Le Crabe-Tambour: In the Wake of Empire

Robert Aldrich
University of Syndey

Le Crabe-Tambour is one of several films with colonial themes – others include La 317e section (1965) and Dien Bien Phu (1992)– directed by Pierre Schoendoerffer (1928-2012) who himself was a cameraman and soldier in the French army during the Indochinese War of 1946-1954. This film, adapted from a novel of the same name published by Schoendoerffer, is based loosely on the career of another officer who served in colonial Vietnam and Algeria, Pierre Guillaume (1928-2002). It tells the story of three navy officers who knew each other during the Indochinese war; later life brings together two of them on a French ship off the coast of Canada. Their conversation harks back to the third man, Willsdorff, whose memory has continued to haunt them and who now works as captain of a fishing-trawler near-by, on the Great Banks of Newfoundland.

The film drew high praise on its release in 1977, for the plot line, for the acting (the protagonists are superbly played by Jean Rochefort, Claude Rich and Jacques Perrin) and for the filming: Le Crabe-Tambour offers beautiful shots of a ship ploughing through the winter waters of the North Atlantic. Images of wrecked boats at the beginning hint at the wreck of the French empire, personal ambitions and friendships. The film often has a dream-like quality as ships disappear into the mist, and only gradually does the story of the main character, Willsdorf or ‘Crabe-Tambour,’ emerge from the fog of memory and the years that have passed. That narrative does not come in a linear sequence but with vignettes about his life and trials, interspersed with the experiences of the other main characters and their musings on life. Anecdotes about a slightly deranged priest who persuaded his parishioners to follow mysterious signs add to the mystery of the unfolding history. Shots of fish being gutted off the Great Banks, and more gruesomely of decapitated heads in Vietnamese fields, contrast with the cosiness of a French ship’s lounge and the spit and polish of navy ceremonial.  The jarring cuts from the verdant, luxuriant jungle of Vietnam to the cold and grim waters of the North Atlantic reinforce a feeling of the strange itineraries of men and ships, of history and destiny. The film can be viewed as an adventure story with shades of Conrad, a quasi-documentary biography, or a meditation on men and the sea in the vein of Melville.  For historians, it holds particular interest for the portrayal of colonialism.

France established a toehold in Vietnam in the late 1850s and over the next decades amassed a large empire in Southeast Asia, administratively organised as Indochine Française, a territory that encompassed the three regions of Vietnam, as well as Cambodia and Laos.  Some 35,000 French men and women lived in Vietnam by 1940. Vietnam’s rice, rubber and coal production made it one of the most valuable of French colonies. The French turned Hanoi into an elegant colonial capital; they built roads and railways, and established plantations and mines. Much land was taken from the Vietnamese. Many were exploited as labourers, and most were denied political rights. By the 1930s, anti-colonialist nationalism had grown strong, ultimately championed by Ho Chi Minh, who led the Vietnamese into combat against the French in the following decade.  The war concluded with French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and the division of Vietnam between a Communist north, and a south allied with the United States.  The United States spearheaded the Second Indochinese War (called the ‘Vietnam War’ in America and the ‘American War’ in Vietnam) in the 1960s and 1970s, though the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies eventually also suffered defeat, the Communists captured Saigon in 1975, and Vietnam was unified.  The appearance of this film two years after a second ‘imperialist’ defeat in Vietnam is perhaps not coincidental.

The First Indochinese War, between the French and the Vietnamese, had been an ugly war, with guerrilla fighters pitted against French troops (including numerous African colonial soldiers fighting on the French side) in the jungles and cities of Vietnam; torture was not uncommon, and populations were dragooned to serve one side or another.  Little of the background or the actual horror of the fighting, however, appears in Le Crabe-Tambour.

In the film, the central figure, Willsdorf, is an exceptional, and idealised, officer.  He is young and seductively handsome, he seems both well educated and well disposed to the Vietnamese –early in the picture he orders subalterns on his new ship to paint over symbols representing the Vietnamese that they have killed, telling them that ‘we are not head-hunters.’ He is accompanied wherever he goes by his elegant black cat, giving him a gentle and sympathique air.  Willsdorf calls his pet ‘ma conscience,’ saying that his own conscience is as black as the fur of the cat. For all his bonhomie, Willsdorf also assumes the role of a colonial lord – sitting on the deck of his ship in a carved throne-like chair and being carried ashore on the shoulders of porters. During the military campaign, Willsdorf is captured by the Vietnamese rebels and held until the end of the war, by which time he seems to have earned the warmth of the revolutionary camp commander.  On release (and appearing little scarred by his experience), he decides to buy a Chinese junk and sail it back to Europe. Along the way, his ship runs aground and he is taken prisoner on the horn of Africa, though confinement soon becomes a kind of complicity with his captors. Life next finds Willsdorf in Algeria, where a nationalist war against the French started in the very year that the Indochinese War ended. He has requested a transfer to North Africa after the death of his brother in fighting in Algeria.


France was destined for defeat in the Maghreb and decolonisation of Algeria, but in 1961, a group of officers attempted a last-ditch putsch in Algiers against the government of President de Gaulle. The mutineers were determined to defend Algérie Française even against the government in Paris that was already negotiating with the indépendantistes. Willsdorf takes part in the insurrection, action that leads to his conviction and imprisonment. Fifteen years later he has taken command of a rust-bucket cod-fishing vessel in the Atlantic. In the storm-churned waters near Newfoundland, a French ship patrols with his two old mates aboard: the captain, a melancholic senior officer (bearing a physical resemblance to a middle-aged Charles de Gaulle) making his last voyage –he is dying from cancer and, moreover, his ship will soon be retired. His friendship with Willsdorf ended in bitterness and (in Willsdorf’s eyes) in betrayal during the putsch in Algiers, which the captain did not support. Yet he nurtures a desire to make contact with his old comrade. The third man, Pierre, the ship’s doctor, also knew Willsdorf in Indochina though they have lost track of each other over the years.

