A film script is one area where the old adage about “too many cooks” almost always rings true. Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan, has employed no fewer than five writers, but the dialogue and characterisation never seem to have gotten beyond a first draft. This would be fatal if the film set out to be an intimate portrait of human relationships in the cauldron of war. Instead, it’s the record of a famous battle, with all the tension and bloodshed, the mishaps and acts of casual heroism that distinguished that day of August 18, 1966, when 108 Australian soldiers held off more than 2,000 Viet Cong.
Directed by Kriv Stenders, the man behind Red Dog (2011), and other works of true blue Australiana, there was always going to be a patriotic complexion to this tale. We can be thankful that Stenders has stuck so closely to the actual events and avoided any overt tub-thumping. We recognise the heroism and desperation of the Australian soldiers, but there is no nationalistic rhetoric to glorify the savagery.
Neither is there a single word about the reasons Australian soldiers were in Vietnam, fighting and dying in a war that most Australians saw as none of our business. It makes one appreciate the black humour of Tom Jeffreys’s The Odd Angry Shot (1979), which emphasised the futility of the conflict and the indifferent reception that awaited the veterans back home.
Stenders has set himself the task of raising awareness of one day of heroism and sacrifice. It’s not a project that lends itself to humour, or to the dark, existential ruminations of a movie such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) – which can currently be seen at the cinema in the director’s preferred cut. While Coppola gives us a vision of Vietnam which is part descent into hell, part absurdist comedy, Stenders is obliged to play straight. Anything less would be considered disrespectful to the survivors of Long Tan who were consulted as part of the preparations.
Travis Fimmel, best known for his role in the TV series, Vikings, plays Major Harry Smith, an officer who demands much from his men, and leads from the front. Daniel Webber is Private Paul Large, a country boy who challenges Smith’s authority but earns his respect. The stereotyped interaction between these men is as close as we get to a subplot, but everything is squeezed in between gun fights and artilliery barrages.
If there’s a villain it’s the portly Lieutenant Colonel Colin Townsend (Anthony Hayes), who makes all the wrong calls, hampers the rescue mission for his own selfish reasons, and wants his share of the kudos. Yet what we see in Townsend’s actions is the chaos and uncertainty of warfare when officers at headquarters are sending orders to troops in the firing line. Richard Roxburgh’s Brigadier David Jackson fares little better, although his motivations are not in question.
Every since the Boer War Australian troops have had a reputation for insubordination, and there are multiple instances in this story when soldiers simply refuse to obey orders they don’t like. Those refusals may be justified by subsequent events but it reveals the inadequacy of commands issued under pressure. It suggests that steely precision and blind obedience may not be the keys to military success.
Smith’s men fought with incredible determination but their victory contained a lot of luck and muddling through. There were 18 Australian casualties to more than 200 Vietnamese, which may be due to the Viet Cong’s old-fashioned tactic of sending wave after wave of men on suicidal charges toward enemy guns. None of the Viet Cong are given a shred of indivduality, they are a tribe of faceless berserkers who run screaming at the Australians, firing ther weapons indiscriminately.
To be fair it would have been difficult to tell the story of Long Tan from both sides. No Vietnamese seems to have jumped on the soap box during those four violent hours in Long Tan, and we can be thankful for Stenders’s commitment to the facts. If you want to read about the conflict from the Vietnamese point of view, try Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War (1990), surely one of the most heart-rending novels of all time.
The most powerful scenes in Danger Close are those in which the Australian soldiers are pinned down by enemy fire. In a split second a life is extinguished by a shot to the forehead, or the neck. The dialogue may be stagey but these gun battles are horribly realistic, as shells whizz through the air like a swarm of angry insects. It’s low-rent alongside Mel Gibson’s ferocious Hacksaw Ridge (2016), but still tense, unnerving stuff.
Throughout this film one feels there is a big, patriotic story straining to be told but Stenders never takes the Charles Chauvel route. This may be because Vietnam would soon become a source of shame for America and its allies rather than a triumph. It also reinforces the idea that it’s only permissable for contemporary war movies to be fixated on brutality, not glory. It’s an unwritten law in these films that there are no winners, only survivors.
Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan
Directed by Kriv Stenders
Written by Stuart Beattie, James Nicholas, Karel Segers, Paul Sullivan, Jack Brislee
Starring Travis Fimmel, Luke Bracey, Richard Roxburgh, Daniel Webber, Nicholas Hamilton, Stephen Peacocke, Matt Doran, Anthony Hayes, Emmy Dougall, Sean Lynch
Australia, rated MA 15+, 118 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 10 August, 2019