As a movie craftsman, he blended a romantic adventurer’s love of Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson with his harrowing experience as an army cameraman in French-ruled Indochina.
During the long siege at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Mr. Schoendoerffer parachuted into the French-held fortress. When the stronghold fell to the Vietnamese guerrilla army, he was beaten by the Viet Minh after an escape attempt and held four months as a prisoner in a “re-education” camp.
After his release, he embarked on a career as a reporter, novelist and moviemaker. In movies such as “The 317th Platoon” (1965), “Le Crabe-Tambour” (1977), “A Captain’s Honor” (1982), “Dien Bien Phu” (1992) and “Above the Clouds” (2003), his protagonists wrestle with notions of idealism, honor and conscience amid the decline of the French empire in Southeast Asia or North Africa.
Several of the movies were based on his novels, including “The 317th Platoon” and “Le Crabe-Tambour,” which won a prestigious French literary award in 1976.
John Milius, who co-wrote the screenplay of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (1979), credited Mr. Schoendoerffer’s books and movies as a strong influence. In 1989, Milius directed a film based on Mr. Schoendoerffer’s novel “Farewell to the King,” about a man who sets up a jungle kingdom in Asia during World War II.
Mr. Schoendoerffer gained his broadest early recognition for the 1967 Vietnam documentary “The Anderson Platoon,” which aired on French television and then on CBS.
“Politics don’t interest me,” he said at the time. “I didn’t want to modify anybody’s opinion about the war, but only to show them how it was being fought.”
The documentary included devastating footage of a helicopter crash and moments of sublime natural beauty in the jungle. But it was emphatically about the soldiers themselves — how they bond and how they die.
“The Anderson Platoon” won the 1968 Academy Award for best feature documentary.
“As combat reporting, the battle photography, with its emphasis on individual human beings, was certainly among the most impressive ever seen on American television,” critic Rick Du Brow wrote for United Press International. “The sounds, the smells, the horror, the boredom were all captured with powerful understatement.”
Pierre Schoendoerffer was born May 5, 1928, in the central French town of Chamalieres to a French Alsatian Protestant family. His father, a hospital director, died in 1940 from injuries suffered during the German invasion.
A youthful infatuation with adventure novels led Mr. Schoendoerffer to join the French merchant navy in the late 1940s. In 1951, inspired by a magazine article about a combat cameraman who was killed in action, he entered the army’s cinematographic service and was ordered to Saigon.