1992), about a US war correspondent covering the climactic battle between the French Far East Expeditionary Corps and Viet Minh communist-nationalist revolutionaries. Through these films, which offered Schoendoerffer a means of catharsis, he never really left Vietnam – and it never left him.
He was born in Chamalières, central France, into a French-Alsatian Protestant family. Attracted to an adventurous life from a young age, he became a mariner at 19. He worked on a Swedish cargo ship, then joined the merchant navy, sailing the Baltic and the North Sea for two years. His favourite writer was Joseph Conrad, whose novel Typhoon Schoendoerffer spent three years adapting for the screen in the 1990s, although no finance was found.
After military service, he decided to become a film-maker. In 1951 he volunteered to become a cameraman for the French army in Saigon. A few years later, he shot a great deal of the long siege of Diên Biên Phú, but after the French defeat he destroyed his camera and films, hiding six one-minute reels before he was taken to a Viet Minh re-education camp. These were later used by Roman Karmen, a Soviet documentary maker, in his propaganda film Vietnam (1955), seen from the Viet Minh's perspective.
On his release from the camp, Schoendoerffer became a war reporter and photographer in South Vietnam. In 1958 his friend the novelist Joseph Kessel asked him to direct his script for an adventure film, La Passe du Diable (The Devil's Pass). Co-directed by Jacques Dupont, it was the first film shot by the cinematographer Raoul Coutard, the darling of the French new wave, who was to photograph almost all Schoendoerffer's movies. Filmed in colour and CinemaScope over eight months in Afghanistan, using local non-actors, it was nominated for the Golden Bear in Berlin.
Schoendoerffer then adapted and updated two novels by Pierre Loti, the French author of exotic romances: Ramuntcho, whose hero becomes a prisoner of war in Indochina, and Pêcheur d'Islande (Island Fishermen), set off the coast of Brittany. Both were made in 1959.
These works only skirted his compulsion to make films directly about the war in Indochina. One of the first films to deal with the subject, The 317th Platoon focused on the conflict between an inexperienced officer (Jacques Perrin) and a tough veteran of the second world war (Bruno Crémer) as the group struggle to survive in the jungle behind enemy lines. The difficult shoot, with a crew of six, in the middle of a Cambodian forest during the rainy season, added to the authenticity of the film, photographed realistically in splendid black and white by Coutard and soberly directed. "I imposed a strict military regime on everyone," Schoendoerffer recalled. "A war film shouldn't be made in comfort." The resulting film could have been seen as a harsh cautionary tale at the time when American involvement in Vietnam was escalating. Hollywood began to approach the war, seldom more effectively, some years later.
The Anderson Platoon, made for French television, followed American "grunts" for six weeks in 1966. Among the memorable moments is Nancy Sinatra singing These Boots Are Made for Walkin', a hit of the day, on the soundtrack while GIs march through the mud. This moving documentary took a more neutral stance than Schoendoerffer's fictional features on the war such as The Drummer Crab, adapted from his own novel. That film revolves around three military men – played by Jean Rochefort, Claude Rich and Perrin in the title role – as they recall the Indochina conflict through flashbacks. The film could be read as a metaphor for the decline of France and a certain involuntary nostalgia for the colonial past. Rochefort, Coutard and the supporting actor Jacques Dufilho all won Césars for their work.
L'Honneur d'un Capitaine (The Captain's Honour, 1982) examined that other French colonial war of the 20th century, Algeria. It deals with the widow (Nicole Garcia, one of the few women in Schoendoerffer's world) of a French captain (Perrin) whose reputation has been besmirched because of his war record.
There was a 10-year gap before Schoendoerffer made another film, but Diên Biên Phú continued where he had left off. Based on a book by Howard R Simpson, an American correspondent in Indochina, it is a searing view of a lost cause but is slightly undermined by some of the dialogue and the casting of Donald Pleasence as Simpson.
