Written, directed and produced by Peter Batty and released in 1979, Battle for Dien Bien Phu is a straight-ahead war documentary. Batty was a British television producer who, seemingly, spent every waking hour of every single day in his life creating documentaries about armed conflicts and related topics in modern history. He also authored a few books in the same domain.
Battle for Dien Bien Phu does an outstanding job of providing what one would expect from a combat documentary: It reviews the historical developments leading to the First Indochina War, explains the strategic objectives which led the two sides to clash at Dien Bien Phu, describes the suffering endured by its participants, and sets the stage for the future entrance of the United States. The movie incorporates French, British and Japanese newsreels and photographs, Vietnamese and Russian propaganda footage and interviews with a few principal French survivors of the siege.
In an important way, the experience of U.S. ground combat forces in Vietnam resembled that of the French before them. In their conflict with Ho Chi Minh's forces, the French were able to maintain their hold on the major towns and to control the main roads connecting between them, while the countryside was dominated by the Viet Minh. When the industrially and technologically superior French moved in to one rural area, the Viet Minh would simply fade away, avoiding set piece battles, only to return after the French troops moved on.
The war had begun in December 1946 and by 1953, things were not going well for France. A succession of commanders had failed to suppress the communist insurrection. Using northwestern Vietnam as a staging area, the Viet Minh had overrun vast swathes of Laos. General Henri Navarre, recently appointed as commander of the French Union Forces in Indochina, envisioned turning that dire situation into a major triumph for France.
In November 1953, in France's biggest airborne operation in Vietnam, 9,000 paratroopers were dropped into Dien Bien Province in northwestern Vietnam, near a key Viet Minh supply line to Laos. A loss of supplies and reinforcements would compel communist forces to withdraw from Laos. Creation of this threat was calculated to draw out the bulk of the Viet Minh forces so that they could be engaged in a pitched battle, where they would be decimated by superior French artillery, armor and air support. Fatally for the French, the area selected for the landing was in a valley, around which the Viet Minh were to control much of the high ground.
The Struggle for Logistics Supremacy
The French advantages in industrial capacity and ingenuity were offset by a Vietnamese advantage in societal organization and discipline. The French had calculated that General Vo Nguyen Giap, commander of the Vietnamese forces, would not be able to position heavy artillery in the hills facing down on Dien Bien Phu and that his supply lines would dry up after the first few days of battle. They were proven wrong by thousands of coolies pushing specially strengthened bicycles along paths hacked out from jungles and cliffsides. The laborers built roads through forests and mountains for truck convoys delivering artillery, food and ammunition. Men, machines and animals were requisitioned for the paramount objective of keeping the troops fed.
By March 13, 1954, the day that the Viet Minh artillery and infantry onslaught opened up, as much as 50,000 regular Vietnamese troops had taken positions in the hills surrounding the French-held valley. On the first day, the main French airstrip was turned into a junkyard filled with burning, wrecked planes, while the control tower and radio beacons were both destroyed. By the end of the first fortnight, the French airstrip had been rendered completely unusable. From here on in, the French garrison would only receive reinforcements and supplies parachuted in. The plan for a successful defense of Dien Bien Phu had been premised on an assumption of uninterrupted air support.
Giap's coolie army covered the valley at Dien Bien Phu with an extensive trench network by which French fortifications were surrounded and cut off, one-by-one. Through logistical supremacy, made possible by a civilization organized around an authoritarian core, the Vietnamese were able to vanquish the more technologically advanced French.
Setting the Stage
The concluding segments of the documentary review the considerable assistance provided by the United States for France in Vietnam, show scenes from the 1954 Geneva Conference and describe the partition of Vietnam into two political entities. These final segments introduce the conditions which led to American military involvement in Vietnam. Battle for Dien Bien Phu is highly recommended for anyone looking to deepen their understanding of the root circumstances from which the Vietnam War emerged.