Vietnam was a war, not a movie. Each new Vietnam movie meets some version of that charge, but Vietnam news documentaries have always fared better, perhaps a tribute to the people who risked their lives to produce them. In 1967, the first major documentary appeared as a CBS News Special Report featuring a film by French director Pierre Schoendoerffer. It was an hour-long introduction to key features of the American War in Vietnam told through the filming of an American platoon. Schoendoerffer had put himself in just the right place by picking the First Cavalry Division in the Central Highlands. He could show the new American war, the Americans who would fight that war, and a particularly important region of the conflict. In retrospect, it's grainy, black and white realism gives a lasting visual context to what was at the time daily news.
In 1954, Schoendoerffer was an enlisted photographer with the French Army Cinematographic Service in Indochina. Wounded at Dien Bien Phu early in the operation, he was evacuated for treatment, and then parachuted back in to film the siege. At the French surrender, he destroyed his camera and films except for a few short clips that disappeared into the hands of Soviet cameraman Roman Kamen then filming an epic celebration of the Viet Minh victory. None of Schoendoerffer's film from the siege survived.
A dozen years later, Schoendoerffer went back to Vietnam to film the new American war and accompanied an American platoon for six weeks. His film was shown on French public television in February, 1967. On July 4, 1967, CBS presented a one-hour adaptation of that documentary as The Anderson Platoon, titled after the platoon's commander Lieutenant Joseph Anderson.
The Anderson Platoon was not high cinematic art, shot in black and white with all the blurred confusion of battle at the platoon-level. Its vignette of booted feet marching through mud to Nancy Sinatra's “These Boots Are Made for Walking” was too cute, but its television presentation was memorable. It was on television as news, not drama, and spoke to many people who would never go to a Vietnam movie. Anyone who knew Vietnam was the war in their personal future, as I did, had reason to remember and reflect on the program.
Schoendoerffer narrated the original television version and you can hear more than a heavy French accent in his voice. His intonation makes some lines easy to remember, among them: “It began on a Sunday in September 1966. On this day, the Vietnamese in their pagodas try to appease all the souls of the unburied dead—wandering souls: those of beggars, prostitutes and soldiers.”
The remainder of this commentary is available on nationalinterest.org.
James T. Quinlivan is an adjunct senior operations research analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He served with the U.S. Army in the Central Highlands.
This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on October 22, 2017. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.