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Mateship & militant orientalism in Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tân

Luke Bracey in Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan (2019). Photo by Jasin Boland - © Danger Close Production.

It was a war within yourself

But you couldn’t let your mates down ‘til they had you dusted off.” (Redgum’s “I was only Nineteen”)

Vietnam, 1966. The Australian Delta Company engages in the battle that defines their involvement in the Vietnam War. Lead by Major Harry Smith, the Company is ambushed and must fight off overwhelming enemy forces to protect their army base in Núi Đất. Despite the lack of ammunition and their own officers’ reluctance in sending support, Delta Company manages to hold off the assault by Việt Cộng and the People’s Army of Vietnam.  

The Battle of Long Tân was Vietnam’s Gallipoli because it has become how we remember Australian involvement in the Cold War, just as Gallipoli shapes our memory of the Great War. Director Kriv Stender’s portrayal in Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan (2019) will enter the Australian mythos the same way Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981) did. Even with a 40-year difference between them, both films exhibit “mateship” as the saving grace from heavy enemy fire and hardships in a foreign land, foregrounding characteristics synonymous with stereotypes of an Australian man: larrikinism, honour, stubbornness, and appreciation of individual human lives over vague logistic victories.

Danger Close is however marked different from Gallipoli by its blockbuster approach, including the film’s high attention to special effects and penchant for violence. If Gallipoli is anti-war by framing hardships of life in the trenches as the true enemy, Danger Close doubles-down on its support for the Australian military by drawing from the vocabulary of Hollywood Vietnam War films and representing its foe as an unthinking horde of Others.

Mel Gibson who starred in Gallipoli once commented that “Gallipoli was the birth of the nation. It was shattering of a dream for Australia.” While the cliché is well-rehearsed, it is not clear in this instance whether Gibson meant to allude to D. W. Griffith’s controversial 1915 film Birth of a Nation—known for its ethos of White supremacy and depictions of African-Americans using blackface. Either way if Danger Close is portraying an Australian origin story, in the context of South East Asia, then it does so using the dangerous racialization of the Việt Cộng and the People’s Army of Vietnam. As the White Australian soldiers overcome their non-White enemy the allusion to the mythic crimson thread of kinship keeps Australia dreaming of its White racial supremacy even as it remains geographically located in the Asia-Pacific.

Certainly, both Danger Close’s timing (long after the Fall of Saigon but close enough to the increasing tension with China) and aesthetics call for a reflection of Australia’s relationship to the Vietnam War and fidelity to United States’ representations of the conflict. Under America’s global sphere of influence (amongst others), it is no surprise to see an Australian production like Danger Close taking visual and narrative cues from veterans like Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), while also attempting to carve out a space of its own. This much is true from the film’s very first scene, a montage of destructive combat, poetically sewn together and scored by Caitlyn Yeo’s operatic synth organ. The extreme-wide shot of a “murder” of helicopters hover the orange sunset is not dissimilar to “Ride of the Valkyries” scene in Coppola’s masterpiece, which also opens to an overture of explosions.

Danger Close’s opening montage shrouds what follows in a pressure blanket of irony: it is the night before the decisive battle and our Australian soldiers have yet to come to terms with what they are in for. All the soldiers are men and we are introduced to an array of Australian masculinities, a selection of mindsets of those deployed to fight. Some take the fight too seriously, while some not enough—a lieutenant continues to play cards and “clean house” while his commander narrowly escapes a mortar. Although their mannerisms and ethnicities diverge (Danger Close makes a notable effort to include Indigenous actors Uli Katukefu and Lasarus Ratuere), the soldiers are united in their dedication and bond to their mates.

Major Harry Smith—the embodiment of these characteristics—is portrayed by a disgruntled Travis Fimmel, who acts like he cannot care less about anything to better emphasise that which he cares about is the ideal. The script by Stuart Beattie, James Nicholas, Karel Segers, Paul Sullivan, and Jack Brislee fails to make this belief resonate in Danger Close as it presents no distinctive characters nor memorable storylines to show how mateship can connect across cultural or racial divides. Larrikin Paul Large (Daniel Webber), the one character we are supposed to root for and consequently mourn, reveals his vulnerability by recalling “Dad and Mum watching the telly, having a beer”, a detail so banal it borderlines stereotypical. Even with almost enough screenwriters to make a military squad, even when nostalgia for mateship beckons a resurgence (see Bernard Salt’s wishful thinking for The Australian), Danger Close falls short in delivering beyond the contrived.

