It’s been 40 years since Australian cinema
explored the combat soldier’s experience of the Vietnam War. While David
Caesar’s Dirty Deeds (2002) featured a brief early interlude in the
field with Sam Worthington’s criminal-in-the-making, and Wayne Blair’s The
Sapphires (2012) followed an Indigenous girl group on the USO circuit, we
have to go back to 1979 and Tom
Jeffrey’s The Odd Angry Shot for a cinematic account of diggers in
Vietnam. In the interim we had a couple of television exercises in the form of Sword
of Honour (1986) and Vietnam (1987), but Australia’s role in what
was, for the Anglophone West at least, the defining conflict of the late 20th
century has rarely been touched upon in the cinematic space. That’s now changed
with the upcoming release of Kriv Stenders’ Danger Close: The Battle of Long
Set in 1966 (August 17 – 19, to be precise),
the long-in-gestation film tells the tale of the clash between a small Australian
force of volunteers and conscripts and a much larger mixed force for Viet Cong
guerillas and People’s Army of Vietnam (or North Vietnamese Army, if you
prefer) regulars in the titular rubber plantation. Like Ridley Scott’s Black
Hawk Down (2001), it’s the story of one single military action, and it maps
its narrative rhythms fairly accurately onto the known facts of the engagement.
Like Alister Grierson’s Kokoda (2006), its something of a “lost patrol”
movie: after reconnoitering the plantation looking for enemy artillery
positions, Delta Company under the command of Major Harry Smith (Travis Fimmel)
is cut off from their home base at Nui Dat, and must hold off wave after wave
of assaults while hoping for rescue or reinforcement. Meanwhile, back at the
ranch, Brigadier Jackson (Richard Roxburgh) and his staff wrestle with whether
to send relief, which would leave their base open to attack, or write off the
encircled men as acceptable casualties.
is not the best Australian war movie ever made, but that’s because we live in a
universe where Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981) and Bruce Beresford’s Breaker
Morant (1980) happened (it’s Morant, by the way). It certainly
deserves to be in the conversation, though, and it’s not overstating the case
to call it the best depiction of realistic combat yet seen in Australian cinema.
Stenders, working from a script by Stuart Beattie (Pirates of the Caribbean:
Curse of the Black Pearl, Collateral), takes pains to keep the
audience cognisant of everything that’s happening on a strategic, tactical, and
personal level. We spend most of our time in the mud and the trees with the
troops on the ground, but cutting back to base and the larger decisions being
made and forces in play ensures we see how it all connects together, the macro
to the micro, everything in constant motion and perpetual crisis. It’s
propulsive, technically superb stuff, a series of contained but interlinked
sequences of rising action and catharsis that never lets up.
War movies by and large focus almost exclusively on infantry actions – all the better to show personal drama and heroism – but Danger Close goes out of its way to show the importance of both artillery – every successful barrage by a nearby New Zealand battery is a rousing moment – and communications. Radio contact is shown to be absolutely essential, with moments of severed communications – a bullet-riddled field pack at one point, a fried base station at another – being moments of high tension. It’s a frequently overlooked element, and it’s impressive to see how its importance here is highlighted and dramatized.
That’s veering close to armchair military
history, though (and yeah, I’ll cop to being prone to that) – what’s going to
sell Danger Close to audiences is the personal drama. Beattie’s script
is robust and functional without being, on the personal level, exceptional.
He’s constrained by both the known facts of the events and the reverence
(deserved or otherwise – here’s not the place) to the Aussie digger that almost
invariably accompanies these films. Being event-based rather than arc-based,
character journeys are necessarily shorthanded and compact. The most visible
human relationship is between Fimmel’s Major Smith, a professional,
commando-trained soldier who resents having to lead a unit of reluctant draftees,
and Daniel Webber’s Private Paul Large, a skiver who steps up when the lead
starts flying. Action is character, as the saying goes, and given that battle
is, by definition, pretty much all action, we get characters defined very much
by what they do; complexity is a necessary sacrifice.
It helps, then, that Stenders has assembled
an incredible cast; indeed, Danger Close is certainly a candidate for
the best (majority male, but what are you gonna do?) Australian cast in recent
memory, with Luke Bracey, Nicholas Hamilton, Mojean Aria, Travis Jeffery, Aaron
Glenane, Anthony Hayes, Aaron McGrath, Myles Pollard, and more filling out the
ensemble. There are moments when the language of the period and scenario feels
a little uncomfortable in the mouths of some of these young actors, (and I’m
pretty sure the use of the phrase “We’re not here to fuck spiders” is an
anachronism), but those moments are fleeting – this is a rock solid cast
leaving it all out on the field.
Like the aforementioned Black Hawk Down,
Danger Close is told squarely from the point of view of only one set of
has been a sticking point for some commentators, but Danger Close’s
politics are largely subtextual and metatextual; Australia’s resistance to
conscription is fairly well dramatised, and the anti-war sentiment we think of
when reflecting on the Vietnam War really crested later in the decade (although
the American movement was certainly ramping up in ’66), so its relatively muted
presence here is understandable.
What really impresses, though, is how
Australian Danger Close feels. It’s not just the presence of L1A1 SLR
rifles, Owen submachineguns and various other production design elements; the
film is culturally Australian. A concert for the troops that features as a
parallel narrative stream involves Little Pattie (Emmy Dougal) and Col Joye (Geoffrey
Winter), and you don’t get much more “early ‘60s Australian” as that. For all
that we venerate the Anzacs, our deeply ingrained cultural cringe as Australian
media producers and consumers means that we tend to keep our military history
at arm’s length to some degree, honouring it in the abstract while downplaying
the specific. It’s our way, and it’s regrettable; on some level we don’t like
ourselves and our national character, and we don’t want to do the introspection
necessary to correct that. Danger Close doesn’t begin to do the hard yards
in that respect, but it also doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to
representing, if not interrogating, the Australian Vietnam War – this is, by
intent and by impact, our Vietnam movie. It’s what we’ve got.
Which means, of course, that it closes with “I Was Only 19 (A Walk in the Light Green)”, and whether that’s a solid choice or a bridge too far is in the eye of the beholder; it was, let’s agree, inevitable, though, and I think that musical choice underlines the film’s marked attempt not to fall to blind patriotism. Not does it tend towards self-flagellation over what was, as history ably demonstrates, an unjust war. Danger Close’s boots-on-the-ground approach is intentional, and its focus is deliberate. It’s no small achievement, juggling historical, dramatic, and political demands with considerable dexterity, and the result is a film whose place in the Australian pantheon is assured.
Director: Kriv Stenders
Cast: Travis Fimmel, Luke Bracey, Richard Roxburgh
Writers: Stuart Beattie, James Nicholas, Karel Segers, Paul Sullivan, Jack Brislee
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