‘Red Dog’ director Kriv Stenders’ latest stars ‘Vikings’ veteran Travis Fimmel in the story of a bloody battle fought by Australians in Vietnam.
Kriv Stenders is probably best known for homegrown hit Red Dog, a broad, nostalgic paean to Australian values traditionally defined, like mateship and hard yakka — or manual labor, to non-locals. He brings some of that same gloss to Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan, which recreates one of the most famous skirmishes fought by Australian troops in Vietnam.
Orchestrated on an impressive scale, the movie nonetheless feels both familiar and diffuse, with thinly sketched variations on a bronzed theme rather than characters — appropriately enough for a film that aims to burnish a legend. A procession of Aussie stars make up the cast, led by Vikings leading man Travis Fimmel as the soldier in charge of an Australian Army unit that finds itself surrounded by Viet Cong in the abandoned village of Long Tan. Saban Films picked up North American rights last month.
Stenders and his screenwriter Stuart Beattie (Collateral) begin at base camp Nui Dat, circa 1966, where Major Smith (Fimmel), an ex-Special Forces man, is fed up with babysitting green conscripts — most of them no older than 21. His superior officer (Richard Roxburgh) turns down his request to be transferred, instead sending him out to locate enemy positions. Before he goes, Smith calls a cocky private, Paul Large (Daniel Webber), into his tent and quite literally throttles him, in an unlikely scene that gives the diamond-eyed Fimmel a chance to return to the berserker ways of King Ragnar.
Fellow career soldiers such as Sergeant Buick (Hacksaw Ridge’s Luke Bracey, back in khaki) command more respect. Once Smith separates the company into roving platoons, Buick finds himself under fire and in command, pinned down with a broken radio. What follows, as Smith tries to reach his beleaguered men across a mustard-yellow haze of gunsmoke and monsoonal rain and is cornered in turn, is disorienting, even for those with a basic understanding of the battle’s stages
Editor Veronika Jenet cuts between the four isolated platoons, catching fire and trying to contact one another; command HQ, where Roxburgh and his subordinate (Anthony Hayes) tussle over whether to send reinforcements, a move which might leave the base vulnerable to attack; and a team of shirtless artillerymen elsewhere on the base, whose pinpoint-accurate charges are the only things stopping the Australians from being overwhelmed by vastly superior enemy numbers. They receive coordinates from frightened radio operators in the field, forced to make split-second calculations that could cost fellow soldiers their lives.
A strain of insubordination runs through the film, and it’s embodied in the relationship between Smith and the young Pvt. Large. Tensions between the two come to a head when Smith calls down artillery on Buick’s position and Large shoves the older man, enraged. Smith, in turn, refuses an order to withdraw because it would mean leaving his men behind. This clears the way for a rapprochement before the climactic battle, in which the farm boy reminisces about life back in the rural New South Wales town of Coolah and the Major gets to show that he does care, after all.
Shooting in Queensland, the filmmakers have found a convincing double for the rubber plantation on which the actual battle took place, and digital effects are kept to a refreshing minimum as Huey choppers drop supplies, American fighter jets join the fray and APCs (Armoured Personnel Carriers) race to the rescue. The crosshatched comprehensiveness of the approach means the filmmakers have even included the Nui Dat concert given by popular Australian singers Little Pattie (Emmy Dougall) and Col Joye (Geoffrey Winter), who had to be flown out hastily once the battle was underway.
Rising stars Alexander England (Alien: Covenant) and Stephen Peacocke (Me Before You) pop up in supporting roles, but it’s really Fimmel’s story — of a mocking hardass who becomes a caring leader. The production notes liken the story of Long Tan to that of the 300 Spartans, which makes Major Smith something of a Leonidas figure. But the Spartans were not, in that instance, the invading force, and the statistics on which the film ends — 18 Australians killed next to 245 Vietnamese or more — are presented with tone-deaf triumphalism.
Distribution: Saban Films
Production companies: Saboteur Media, Red Dune Films, Deeper Water Films
Cast: Travis Fimmel, Luke Bracey, Richard Roxburgh, Anthony Hayes, Alexander England, Daniel Webber, Aaron Glenane, Nicholas Hamilton, Myles Pollard, Matt Doran, Stephen Peacocke, Uli Latukefu, Aaron L. McGrath, Mojean Aria, Emmy Dougall
Director: Kriv Stenders
Screenwriter: Stuart Beattie
Producers: Martin Walsh, John Schwarz, Michael Schwarz
Cinematographer: Ben Nott
Production designer: Sam Hobbs
Costume designer: Lizzy Gardiner
Music: Caitlin Yeo
Editor: Veronika Jenet
Casting: Kirsty McGregor, Stevie Ray
Venue: Sydney Film Festival