How does French cinema remember the forgotten Indochina War?
How does French cinema remember the forgotten Indochina War?
Chronologically caught between the Second World War (1939-1945) and the Algerian War (1954-1962), the French Vietnam War (1945-1954, also known as the First Vietnam War or the Indochina War) is one of the most unknown conflicts of the 20th century. One of the main reasons for this oblivion is that the battles were fought only by a force of the French Army called “le Corps Expéditionnaire Français d’Extrême-Orient” (CEFEO), and not by the contingent (unlike the Algerian or the American Vietnam Wars). The Algerian War and its conscripts directly involved all French families, contrary to the Indochina War and its professional army, lost far away from homeland. Another reason is the territory concerned by the conflict since, in the same peninsula, just a few years later (officially), the Second Vietnam War (also known as the American Vietnam War) took place with another media strike force (beginning of television broadcasting) and in the name of containment and no longer European imperialism. Everyone saw pictures of this Second Vietnam War, every French family knows about the Algerian War, whereas the history of the Indochina War (like the Korean War, 1950-1953) is “crushed” and forgotten under the layers of the memories of these other conflicts.
Each of these two conflicts (Algeria War and Vietnam War) contributed to pushing back the Indochina War to the confines of national historical consciousness. By way of comparison, the French corpus on the Algerian War is estimated by Benjamin Stora, Guy Hennebelle and Mouny Berrah in La Guerre d'Algérie à l'écran (1997) to include more than 50 war movies, while the American corpus on the Vietnam War was estimated to comprise more than 500 war movies in 2000 by Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud (From Hanoi to Hollywood). In comparison, the Indochina War in French movies has in 2019, a total corpus of only 10 war movies, including 5 movies by veteran filmmakers Pierre Schoendoerffer (La 317e Section in 1965, Diên Biên Phu in 1992) and Claude Bernard-Aubert (Patrouille sans espoir in 1957, Le Facteur s’en va-t-en guerre in 1966 and Charlie Bravo in 1980).
However, the Indochina War is not absent from screens. Since 1945, about 50 films have clearly mentioned it in their narratives, even if these evocations can occur in a more or less furtive way. If the allusions have therefore been constant for more than half a century, the subject remains as marginal as the majority of the characters who embody it. The Indochina War seems to symbolize an eternal return of the outcast, never totally absent, never really present. One of the most recent figure of that borderline representation is the character of the crippled officer played by Louis Garrel in Mal de pierres by Nicole Garcia (2016): an evanescent, traumatized man, who constantly vanishes and arouses fantasy through his mystery, and a story soon only haunted by his ghost. Since the 1950s, there is the persistent romantic martyrdom carried by pariah figures in these representations of the Indochina War in French cinema.
One of the first common misconceptions about film representations of the Indochina War is that Pierre Schoendoerffer, a veteran filmmaker and novelist who himself adapted most of his literary work, is the only one that wrote and shot pictures about this war.
Schoendoerffer joined the army in 1952 to serve in Indochina as a military operator. He was sent to Dien Bien Phu to film the battle. Taken prisoner at the time of the ceasefire, on May 7, 1954 (this precise scene is in the finale of Diên Biên Phu in which Ludovic Schoendoerffer played the role of his father), he was one of the survivors of the vietminh camps and kept, by his own account, the feeling of being a “debtor”. He then took it upon himself to convey the words of his comrades who died in battle and expressed them in his films through the recurrence of the figure of a missing person to whom a relative paid homage by going through a labyrinth of testimonies (this was the narrative principle of Le Crabe-Tambour in 1976, but also of L’Honneur d’un capitaine in 1982 or of Là-haut, un roi au-dessus des nuages in 2004).
However, Pierre Schoendoerffer is neither the only nor the first veteran filmmaker to exorcise his experience of the Indochina War through films.
Ten years before La 317e Section (1965), in 1957, Claude Bernard-Aubert, a former member of the Information Press Service founded by General de Lattre, enrolled at the age of 18 (1948-1954) in Indochina, had filmed Patrouille sans espoir with the help of the French army. In 1956, the last French troops left South Vietnam for good. The army then allowed the young director to use the soldiers still on site as extras, and to have all the military equipment necessary for the fighting scenes. Unfortunately, at the time of the film's release, a few months later, the situation had changed. France was bogged down in Algeria, and showing spectators a remote Indochinese post left to its own devices and whose fighters were abandoned to their fate was too risky for public order. Representatives of the main ministries, including the Ministry of Defense, within the Control Commission of the Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), banned the film provided that the director agreed to change its title (Patrouille sans espoir becomes Patrouille de choc) and that a happy ending was substituted for the tragic and irrevocable outcome of the original story. Forced to mutilate his film so that it could finally be released, Claude Bernard-Aubert drew from the rushes shot at the Liberation a few reassuring shots of tanks arriving in time to save the brave fighters.
