Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Sydney Film Festival (16) - Max Berghouse ponders DANGER CLOSE (Kriv Stenders, Australia)

My last "official" film of the 2019 Sydney Film Festival was Danger Close and I'm now writing this short note about it, or at least one aspect of it, without proposing any full review. I want to reflect further upon the film before coming to any final conclusion.

In practically every way it is the most approachable of all the significant films at the festival. Put bluntly it is an "actioner" without I think any pretences to being other than a commercial production. That is not meant as a criticism. Far from it. It’s just that that it makes the film easier to comprehend than perhaps some more “artistic film festival work”. In terms of quality my immediate reaction is that I doubt that I have ever seen in an Australian film evidence that so much of the budget actually ended up on screen and not whittled away in pre-production expenses.

Kriv Stenders
There are some minor glitches which I'd have to reflect upon and research more fully to be assured that my current inferences are correct. In the script there are a couple of infelicities of language that certainly don't disturb the narrative but were probably inappropriate for that time and place. More of that at another time perhaps. I have a suspicion that the weapons on display and used by the troops are of a later period than that shown. That is hardly going to make much difference to most viewers. For example, so far as I know, the main submachine gun weapon of Australian troops was the Australian designed Owen gun. Yet I feel I did not see even one of them on screen. I am not a weapons expert nor a war aficionado so I think I'd have to do quite a deal of work to work out accuracy or inaccuracy. 

Similarly, I think the standard officer’s side arm was not, as shown in the film, a Colt .45 semi-automatic (referred to in the USA as the "Colt 1900" and in the UK as the "Colt Bulldog") but a traditional British revolver, the Webley Mk IV. For all I know this could have been deliberate: to make stronger parallels between Australian troops and US troops. I don't think it qualifies or minimises enjoyment to ponder whether or not the artillery, nor the armoured personnel carriers, et cetera were of the period or pretty much current. In any event it's just an observation.

I suspect that many people who praise Australian individuality may be reluctant to see the parallels I see with the 1964 film Zulu (Cy Endfield, UK). The two sets of events are very largely similar: two grossly outnumbered groups of "white" troops are under pressure from a grossly disproportionate number of "coloured" troops. Both follow the same pattern of "our" troops withdrawing, little by little, to a final redoubt where amidst much bloodshed they are victorious. I think the parallels between the two films are quite conscious and that the producers of Danger Close have wisely modelled a significant part of the film on Zulu. And well they might because Zulu has been an extraordinary success over a long period of time. It was the first production effort of (Sir) Stanley Baker who died relatively soon thereafter of liver cancer leaving his widow a very substantial amount of money because of the success of the film.

An equally well-placed Australian film, although a much smaller budget, Kokoda, similarly used a prior film as a model for its exposition. That film was The Lost Patrol  (John Ford, USA, 1934).

It is the similarities and rather more than the dissimilarities between the two films that I wish to emphasise now. In Zulu, coming under pressure, the troops react to coming together under their officers and never think of disobedience – at least when it comes to fighting. Quite the opposite is true in Danger Close. Practically every level: simple privates, sergeants, warrant officers, junior to middle officers and middle to, almost the top, officers disobey not merely orders but orders emphatically given and repeated. At the time Zulu was made Britain was undergoing radical change due to the collapse of empire and myriad industrial problems. Perhaps the success of the film can be seen as an example of a way out of trouble being to come together in a strict hierarchical fashion. Exactly the opposite is true in Danger Close where individual disobedience is the norm and appears to be praiseworthy. Somehow this associates with the Australian character of the larrikin.

In both the British and Australian Army, lower ranks salute higher ranks and higher ranks return that salute. That is provided the person saluting is wearing a cap. If not, the saluting person stands to attention. This is not the case in the American army. Throughout Danger Close, everyone except the Brigadier-General, at one stage or another is wearing a military cap. I don't think I saw a salute from the beginning of the film, to the end. This is not simply a lack of accuracy. Rather it is to emphasise a certain democratic potential which may, or perhaps may not be, relevant to Australian society, then and/or now.

In the number of books about the battle of Long Tan, and the several documentaries about it, there is one unifying thread which is that the obligations principally to "look after your mates" is transmuted further up the chain of command one looks. The simple privates, mainly conscripts, basically look to the other conscripts on either side of them. Further up the line there is increasing emphasis, not on individuals but on the objects of the engagement. At the very top (Brigadier-General) there is a concern for victory or defeat in which individuals have to be sacrificed. In this context, I am pretty sure the historical record has been consciously distorted for dramatic purposes. The Brigadier General (a very subtle performance by Richard Roxburgh) is turned into the antagonist whereas all those who disobey are protagonists worthy of our sympathy. Similarly, in Zulu, strict historical record was amended for dramatic purposes.

I feel comfortable that all these decisions were conscious and well thought out in terms of conveying, if not historical accuracy then "poetic accuracy". Think also that very considerable minds focused on the sorts of things that are required – emotional engagement with the protagonists – to achieve commercial success. 

I think they have been successful.

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