Sometimes we wonder if modern documentaries have become the film equivalent of the old guy who chases kids away from his lawn.
Not that modern documentaries aren’t beautifully filmed or capable of stirring people to action. They’re all that and a piece of cheese, too.
But we didn’t fully realize how the nature of documentaries had changed until we saw The Anderson Platoon (1967), an understated film about the Vietnam War that won an Oscar.
Vietnam was a hot topic during the 1960s with protests against the war starting in early 1965. Even though there was a protest rally in Washington, D.C. in 1967 – attended by 100,000 people – the U.S. had nearly 500,000 troops on Vietnamese soil by the end of year.
The Anderson Platoon, originally titled La Section Anderson, was made by a French film crew. (The English version was narrated by actor Stuart Whitman.) Interestingly, French filmmakers were scooping up a lot of documentary nominations in the 1960s, at the rate of about one per year.
This gritty documentary examines the 1st platoon of “B” Company, comprised of draftees who had to complete two years’ duty, including one year in Vietnam. Many of the men are what the film calls “minorities from lower-income families”. They are headed by a rare specimen: an African-American West Point graduate, Lieutenant Joseph Anderson. Lt. Anderson is all of 24 years old.
According to the film, the U.S. military strategy is to seek and destroy, using small ground units like Anderson’s to find the enemy. Firepower is then flown in to destroy the sector.
The Anderson Platoon doesn’t shield viewers from the experience of war. An early scene shows a priest conducting mass for the men; when he gives communion, you can hear gunfire popping in the background. There is footage of the men combing the jungle, huddling in the rain during a meal, and giving medicine to children.
There is also footage of the men lifting the dead and wounded onto a helicopter, and finding a village where nearly everyone has been killed. Perhaps the most poignant scene is one where a soldier tenderly bandages his comrade, then sinks to the ground from grief or exhaustion, or both.
The Anderson Platoon does not politicize. There are no comments designed to infuriate you. It neither defends nor deplores the war. This is what the war in Vietnam looks like, is the message. Take from it what you will.
There is no tangible story arc, no indignant narrator ranting at the audience. The soldiers themselves never address the camera; we don’t feel like we know these men, even after observing them in such extreme circumstances. This makes us disoriented, like we can never really get our bearings, as though we don’t know who to trust or what might happen next. This disorientation feels intentional, however, and we are left wondering if this is like war itself.
Anderson received two Silver Stars, five Bronze Stars and 11 other medals for his tour in Vietnam. He eventually resigned his commission and became a successful businessman.
As for The Anderson Platoon, we recommend it – not just for its historical importance, but because it’s a film that seems as timely now as it was in 1967.
The Anderson Platoon: Narrated by Stuart Whitman. Written & directed by Pierre Schoendoerffer. French Broadcasting System, 1967, B&W, 55 mins.
Hey! This post is part of the 1967 IN FILM Blogathon hosted by yours truly and The Rosebud Cinema. Click HERE for a list of all the far-out contributions.