Let's close out the year with a classic that holds up to my scrutiny.
“The Anderson Platoon” is an acclaimed documentary by French director Pierre Schoendoerffer. He was a war cameraman with the French army during the siege of Dien Bien Phu. Unfortunately, when he surrendered with the rest of the army, his footage was lost or destroyed. After the First Indochina War, a French producer approached Schoendoerffer about completing his documentary. He was embedded with a platoon in the American 1st Air Cavalry in South Vietnam for six weeks in 1966. The resulting documentary won the Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards. A sequel was released in 1989 entitled “Reminiscences”. In it Schoendoerffer visits some of the men in the platoon twenty years later.
In June, 1966 the first platoon of D Company is sent on a “seek and destroy” mission to locate and then use “the vast array of firepower” available to wipe out communist forces in a sector of South Vietnam. Its commander is an African-American Lt. Joseph Anderson. He is 24 years-old. The platoon is heterogeneous with whites, blacks, Mexican-Americans, and even a Native American. In other words, it’s a typical platoon reflecting the make-up of the army. And it goes through experiences typical of a tour of duty in Vietnam. If you watch the doc, you will learn that the boys did a lot of wading through water. They had a fear of ambushes and booby traps. They were ambushed and did some ambushing. It rained a lot during the monsoon season. They captured Viet Cong suspects, but they also tried to win hearts and minds by giving candy to kids. The mission is an “ordinary” one. There is a lot of confusion and random firing. Then an air strike is called in. The dead bodies and weapons are counted. War won. They leave.
“The Anderson Platoon” is probably the best Vietnam War documentary. Based on its coverage of a typical platoon and the typical activities of the unit, it seems other filmmakers saw it and it influenced feature films. You can read grunt accounts of the war (Anderson appears in the book Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans), but to eyewitness it yourself had to help movie-makers. It certainly helps viewers to visualize the war. You are with this platoon. You get the sights and sounds. Schoendoerffer had been in the shit with the French and he clearly had no fear. The platoon encounters the enemy and he is daringly close to the action. The film is not “Hearts and Minds”. Although it does show the efforts that led to that phrase. It takes no position on the war. Schoendoerffer avoids saying I told you so. Speaking of which, there are long stretches where there is no narration. He was not interested in making a propaganda puff piece nor an anti-war screed. He did end up making a documentary that is more entertaining than many Vietnam War movies. Watch it instead of “The Boys in Company C”.
GRADE = A