A second commonplace of representations of the Indochina War in French films is precisely that the subject is supposed to be censored by the CNC Control Commission… and yet, this is not the case. The case of Patrouille sans espoir is one of the two most important cases of censorship of the subject, the second being Paul Carpita's film, Le Rendez-vous des quais, released in 1955 before being seized and disappearing for nearly 30 years to be rediscovered in the late 1980s. Shot in Marseille between 1950 and 1953 (notably during the dockworkers' strikes against the Indochina War) by a communist teacher, this film was made in parallel, even clandestine conditions, inspired by those of the militant short formats practiced by Carpita as a member of the French Communist Party (PCF). The film was officially registered at the CNC under a false title and with a very watered-down summary that did not mention the context of the Indochina War, in order to avoid attracting the attention of the censors. The summary only made mention of a romance between a dock worker and a workwoman, against a background of social crisis and housing shortage. In reality, Carpita took advantage of shooting permits issued for so-called educational activities on the port with her students to film the coffins unloaded from military ships and the guns that embark there in an endless noria. These images were of course prohibited, and all diversion strategies implemented failed; while the film had begun to be shown without an exhibition visa in some Marseille associations, copies were seized and only came out of the French Film Archives (AFF) nearly 30 years later.
Apart from these two major cases of censorship, the Indochina War was not banned from the screens by a meticulous state policy. Rather, it would be a case of self-censorship. Until 1962, producers were aware that films dealing with the Indochina War, and therefore with the debacle and defeat, could be cut or banned because the "Algerian events" were taking place on the other side of the Mediterranean, and that it would not be acceptable to harm the morale of families who had remained in mainland France. They therefore preferred to postpone the shooting and/or the release date of such projects. Unfortunately for them, after the Evian Agreements, films on the Algerian War proliferated, and with them their procession of characters of young men torn from their lives to join the contingent. By comparison, the fictions about the Indochina War could only appear very distant, with their peninsula at the end of the world and their career soldiers with chivalrous ideals put at the service of a colonial ideology of another age. There was therefore no need to censor them, the public being responsible for keeping them only at a residual place in the annual rankings.
However, a last commonplace would be to believe that all French films dealing with the Indochina War in cinema have only been seen by a limited audience, and that the subject has now disappeared from the screens. As improbable as it may seem, the most striking characters of Indochina veterans are certainly comic characters: is the scene of the vitriol in Les Tontons flingueurs (Georges Lautner, 1963) not precisely a moment of exchanges between veterans who recall some key moments from their past in Indochina? Did the characters of losers played by Bourvil and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Le Cerveau by Gérard Oury (1969) not meet in the Plaine des Jarres? Did Spaggiari, played by Jean-Paul Rouve in Sans arme, ni haine, ni violence (2008), not make an almost folkloric point of honour to recall his background in Indochina? Of all these characters, we cannot say whether they are marginalized because they came back from Indochina, or if they went to Indochina because they were already deviant. But the same observation applies to everyone: they are ridiculous, and fundamentally embody personalities of losers and/or nerds, as if it were necessary to neutralize defeat with laughter, and to defuse the latent danger of the former Indochina veteran returned to civil society by the spectacle of his inability to truly harm.
MCF Etudes cinématographiques et audiovisuelles
Université de Tours
DITTMAR Linda and MICHAUD Gene (eds), From Hanoi to Hollywood. The Vietnam War in American Films, Rutgers University Press, 2000, 388 p.
EADES Caroline, Le Cinéma post-colonial français, Cerf-Corlet, 2006, 426 p.
ROBIC-DIAZ Delphine, La Guerre d’Indochine dans le cinéma français. Image(s) d’un trou de mémoire, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2015, 358 p.
SHOHAT Ella and STAM Robert (eds), Unthinking Eurocentrism. Multiculturalisme and the Media, Routledge, 1994, 406 p.