As always, many thanks to Courtney of Cinemaaxis.com.
“To military historians, it is hugely significant, a demonstration of Australian grit and determination in the face of insurmountable odds.
But to the general public it barely registers.”
As a result of this, The Battle of Long Tan is a story that many if not most Australian and New Zealanders are criminally unfamiliar with, of course through no fault of their own. This surely could be attributed to the fact that despite many soldiers of the 6RAR company involved received US Presidential Citations, for decades the Australian Government didn’t recognise the effort, bravery and the achievements of these soldiers, and the men who fought in the battle have struggled for many years to receive the recognition they deserve.
Australian Director Kriv Strenders strives to change this, bringing the battle to the big screen for the first time, with unflinching historical accuracy. The struggle to bring it to screen started fifteen years ago, and has Strender’s found closure in the simple fact that it was completed at all.
Similar to Australian war film Kokoda (2006), Danger Close is a true story of desperation, determination and survival within a seemingly unwinnable battle. Originally on a reconnaissance mission, 108 ANZACs found themselves surrounded by over 2,000 battle-hardened North Vietnamese and Viet-Cong soldiers on 18 September, 1966, resulting in a savage encounter lasting over three hours during heavy, moonsoon rain. Unlike their enemies, most of these ‘men’ were volunteers and conscripts.
Most had never seen battle. The average age was 21. The only support was a three man artillery squad near their HQ.
In contrast to the young soldiers, the central character of the film is the experienced Major Harry Smith (Travis Fimmel, perhaps the only internationally recognisable face thanks to his role in Vikings). His frustration that most of his soldiers are close to useless in his mind is not kept a secret after a few one on one ‘conversations’ with his men.
However, Smith is still proud of the fact that his company train harder than any other in the region, his strict leadership a reason for the friction between him and the soldiers, but also a major reason for the unit’s readiness constant readiness for battle.
This is in stark contrast to other Australian soldiers in the base, some sipping cans of beer as they man machine-guns on the perimeter.
I can’t think of any behaviour that could be more Australian than that!!
Major Smith’s strict nature and they way he comes across as disliking his men initially creates tension between himself and the young men, as what they see in Smith is a leader who doesn’t care about them. It isn’t much regarding character building, as the rest of the soldiers are simply different faces, but this effectively creates a basic character arc for Smith which is further explored once he is in command on the battlefield.
It quickly becomes clear that his decision-making and the relationships he truly has with his men will be brutally tested. There are incredibly hard decisions to be made after his company finds themselves scattered and separated after unexpected enemy contact and loss of communication.
Eventually, after several incorrect estimates of the enemy size, they realise that they are surrounded on three sides by entire battalions of enemy soldiers. Each step forward in becomes loaded with tension: this is not a battle they can win. It can only be survived.
Taking advantage of the fact that the film is about a single battle, the experience feels as if it is playing out in real time, giving it a unique sense of realistic immersion. This quality also allows its sparse character building to go largely unnoticed. While the script does fall flat on a few occasions, this all takes a firm backseat to the incredibly urgent and consistent feeling of dread as the war of attrition continues. This is white-knuckle survival film is aided by the fantastic minimalist score by Caitlin Yeo which looms in the background, barely noticeable during the consistent chaos.
It is no Saving Private Ryan, but Danger Close is one of the best war films of recent memory, its tension unrelenting as the action moves deftly from two locations: the battlefield and the appropriately hectic reactions at HQ. The action isn’t unique or flashy in any way, while the scope of the film isn’t large. However, it works as well as it does due to the true meaning of the battle: it isn’t about winning, it’s about surviving, it is about the true grit needed to continue moving forward when faced with such overwhelming odds.
The song ‘I was only 19’ by Australian band Redgum during the credits is the icing on the proverbial cake, as photos are shown of the soldiers depicted in the film. As for the real Harry Smith, he has commented, “Overall … I would rate it eight out of 10”. Not bad from the leader of the battle!
The four words, ‘courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifice’ are engraved in the souls of ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) soldiers, and also literally engraved at a war memorial in Papua New Guinea. These seemingly simple values have defined the spirit of the soldiers since the birth of this young nation, but just as important, they also represent much of the populations of both Australia and New Zealand.
Danger Close succeeds in depicting the ANZAC spirit, as well as providing closure for the veterans of the battle.
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