"The truth is the great majority of the wonderful people back at home couldn’t give two stuffs whether you live or die out here mate."

The Odd Angry Shot (1979)

Director: Tom Jeffrey

Producers: Tom Jeffrey, Sue Milliken

Starring: Graham Kennedy, John Hargreaves, John Jaratt, Bryan Brown

The Odd Angry Shot is the Vietnam War as only an Australian could see it. Tom Jeffrey’s story of four men from the Special Air Service (SAS) serving their tours of duty in the final years of the war stands out as a bit of an unsung classic amongst other great ‘Nam movies. The typical story of comradeship, disillusionment, frustration and alienation is served with distinctly Australian black humour and sarcasm. As far as I know the film is the only contribution that the Australian Film Industry has made to the genre of Vietnam War movies.

The film’s title comes from the notion that Australian forces saw little action in Vietnam and were required to fire off only ‘the odd angry shot’. This view has an element of truth to it. The SAS are highly respected as an elite group of men and women and were at the time better trained than even the celebrated Green Berets of America. However, they were used almost purely for reconnaissance during the war, and saw none of the ‘Search and destroy’ style missions that US troops did. Still, the highly trained SAS troops were very capable of defending themselves in situations of ambush or faulty intelligence.

Jeffrey, as director, script writer and co- producer, focuses his film not on the conflict with the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, who remain as faceless entities throughout, but on the boredom and alienation of life in a muddy campsite surrounded by jungle (or rainforest to be exact. The entire film was shot in Queensland and suffers the plight shared by many Vietnam films of often not looking anything like Vietnam). The film follows Bill (John Jarratt) as the typical young, naive soldier who quickly learns to rely on his mates Bung, Rodgers and the sympathetic, world weary sergeant Harry. Harry is played brilliantly by Graham Kennedy, the man who once stood as King of Australian television and film. Kennedy’s performance is a highlight of the film, permeating it with an air of pessimism and cynicism that soon carries over to the other three men. They are alienated not only by public antipathy to the war at home but also their use by the Americans, risking their lives for a cause they know nothing about. All of them question the reasons why they are fighting and who at home really cares about the war anyway, but Harry has dealt with these emotions long ago and accepted his place as a lowly sergeant in an unappreciated war. His explanation of the situation is “Everyone has to be somewhere. And you’re here. So get bloody used to it.”

Together the four men use any method possible to alleviate the boredom between missions. This ranges from constant drinking to a hilarious staged match between Bung’s pet spider and a Yank scorpion, leading to a punch up between the Australian and American forces ( who are either portrayed as arrogant, bleach blonde pretty boys or jive talking black men). They also learn to cope with the horrors of war, with traditional Aussie stoicism and sarcasm. “Will they take off my leg?”, one wounded soldier asks, to which Bung responds, “Not unless they’re pissed mate!” This type of humour and attitude is a large part of the great Australian stereotype, seen constantly in our film and literature but just because it’s a stereotype doesn’t mean it isn’t true. One of the many stories I’ve heard coming from the Vietnam War involves a report from an SAS commander after his first clash with ARVN forces. Under ‘condition of the patrol’ he wrote simply “A little older”.

Jeffrey’s film, like many of the recent Gulf War II protests, is at once anti- war and pro- soldier. Neither a drama nor a comedy, it switches between both with ease and the humour with which the four men deal with some truly appalling situations is moving as well as often side- splittingly funny. For a film made in 1979 it was a brave portrayal of the Australian soldiers. The backlash to the Vietnam War here was at least as great as it was in America. Returning soldiers were known to have been spat at in the streets for involving themselves in a ‘Yank war’ and it wasn’t until the beginning of the 80’s that a Welcome Home parade was staged. This in my eyes made the film’s achievement even greater, putting a completely new perspective on the war and the people who fought it. The performances are mostly solid. Graham Kennedy is, as I’ve said, brilliant and Bryan Brown as Rodgers shows why he has gone on to become one of Australia and Hollywood’s most excellent and underrated actors. The movies realistically depicts the themes of alienation, boredom and disillusionment with humour and pathos and it’s a real shame this movie never got more credit.

For any Australian or war movie fan The Odd Angry Shot is a must see, even if it will be tough to track down. For anyone else, it’s still a bloody good way to spend 92 minutes, and a uniquely Aussie view of a war that has been dominated by the American perspective.

Sources and more info:

Special Air Service: Who Dares Wins, http://users.mildura.net.au/users/phil/sas1.htm

Screensound Australia, http://www.screensound.gov.au/ScreenSound/Screenso.nsf/0/0F51048936BD2EF4CA256B5F001C2795?OpenDocument#comment

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