If Hollywood’s interpretation of the Vietnam War is criticised for the overt focus on individual psyche as opposed to attention to the muddy politics within which these soldiers functioned, there is not enough individualism nor introspection of the Australian soldiers in Danger Close to even warrant such criticism.

Perhaps that is why film critic Travis Johnson classes Danger Close as “culturally Australian”. Even when the film exhibits Australia’s “regrettable” hesitation in confronting its legacy in the War, Johnson seems content with the end results, “[the film’s] what we’ve got”. To Johnson, so long as a film merely represents (and not interrogates) the role Australian soldiers played in Vietnam, its place “in the Australian pantheon is assured.”

To be clear, Danger Close is a stunning feat of special effects and cinematography. With principal production in Queensland, the film offers a different lens through which we can see Vietnam: the sticky and dense jungles are replaced by lush savannahs and serene wetlands. Ben Nott’s cinematography fixates on sunlight delicately filtering through canopies, and on the effect of smoke and rain washing over the rubber plantation. The film does not shy away from depicting mayhem either. Rather, Danger Close basks in entropy as the Australian mortars are afforded a point of view, to which the audience’s perspective is sutured. Put simply, the audience sees what a mortar would have seen if it had eyes. As the mortars land on and explode the enemy Other, the audience partakes in an act of violence that not only gratifies, but is also justified.

The weapons and armory in Danger Close are cleverly framed as last-minute rescuers. Sure, they rain hellfire upon the enemy, but Beattie et al’s script combined with Stenders’ direction allows for destructive intervention just when the infantry needs them most. When the Company runs out of ammunition, volunteers fly Iroquois helicopters to drop supplies despite heavy fire, and when they must resort to daggers for self-protection, tanks roll in to deliver back-up personnel. As long as our boys are safe, the cost for enemies is not worth mentioning, literally.

Considering Australia’s colonial past and present, and Hollywood’s long established anxiety for the ‘Yellow Peril’, it is not surprising to see Danger Close’s depiction of the Việt Cộng and the People’s Army of Vietnam as a mass of mindless bodies, mobilized by the caricatural sounds of trumpet rather their liberationist ideology. Associate Professor Olivia Khoo observes for The Conversation that on Australian screens, Asian characters are more often spoken for than allowed to speak. This is true to an extent in Danger Close, where pronunciations of “chạy đi [run]” or “rút lui [retreat]” are laid over images of bodies scuttling away or being blown up. These disembodied voices, albeit clearly speaking Vietnamese, contribute towards the abstraction of the enemy Other which likens Danger Close’s politics to that of the American interpretation.

In their introduction for a collection of essays on the Vietnam War films, Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud maintain that these productions portray Vietnamese the way World War II films have portrayed Japanese soldiers, resulting in first, the conflation of North Vietnamese’s aim to liberate South Vietnam from United States occupation with imperialist fascism, and second, the homogenisation of all Asian peoples as an evil force.

Given scriptwriter Stuart Beattie’s track record of “adopting Hollywood conventions” by retaining “xenophobia, compounded by casual racism”, and Matthew A. Killmeier and Gloria Kwok’s contention that the masculinity presented in Hollywood Vietnam War films is “conducive to renewed militarism”, it is hard not to associate Danger Close with Australia’s military policy and indeed the increasingly fraught relationship between the United States and China.

What’s more, as Danger Close’s credits roll to Redgum’s “I was only Nineteen”, the sense of woundedness remains even though Australia secures victory over the Vietnamese. Imbued with details of post-traumatic stress disorder, the song choice recalls Jonna Eagle’s proposal that shared experiences of suffering can unite a nation and shape its identity. The myth of mateship forged through great loss against an invisible foe lives on.

Mateship as a palatable code for White superiority would surely mean everything to a Western world order under threat. If Danger Close’s weak and confusing writing manages to say one thing, it would be a call to arms: trust in our brothers—those who look like us, who have a similar colonial history to us— protect the “Australian dream”. With impressive cinematography, score, and visual effects to boot, Danger Close is a film that retains enough of your attention to just barely distract from such political potency.

Scarlette Nhi Do is a PhD student at the Australian National University, where she conducts research into cinematic representations of the Vietnam War. She has taught cultural and gender studies at the University of Melbourne for the past two years, and maintained advocacy roles with feminist organisations across Australia. When she is not programming short films for the Melbourne Women Film Festival, she coordinates engagement and outreach events for the One Woman Project. Scarlette also serves as a board member for Womendeavour, the organisation she co-founded to support students with marginalised identities transition from university to professional work.