According to a statement from his family, the writer and film director died in the early hours of Wednesday at the Percy military hospital outside Paris.

A founding member of the Cesars, the French equivalent of the Oscars, Schoendoerffer launched his career with the French military film service during the country's war in Indochina, following a brief stint as a merchant sailor.

In both novels and films, Schoendoerffer returned again and again to the conflict in Indochina, where he was held for four months as a prisoner of war and which was the subject of his best-known works, "Le Crabe-Tambour" (The Drummer Crab) and "La 317e Section" (The 317th Platoon).

President Nicolas Sarkozy hailed Schoendoerffer as a "legend" who helped the French "better understand our collective history".

"France will miss this man - an aristocrat in his heart and soul - whose life was inspired by heroes like Joseph Conrad and Jack London, who shaped his imagination," Sarkozy said.

Born in 1928 in the central French town of Chamalieres, Schoendoerffer was inspired to a life of adventure by writers such as Conrad and French adventurer and author Joseph Kessel, whose work on Afghanistan, "La Passe du Diable" (The Devil's Pass), he filmed in 1956.

After 18 months as a sailor in the Baltic Sea, Schoendoerffer arrived aged 19 in French Indochina, the colony comprising present-day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos where French forces were fighting the independence-seeking Viet Minh.

Taken on as a cameraman by the French military's film service, he filmed the war's climactic battle, the 1954 defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu, and was afterward held as a prisoner of war for four months.

Schoendoerffer left the military following the war but remained in Vietnam to work as a reporter for French and US publications including Paris Match, Time and Life.

Returning to France in 1955, he set himself up as a roaming correspondent, writer and filmmaker, returning many times to Vietnam and covering conflicts such as the Algerian War.

His experiences during the Indochina War would mark "Le Crabe-Tambour", which won three Cesars in 1977 and "La 317e Section", based on his own novel and winner of best screenplay at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival.

He went back to Vietnam for his 1967 Oscar-winning documentary, "The Anderson Platoon", which looked at the lives of a platoon of US soldiers fighting in the country.

He returned to the conflict again in 1991 with the film "Dien Bien Phu", about a US war correspondent covering the fateful battle.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon praised Schoendoerffer as "a great witness of our times" in a statement, saying "his images always went beyond the events."

Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand hailed him as a writer and filmmaker "haunted by war and its consequences on our humanity."

"He was a man of honour who believed in loyalty to his family and to his country," Mitterrand said in a statement.

Historian Benedicte Cheron said Schoendoerffer had shed much-needed light on difficult periods of French military history.

"He was a filmmaker and not a historian... but his work helped establish in the national imagination one period that was largely unknown, in the case of Indochina, and another that was difficult and traumatic, as in the case of the Algerian War," she said.

"His representation of war, of wartime heroism and of the tragedy of war, touched on the universal."

Schoendoerffer had three children, including filmmaker Frederic Schoendoerffer.

By Anne Chaon - Agence France Presse - March 15, 2012