Pierre Schoendoerffer, Oscar-winning French filmmaker, dies at 83


French filmmaker Pierre Schoendoerffer at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival in the southern French city of Cannes on May 17, 2010. (MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
March 14, 2012

Pierre Schoendoerffer, a French journalist, novelist and Oscar-winning filmmaker whose unsparing eye illuminated the brutality and moral ambiguity of combat in Vietnam and Algeria, died March 14 at a hospital near Paris after an operation. He was 83.

The family announced the death. In a statement, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon praised Mr. Schoendoerffer as “a great witness of our times.”

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.

Dropping with a parachute battalion into Dien Bien Phu, he filmed much of the 55-day battle but destroyed most of the reels so they would not fall into enemy hands. Later, as a freelance journalist, he worked throughout the region and also in North Africa for Paris Match, Time and Life, among other publications. He also made documentaries for French television.

In 1958, he married journalist Patricia Chauvel. Besides his wife, survivors include three children.

While on a reporting assignment in Hong Kong, Mr. Schoendoerffer visited an opium den to meet one of his childhood literary heroes, the French adventurer and novelist Joseph Kessel. They then partnered on a documentary set in Afghanistan, “The Devil’s Pass” (1958). Mr. Schoendoerffer directed the film with Jacques Dupont, based on a script by Kessel.

“The Devil’s Pass” won a prize at the Berlin International Film Festival and launched Mr. Schoendoerffer on a career in feature films.

He had his greatest early impact with “The 317th Platoon,” a fictional account of French soldiers caught behind enemy lines in Indochina. “The 317th Platoon,” directed and written by Mr. Schoendoerffer, tied for best screenplay at the Cannes Film festival.

Mr. Schoendoerffer’s next feature, “Le Crabe-Tambour,” which translates as “the Drummer Crab,” was a Conrad-inspired story of a shadowy naval officer in Indochina and Algeria. The story is told in flashback by three naval officers on a North Atlantic supply ship.

The film was described by New York Times film critic Vincent Canby as “one of the grandest, most beautiful adventure movies in years.” In particular, Canby highlighted the majestic camera work of Raoul Coutard, a frequent Schoendoerffer collaborator who also was a cameraman of choice for Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut.

With the cooperation of the Vietnamese government, Mr. Schoendoerffer elaborately restaged the battle of Dien Bien Phu for his feature film of the same name in 1991. In a nod to his own presence during the fighting, Mr. Schoendoerffer cast his son Ludovic as a French photographer who parachutes into the war zone.

“The final sequence,” arts critic John Rockwell wrote in the Times, “with its endless lines of prisoners trudging through the awesome landscape, is astonishing,”

Just as Mr. Schoendoerffer was admired by some in Hollywood, he expressed respect for American movies that examined human behavior in combat, such as Michael Cimino’s 1978 Vietnam War drama “The Deer Hunter.”

“I look at war the same way Cimino does: a bunch of kids leave together — one is destroyed, one goes crazy and another, somehow, comes out bigger,” he told the International Herald Tribune in 2004. “That’s what happens when you send kids to war, every time.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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