Schoendoerffer's last picture, co-written with his actor son Ludovic, was Là-Haut: Un Roi au-dessus des Nuages (Above the Clouds, 2003), a thriller set in Thailand, starring Perrin, Crémer and Rich. In between his films, Schoendoerffer wrote a few novels, one of which was made into the second world war drama Farewell to the King (1989), directed by John Milius.
Schoendoerffer is survived by his wife, Patricia, and their children, Frédéric, Ludovic and Amélie, who are all in the film business.
• Pierre Schoendoerffer, film director, born 5 May 1928; died 14 March 2012
According to a statement from his family, the writer and film director died in the early hours of Wednesday at the Percy military hospital outside Paris.
A founding member of the Cesars, the French equivalent of the Oscars, Schoendoerffer launched his career with the French military film service during the country's war in Indochina, following a brief stint as a merchant sailor.
In both novels and films, Schoendoerffer returned again and again to the conflict in Indochina, where he was held for four months as a prisoner of war and which was the subject of his best-known works, "Le Crabe-Tambour" (The Drummer Crab) and "La 317e Section" (The 317th Platoon).
President Nicolas Sarkozy hailed Schoendoerffer as a "legend" who helped the French "better understand our collective history".
"France will miss this man -- an aristocrat in his heart and soul -- whose life was inspired by heroes like Joseph Conrad and Jack London, who shaped his imagination," Sarkozy said.
Born in 1928 in the central French town of Chamalieres, Schoendoerffer was inspired to a life of adventure by writers such as Conrad and French adventurer and author Joseph Kessel, whose work on Afghanistan, "La Passe du Diable" (The Devil's Pass), he filmed in 1956.
After 18 months as a sailor in the Baltic Sea, Schoendoerffer arrived aged 19 in French Indochina, the colony comprising present-day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos where French forces were fighting the independence-seeking Viet Minh.
Taken on as a cameraman by the French military's film service, he filmed the war's climactic battle, the 1954 defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu, and was afterward held as a prisoner of war for four months.
Schoendoerffer left the military following the war but remained in Vietnam to work as a reporter for French and US publications including Paris Match, Time and Life.
Returning to France in 1955, he set himself up as a roaming correspondent, writer and filmmaker, returning many times to Vietnam and covering conflicts such as the Algerian War.
His experiences during the Indochina War would mark "Le Crabe-Tambour", which won three Cesars in 1977 and "La 317e Section", based on his own novel and winner of best screenplay at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival.
He went back to Vietnam for his 1967 Oscar-winning documentary, "The Anderson Platoon", which looked at the lives of a platoon of US soldiers fighting in the country.
He returned to the conflict again in 1991 with the film "Dien Bien Phu", about a US war correspondent covering the fateful battle.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon praised Schoendoerffer as "a great witness of our times" in a statement, saying "his images always went beyond the events."
Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand hailed him as a writer and filmmaker "haunted by war and its consequences on our humanity."
"He was a man of honour who believed in loyalty to his family and to his country," Mitterrand said in a statement.
Historian Benedicte Cheron said Schoendoerffer had shed much-needed light on difficult periods of French military history.
"He was a filmmaker and not a historian... but his work helped establish in the national imagination one period that was largely unknown, in the case of Indochina, and another that was difficult and traumatic, as in the case of the Algerian War," she said.
"His representation of war, of wartime heroism and of the tragedy of war, touched on the universal."
Schoendoerffer had three children, including filmmaker Frederic Schoendoerffer.
Schoendoerffer wrote a novel, The 317th Platoon, about the French war, which he made into a film in 1965 that he wrote and directed. He is perhaps best known in this country for the 1967 documentary, The Anderson Platoon, a close-up, in-the-field look at U.S. Army Lt. Joe Anderson and his men slogging it out in the field in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. First shown on French TV, then on CBS-TV, the documentary played in theaters in this country and received the 1968 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
His other main film was 1992′s Dien Bien Phu, a critically acclaimed, fictionalized look at the battle that was filmed in Vietnam (although not at the actual site of the battle) and featured the travails of an American war correspondent. The $30-million epic, which used 10,000 Vietnamese soldiers as extras, was the first non-Asia movie to be made about the Indochina War in Vietnam.