This film is an example of why, and how, Australian cinema is so awesome.
This is not a film I would tend to watch off my own bat, for a whole bunch of reasons. But I did, and I’m glad I did.
The story focusses on Bill, a fresh young man (John Jarratt!) off to the Vietnam War as part of the SAS. When there he falls in with some likely lads (Graham Kennedy! Bryan Brown!!) with whom he drinks, jokes, and gets into trouble – and goes on patrol with too. Some of them get wounded. Some of them die.
The film has some remarkable character moments. At one point, Harry is explaining why he’s sketching – he was an artist before he joined up. He then goes on to explain that he joined the army after he got a divorce, and why he got a divorce. It’s a sad story – as such stories ought to be – but it is neither pathetic nor overwrought; it is as pragmatic as your classic Aussie bloke would make it. This is not to say that Harry is unfeeling; quite the contrary. He feels it deeply. But he does not make a song and dance about it.
I think the pragmatism, and the understatement, is the big difference between this film and an American one. I’ve seen Born on the Fourth of July, which is a remarkable piece of cinema. But this captures another, equally true (?for given values of…) version of the experience of war. And it is realistic. There’s tinea, porn, fear, death, the random nature of events; there’s camaraderie, and making the best of a dreadful situation. Like having a cage fight between a spider and a scorpion. As you do.
As with many such films, it’s based on a book. Apparently the author was concerned that the film would turn his anti-Vietnam-but-pro-army story into a buddy war movie. I hope that, when he saw it, he saw a film that did capture some of the essence of his book. Because this is definitely not a pro-war film.
I’m glad I watched it. It’s pretty raw – there are definitely some cringeworthy moments, made all the more cringey because they almost certainly reflect actual attitudes of the 70s, if not the 60s; but as a short, sharp suggestion of an Australian experience in Vietnam, it works.