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On 13 March 1954, in the midst of Communist Indo-China, Viet Minh rebels launch a full-scale assault on the French-controlled valley surrounding the fortress Dienbienphu. Colonel Christian De Castries, the French commander of the 13,000 men stationed there, discovers that a Chinese officer has been providing the enemy with explicit information regarding their number and weapons. Outnumbered by the attackers, De Castries radios Hanoi for help. In France, the first to answer Hanoi's call for volunteers is desk officer Capt. Guy Bertrand, who spent three years in a World War II German prison camp and resents that he has never seen action. During a layover in Hanoi en route to Dienbienphu, Bertrand hopes briefly to see his lover Gisele, the neglected wife of Maj. Maurice Bonet, an officer stationed at Dienbienphu. At Paris' Orly field, Bertrand meets three of the other volunteers: middle-aged Capt. Jean Callaux, whose alluring, social-climbing wife Simone has pushed him into volunteering, hoping that it will result in his promotion; Lt. Heinrich Heldman, a Nazi-hating German forced to serve in Rommel's army, who, as a post-war French Legionnaire, saved hundreds of French lives and feels compelled to prove his allegiance to democracy; and young League of Nations worker Lt. Andre Maupin, who wants to escape his overshadowing mother and test the knowledge he learned at St. Cyr. The Dienbienphu airstrip, the only access to the French-controlled region, has been overtaken, and consequently, the men parachute to their destination. When Callaux lands in enemy territory, he is dragged to safety by Bertrand. At the fort, Bonet urges De Castries to evacuate with his troops and introduces the leader of a Thai tribe who has offered to lead them to safety, but the colonel strongly believes that they must stand their ground, whatever the outcome. Acting on reports that the strongholds protecting the fortress boundary are under heavy attack, De Castries sends out reinforcements. The subsequent fall of several strongholds nearly convinces De Castries to retreat, but the arrival of a monsoon, which he hopes will slow down the enemy, gives him renewed hope. At the end of April, a package from Hanoi containing mail, champagne, and two stars for newly promoted General De Castries, is dropped by parachute. After the package falls into enemy hands, Callaux and two other men sneak out and retrieve the bundle by killing the Viet Nimh in their foxholes. Shortly afterward, two Viet Nimh posing as soldiers from one of the outposts kill a French sentry and infiltrate the secured area. Heldman is shot while trying to stop them from planting explosives, and despite his pain, he kills them with a grenade and disables the explosive before it detonates. As ammunition, water and other supplies run low inside the fortress, Callaux volunteers to lead a patrol to a river in Communist territory to acquire some water. The night before the mission, Callaux receives a letter from a friend, who inadvertently reveals that his wife has been unfaithful. Realizing that Simone is only interested in his money, he amends his will, leaving everything to a young orphaned daughter of a recently-killed Legionnaire. Callaux then makes arrangements for the will to be flown to Hanoi for filing aboard a helicopter carrying wounded men from the fort. In the morning, Callaux and two soldiers reach the river, but after one of the soldiers steps on a spike hidden by the enemy, all three men are shot. Carrying a container of water, Callaux drags himself to waiting colleagues, who pull him behind the lines. He dies smiling as he watches the helicopter bearing his amended will fly safely off to Hanoi. After Bonet is ambushed by Viet Nimh, he surrenders to save himself, but is shot by the enemy just as Bertrand arrives with reinforcements. Determined that Bonet will not die a hero's death, Bertrand risks his own life to save Bonet, who dies later at the fortress. After fifty-six days of fighting, the Viet Nimh exhaust the fortress defenses and tunnel in. Now out of ammunition, the French defend themselves in hand-to-hand combat. De Castries radios to his superiors that the men will fight to the end and orders Bertrand and Maupin to escape and deliver to Hanoi vital papers destined for France. During their escape, the Frenchmen encounter Thai villagers who lead them safely through the territory. Before leaving, Bertrand pauses for a last look at the valley where his colleagues sacrificed themselves for democracy. Reminded of a quotation by Seneca, Bertrand reflects that the men at Dienbienphu were only killed, not defeated.