[13 September 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Vietnam remains a subject so touchy for most Americans that it either devolves into a celebration of the various noble Vets left out of the overall post-war honorarium, or a debate over why we were there in the first place. It’s all Oliver Stone style pontifications and/or backward glancing mea culpas. Still, one can’t completely dismiss this proposed “police action” in Southeast Asia, it’s impact on the United States specifically and the world in general. In fact, many may not know that several other countries had a stake in the outcome. France got the ball rolling early when colonialism slashed with Communism, while Russia and China supported their brothers in Socialist arms. But there were other parties to the conflict, including the UK, New Zealand, and Australia, among them. The Odd Angry Shot is an indirect Downunder denouncement of the country’s involvement in the war, measured out in the everyday tediousness, and terror, of being front and center along enemy lines.
Fueled by Fosters and a fear of the unknown, a rag tag group of Australian soldiers spend their days drinking heavily and joking sheepishly. Bung (John Hargreaves), Rogers (Bryan Brown), Dawson (Graeme Blundell) and Scott (Ian Gilmour), along with their Corporal, Harry (Graham Kennedy) welcome a new recruit named Bill (John Jarratt) into their fold, helping him adapt to the boredom, the bugs, and the less than perfect living conditions near the battle lines. One night, a mortar attack rips through the camp. Before they know it, these guys are out in the field fighting for their lives. Then, out of the blue, more mind-numbing down time. This becomes the pattern for the platoon - long stretches of nothing followed by intense, and often very deadly, skirmishes. Along the way, Bill gets a “Dead John” letter from back home, equally horrific news arrives from overseas, and tragedy continually strikes our band of “brothers.”
As one of the more unusual war movies ever made, The Odd Angry Shot (even the title is a non-traditional twist-up) is an excellent window into a world we know/knew little about. Australia may have found its cultural niche (among Americans that is) during the heyday of the ‘80s, but this movie makes it very clear that there was more to the nation and its artistic appreciation of its achievements than a guy nicknamed after a reptile. Tom Jeffrey directs with a keen eye toward being both observational and wholly idiosyncratic, mixing comedy with chaos, drunken antics with the blood soaked realities of war. Unlike the US version of troop depravity along the front lines, The Odd Angry Shot suggests something beyond mere coping. The soldiers here are stuck on the outside, assisting for another nation far more invested in the outcome. In some ways, they are less-than-innocent bystanders, brought in for support while sustaining the kind of personality changing perils that marked most of the Vietnam experience.
Synapse Films earns several shout-outs for bringing something like this to the home media masses. With a few signature films constantly defining the experience in Southeast Asia, something like this sheds new, necessary light. Not only that, but the glimpse into Australia it provides predates much of what we know about the country and its cinema. Throughout the ‘70s, the government stressed homemade movies, with a rise in what would later be deemed Ozploitation (films focusing on the culture and quirks of the nation and its people, specifically). The Odd Angry Shot falls readily into this category, taking on the personality of its players to be both a startling intense war film as well as a goofy caricature of beer-soaked soldiery. If you ever wondered if all the lampoons and spoofs about Australians and their love of amber libation are true, this movie makes it very clear that many in the Downunder company had their shell-shocked blood bubbling in at about 80 proof.
It’s those kind of details, the way in which each character comes in and gets their specific dramatic denouement that makes The Odd Angry Shot so unique. It’s also a surprising non-agenda driven effort (though those with a greater understanding of Australian politics of the time may argue differently). Unlike Oliver Stone, who used Platoon to argue about the sacrifices made in Vietnam (which he later tried to amplify with Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven and Earth) and the less than respectful way said actions met, Jeffrey (working from a novel William Nagle) just wants to show his native sons doing their part and facing equal peril. Politics are not part of the parameters. Instead, the Aussies see themselves as doing what is necessary, using their downtime to decompress and avoiding the aftershock of such a senseless military strategy.
So instead of a point, The Odd Angry Shot is content to be a portrait, and a great one at that. It’s everyday lads meeting extraordinary circumstances, both at home and in the field, and working through them both with a lager and a larger than life attitude. This is hammered home in the excellent audio commentary provided by Synapse, a conversation between Jeffrey, his co-producer Sue Milliken, and actor Graeme Blundell. Explaining his purpose behind the film, as well as what it was like to make it, the trio acquits themselves with wit and wisdom. The Odd Angry Shot was not made to change minds. It was created to commend men who, arguably, had little place in a Superpower’s sovereign intervention. In some ways, by lacking a legitimate ax to grind or position to forward, Jeffrey et.al. craft an unusual critique all its own.
With a transfer that looks practically brand new and an overall sense of something newly discovered and worth writing about, The Odd Angry Shot becomes an important part of our overall artistic appreciation of Vietnam. It’s never going to be as heavy handed or horrific as the American take on this material (though some pretty terrible things do happen here), nor does it try and deny the heroics and happenstance of those who signed up to serve. While those who like their war movies filled with same may shrug over the lack of epic explosions and flying body parts, this Australian novelty sets its own storytelling strategy and then sticks to it, arguing for its mandatory inclusion in any discussion of the War and its aftermath. Just when you think you know everything about a subject, something like this comes along and recalibrates your consideration. The Odd Angry Shot is capable of such subgenre shifts.