Forty years ago this week some 8,000 US soldiers laid siege to the "iron triangle", a Vietcong sanctuary in the jungle 20 miles outside Saigon. Clearly contravening the US government's pledge that its troops would enter combat only in support of the armed forces of South Vietnam, the attack was one of a series of events that brought the term "escalation" out of the military vocabulary and into general usage.
Over the next 12 months the war escalated with gathering speed. Hanoi was bombed for the first time, Australia enlisted in the battle against communism and US aircraft killed 28 civilians in an attack on a friendly village. By January 1967 the US casualty rate had climbed to a new high: 104 dead in a single week, and 1,044 wounded. Across Europe and the United States, the protest movement gathered momentum.
It would reach its peak the following year, when pitched battles followed an 80,000-strong march on the US embassy in Grosvenor Square, a coalition of students and workers brought France to a halt, and violent demonstrations reached the doors of the Pentagon. In the meantime protest songs had been written, Mary McCarthy's reportage from Saigon and Felix Greene's photographs from North Vietnam had been published as Penguin Specials, and, for admirers of French New Wave cinema, a film called Loin du Viêt-Nam (Far from Vietnam) had done the rounds of the art houses.
Loin du Viêt-Nam can be seen - in its original unsubtitled form - at the French Institute in London this weekend. As well as providing an extremely rare chance to revisit an example of portmanteau film-making that engaged the talents of the directors Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Alain Resnais, Claude Lelouch and Chris Marker, the Dutch-born documentarist Joris Ivens and the American photographer William Klein, it offers a reminder of how muted the opposition to the present war in Iraq has been, by comparison with the chorus of anger that eventually helped to undermine the American government's belligerence.
Sam Mendes's Jarhead, which opens in British cinemas this weekend, uses the first Gulf war as the setting for a depiction of US military power let loose in an alien environment. Like its Vietnam war predecessors, including Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Oliver Stone's Platoon (and like such post-Vietnam musical masterpieces as Marvin Gaye's What's Going On and Curtis Mayfield's Back to the World), it concerns itself primarily with the impact of such a mission on the lives of individual American soldiers, an essentially introspective undertaking. By contrast, Loin du Viêt-Nam was clear about one thing: America's wars do not happen just to Americans.
The project began when Ivens was in Hanoi, making a documentary which borrowed its title, The 17th Parallel, from the line that divided the country following the 1954 Geneva conference. Ivens's surplus footage was sent back to Paris, where Marker, the director of La Jetée, stitched it together with sequences commissioned from several fellow auteurs
Recalled across a span of four decades, the memory of its episodic content is blurred. What remains very clear is a sense that the makers cared about the war's victims and believed that their contribution could make a difference. Yet it was not generally well received. In the New York Times, the critic Renata Adler described it as "a kind of rambling partisan newsreel collage" by a group of directors who wanted to make a work of anti-US propaganda "without spending much thought or effort on it". Those who responded with enthusiasm, such as Jonathan Demme, the future director of The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, were likely to be younger viewers looking to the cinema, as they looked to music, for something that reflected their own growing concerns. "To me," Demme would say 20 years later, "that film is proof that movies can effect positive change, even if it's only in one person."
Among the most widely criticised passages was Lelouch's opening contribution. A year after enjoying international success with the glossy romantic fantasy of A Man and a Woman, the director put his camera on the deck of a US aircraft carrier, capturing the hi-tech glamour of planes catapulting into the sky on night-time bombing missions. Marker intercut the images with Ivens's black and white footage of the people of Hanoi preparing to take cover in their primitive shelters.
Into the mix went an interview with Ho Chi Minh, a speech by the mega-hawk General William Westmoreland, Klein's film of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in the US, and Godard's monologue on the dilemma of the politically committed film-maker, interspersed with clips from La Chinoise, his work in progress. Renata Adler's verdict on the film - "facile, slipshod and stereotyped" - may have represented the general opinion at the time; this weekend's audience, however, may find themselves watching it and yearning for a sign of similar engagement, whether couched in terms of anger or empathy, from the Markers and Godards of today.
· Loin du Viêt-Nam will be shown at 2pm tomorrow at the Ciné Lumière, French Institute, London
Richard Williams has written books on Miles Davis, Bob Dylan and the racing driver Ayrton Senna, Racers. A collection of his music pieces, Long Distance Call is published by Aurum Press. His biography of Enzo Ferrari is published by Yellow Jersey Press. He is the chief sportswriter of the Guardian.
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