The film provides various perspectives on French colonial history. The role of the Navy, highlighted in Le Crabe-Tambour, was primordial in colonial expansion.  The navy charted unknown waters and linked together the metropole and its far-flung possessions. Navy officials often served as colonial governors, and until the 1890s, colonial affairs came under the purview of the Ministère de la Marine. The navy played a major role in war and also in peace, when it ferried about settlers, administrators, missionaries and the other people of empire. Many of the navy personnel came from Brittany, the home of one of the other characters in the film, the philosophical chief mechanic. (However, Willsdorf, like Schoendoeffer, comes from Alsace.  After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, authorities trumpeted the colonies, particularly Algeria, as a refuge for the French from the ‘lost provinces’ of Alsace and Lorraine who refused to live under the German flag.

Le Crabe-Tambour also gives a tour of the French empire, from the tropical harbours of Vietnam to the Europeanised settler colony of Algeria by way of the French enclave of Djibouti on the Red Sea. But in the ‘present’ of the film –-much of which is composed of flashbacks to the earlier years and the old colonies–- the French ship Jauréguiberry (named for an admiral who served as governor of Senegal) is steaming towards Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, minuscule islands in the north Atlantic. The islands were taken over by the French in the late 1600s, and retained when the French were ejected by the British from ‘New France’ in the 1760s. The diminutive outpost, the Tricolour still flying, remains to this day part of the French republic, one of the small vestiges of France’s once vast colonial dominion.

The film brings to life various types of Frenchmen involved in colonialism.  (There is no woman of importance in the film, which thereby acknowledges the macho, homosocial world of the navy and of particular colonial endeavours.)  There is the old Breton sea-dog, full of reminiscences about rural life and religious fervour in the pious Bigouden region. There is the patrician but doomed career officer commanding the Jauréguiberry; and there is the kindly, humanitarian face of colonialism personified by the doctor. But even the bourgeois officers indulge in the pleasures of pastis and opium in the Far East.  Alongside are some rather ruffian, hard-drinking, whoring seamen in the colonial world, but also the spiffy young technocrats of the post-colonial navy. We see men such as the doctor and the ship’s captain who could have gone home to settle after their imperial tours of duty came to an end, but who do not fit in when they return to their homeland, and who are still searching for something in the wider world, whether fulfilment or escape. Willsdorf remains something of an enigma, cool and detached, taciturn, his colonial vocation and the choice he made in Algeria never fully elucidated. The meaning of his nickname, the ‘Drummer-Crab’, a legacy from his childhood, is also curious despite some explanation. As viewers, we know next to nothing about his background, his political beliefs or his private life.  His portrait is subtly drawn; he can be admired, despised, pitied or perhaps ridiculed.

Pierre Guillaume, on whom Schoendoerffer modelled the hero of his film, may or may not have possessed the qualities incarnated in Willsdorf. Guillaume fought in the Indochinese war and was shipwrecked off Somalia. He supported the attempted coup d’état in Algiers and joined the Organisation Armée Secrète that undertook a scorched earth policy in Algeria (and tried to assassinate de Gaulle).  He too was convicted for his actions. Later he became a supporter of the Front National and a friend of its leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, never resiling from his defence of France’s colonial achievement.

It is hard not to see Le Crabe-Tambour as a romanticisation of the brave, committed and dashing, but ill-fated, officer represented by Willsdorf (and his fellow sailors), and Schoendoerffer’s other films have also cast colonialism in a relatively positive light, sailors and soldiers presented in a mise en scène of heroic tragedy. Though his scenarios and characters are not devoid of political content and intent, Le Crabe-Tambour is also a historiographically fascinating depiction of the life of a young Frenchman drawn to colonial life, the paths of social advancement to which a colonial career could lead, the perils and sufferings of war and imprisonment, and ultimately the bitterness and thwarted ambitions that followed imperial retreat. The vision of Vietnam contained in the film can be interestingly compared with that of Régis Wargnier’s better-known Indochine (1992) and with Schoendoerffer’s own Dien Bien Phu.

The film also reflects on the moral dilemmas of personal and perhaps national choices, duties to one’s superiors and to one’s own conscience. The commandant remarks that choices are not always an alternative between good and evil, but between two different types of good, a perhaps debatable proposition that suggests a way of weighing up the decisions taken and sorting out the paths followed by Le Crabe-Tambour’s characters –-including a Vietnamese notable who sides with the French and an African sailor serving in the French navy.  The film alludes to the price to be paid for choices made, and to the need for resignation and acceptance of the consequences.

The film invites us to think about the lives, careers and moral choices of individuals caught up in colonialism and about the colonial record (positive and negative) of France in general, to consider the history of the wars in Southeast Asia and North Africa, to ask how the French have remembered and forgotten their colonial past, and to reflect on the legacy of empire in France and in the countries that France colonised.

Pierre Shoendoerffer, Director, Le Crabe-Tambour (1977), Color, 120 min. France, AMLF, Bela Productions, Lira Films, Renn Productions, TF1

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