Director Kriv Stenders' film about the Battle of Long Tan is a different sort of Vietnam flick.
But it’s a different sort of ‘Nam flick. It’s an Anzac one. It’s a white-knuckle dramatisation of the August 18, 1966, battle in a monsoon-lashed rubber plantation in south-east South Vietnam. Leaving 18 dead and 24 wounded, Long Tan was the deadliest clash involving New Zealand and Australian troops during the conflict.
The film certainly captures the intensity and prolonged panic of the firefight, as the 108-strong Delta Company of 6th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, which had three artillery spotters from New Zealand’s 161 Battery in its ranks, came under attack and was isolated by an estimated 2000 Viet Cong soldiers. The movie shows NZ Army captain Morrie Stanley (played by Aussie actor Aaron Glenane) performing feats of trigonometry under fire, radioing in the big guns and targeting them perilously near – “danger close”.
Director Kriv Stenders is amused when the Listener suggests a lot of his movie has Aussies shouting at each other while New Zealanders are working out the maths.
“That’s a very good way to put it,” he says with a laugh, though he’s quick to admit how the film depicts aiming the artillery fudges the finer arithmetic. “And if we put all that in the film, we’d still be watching the film.”
It’s perhaps hard to tell Stanley, who was decorated for his role in the battle, isn’t an Aussie: “I didn’t want to give him a thick Kiwi accent just to make it clear he’s a Kiwi.” Other New Zealand soldiers are easier to spot, especially the ones played by the likes of Richard Te Are and Shortland Street’s Jay Kiriona.
The movie, filmed in Queensland early last year, pivots on Delta Company commander Major Harry Smith, played by Vikings star Travis Fimmel. Now 86, Smith has written about the battle and mounted a long campaign to have his soldiers honoured for their efforts. He was one of the veterans who Stenders showed the film to early, after explaining to them it was a piece of dramatic entertainment.
“There was a little bit of hand-holding. We told them we have to take liberties and there’s a certain amount of licence we had to take in order to make it palatable for a mainstream audience. And I think they got that. As I told them, ‘We’re making a painting. We’re not doing photographs. So there’s a bit of interpretation involved.’ Their response was generally really positive.”
The film’s interpretation of events Stenders considers is “70-80% accurate”.
“I’m probably not the one to be asked that question because I’m not in the military. I wasn’t there. It reminds me of a joke: ‘How many Vietnam vets does it take to change a light bulb?’ ‘How would you know, you weren’t there.’
“The problem when you’re telling a story about a battle like this from people’s accounts is no one had a global view of the battle. Everyone had their personal subjective view. So it was just trying to join all the dots and create a sort of a composite picture.”
It’s not a film about the politics of the Vietnam War, he says, but a short battle within it and one that showed the Anzac troops looking out for their mates, even if it meant disobeying their superiors.
“I don’t really think of it as a war movie. It’s more of a survival story. It’s about how these guys survived. What I wanted to posit at the end was that maybe, technically or historically, they won the battle. In the film, though, it’s the fact they managed to survive the battle rather than win it.
“The way the Australians conducted themselves in that battle wouldn’t have happened in an American theatre of war at all. That’s what makes it unique.”
The film doesn’t give a Vietnamese perspective. “I’m not really the person to tell that story. Really, it should be a Vietnamese film-maker who should make it.” Vietnamese veterans did, however, appear in feature-length documentary The Battle of Long Tan, made by Danger Close producer Martin Walsh for the 40th anniversary in 2006, which screened to high ratings in Australia.
Unsurprisingly, Stenders hasn’t made a war movie before. His biggest feature success was the local box-office hit Red Dog, in 2011. Marshalling choppers, armoured-personnel carriers, and howitzers as well as a cast of 80 or so may have made him pine for the days he was making music videos for the likes of John Farnham and Jimmy Barnes. What’s more, he was aware that making a Vietnam War film risks walking into a minefield of clichés.
“You kind of can’t avoid the comparisons and, in a way, you’ve got to embrace them and use them to your advantage but still then carve your own story.” But there’s a good reason for the soundtrack déjà vu. “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ is in there for a very deliberate reason – that’s Delta Company’s theme song. That’s what they sang when they went on their marches. So, that’s in there for those in the know.”
Stenders directed last year’s Sam Neill-fronted Captain Cook documentary series Uncharted and Neill’s earlier doco Why Anzac, about the military history of the actor’s family and the changing meaning of the Anzac legacy. Now, his Danger Close adds to the Anzac pop-culture catalogue long dominated by Gallipoli films.
“Now that the anniversary of World War I has come and gone, we need to look forward and look into what does Anzac mean to new generations,” Stenders says. “I’m hoping that this film adds to that conversation and becomes part of that conversation and evolves the idea of Anzac.”
Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan opens on September 5.
This article was first published in the August 31, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.