Serendipity is a wonderful thing. I’d been researching Australian Cinema and, zapping through the channels on TV, I stumbled across this key film on Sony’s ‘Movies 4 Men’ channel about to start. I’ve always known there was a Vietnam War film from Australia and I thought I’d seen it back in the 1970s, but couldn’t remember anything about it. The Odd Angry Shot was made in 1979 and was based on a novel by William L. Nagle who served in Vietnam as a cook in the later 1960s. The film was written and directed by Tom Jeffrey. Australia became involved in the Vietnam War under the Liberal (i.e. ‘Conservative’) government of Robert Menzies, whereas the UK Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to bow to American pressure. Vietnam became a signifier of the shift of Australia into the American sphere of influence and away from the UK. The war would eventually become the focus for protest movements in Australia, especially after conscripted men started to be sent to Vietnam after 1966.
The Odd Angry Shot belongs to what seems now to be known as the ‘AFC period’ of production in the 1970s. The Australian Film Commission and the funding agencies of the individual states provided a big boost for Australian production in the second half of the 1970s and it was these films that became known in the UK as the ‘New Australian Cinema’ or ‘Australian New Wave’. Several got mainstream theatrical distribution in the UK and others appeared on UK TV. The Odd Angry Shot didn’t make it to the UK until a 1988 video, but it did get a simultaneous Australian and US cinema release in 1979, presumably because of the subject matter.
The film begins with a combined 21st Birthday/’Going Away’ party for Bill (John Jarratt) who soon finds himself on a chartered Quantas flight to Vietnam. He’s the rookie in an SAS Unit led by Harry, an experienced corporal played by Graham Kennedy. Bryan Brown (‘Rogers’) and John Hargreaves (‘Bung’) make up the quartet who we follow throughout the film. In one sense, The Odd Angry Shot is an unusual ‘war combat’ picture. We don’t get any of the training period for young conscripts – I don’t think we know how Bill gets there. Is he a recruit or a conscript? Does he already know the ropes? Soon we are on patrol and the narrative switches between brief snatches of action – when the ‘odd angry shot’ is fired (and the odd squaddie is killed or badly injured) – and longer periods back in the makeshift tented base camp. This latter is familiar from M.A.S.H (1970) and the TV series that followed. There is a brief R&R visit to Saigon, but mostly the film is about that Australian sense of ‘mateship’. The four central characters are also ‘larrikins’ – that uniquely Australian term for the unruly, whose disdain for authority and search for fun is received with affection by many. There are only a few scenes in which officers appear and they are depicted as quite sensible, the big confrontation comes when the four mates meet a Sgt-Major who tries to be officious and Harry gives him a mouthful. Harry has clearly seen it all before and an officer arrives and backs him up.
The Odd Angry Shot found generally very appreciative audience in cinemas. Reading through the IMDb comments it’s clear that the Australian and US Vietnam vets recognise the accuracy of the film in terms of the preparation for patrols, the quiet and methodical way of advancing on suspected Viet Cong positions and the boredom and attempts to relieve it in the camp. Because of the tiny budget (it was shot in Northern Australia, utilising a military training area in Queensland, for around A$600k) there are no doubt mistakes in the right kinds of helicopters and weapons, but that doesn’t really matter. As several commentators note, it gives a much more realistic depiction of fighting in Vietnam than most of the Hollywood films of the period (the film followed Apocalypse Now and Coming Home but preceded Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. The importance of the film, however, is best articulated in its closing section when Harry and Bill return to Sydney at the end of their tour. There is no triumphant or heroic ending – nothing ‘gung-ho’. They go to a bar (in dress uniform) and answer “No” when the barman asks if they have just come back from Vietnam. They take their beers and sit back with a view across the bay. Earlier, in one of the few ‘speeches’ in the film Harry expresses his world-weary view about being in a dangerous place in Vietnam. ‘We all have to be somewhere, and we’re here.” In this useful review of the DVD, there are quotes from the DVD commentary suggesting that some critics thought the film wasn’t sufficiently ‘anti-war’, but I think that misses the point. The film never attempts to ‘explain the war’, only to present the soldiers’ experiences.
Here’s the trailer for the 2016 restoration of the film by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. The entry on the NFSA website is also useful.
Screened as part of a double bill of short features, Distinguished Flying Cross is a 61 minute documentary about a US Army helicopter pilot sent to Vietnam in 1965. According to the festival brochure, Film Comment named director Travis Wilkinson as one of the top avant-garde filmmakers currently active. This turned out to be rather a misleading introduction to the film which is actually a conventionally structured eye-witness documentary. The simple structure uses title cards to announce questions and chapter headings for the statements of Warrant Officer Wilkerson who is shown in a head-on shot flanked by his two sons. The trio drink beer and mull over the father’s memories. Intercut with these scenes are clips of the war taken by unnamed army filmmakers (including some interesting footage of local bands playing for the Americans) and acquired by Travis Wilkerson via US National Archives.
Wade Wilkerson has an extraordinary memory from which he digs out some matter-of-fact observations of what happened and why. He was in Vietnam because he wanted to fly civil jetliners and the only way to get such jobs was via military training. He would have needed a college degree to get into the Navy or Airforce but the Army took him without questions. He wasn’t a very good soldier according to his own account and the incident which earned him the DFC, although certainly heroic on his part, was probably awarded for the wrong reason. An excellent raconteur, Wade tells an interesting story well exposing the bullshit as he puts it. I enjoyed the tales (most of which are familiar enough from the well-known books on the war such as Michael Herr’s Despatches or Philip Caputo’s A Rumour of War) – but I don’t think I’ve heard the specific helicopter pilot perspective before. This perspective is also important because this was 1965 when the US was supposedly ‘aiding’ South Vietnam and the anti-war movement was still in its infancy. Wade is quite illuminating about what it was like to be a mature student at a university a few years later.
If this pops up on TV at some point, I would recommend it.
I’m delighted that Cutter’s Way was re-released in the UK by Park Circus on 24 June in ‘Key Cities’. This is a ‘limited release’ but if it’s on anywhere near you, I recommend a trip.If you don’t know the film, DVDs are available.
Cutter’s Way is an adaptation by the Czech New Wave director Ivan Passer of the highly acclaimed 1976 novel Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg. The dates here are important because Thornburg’s story is about an angry Vietnam veteran Alex Cutter (John Heard) and 1976 was a year after the last American helicopters left Saigon. Five years on and Passer’s film finally reached cinemas during the first year of Reagan’s presidency when the political mood in America had changed. Cutter’s Way appeared as a film seemingly twice out of place since it more resembled the intelligent downbeat films of the ‘New Hollywood’ of the 1970s than the entertainment films of the new era of Spielberg/Lucas et al. As a result, Cutter’s Way had a difficult release and eventually came out as something akin to an independent film. Since its original release it has become something of a ‘cult film’.
This re-release has been promoted by the BFI which is screening the film on an extended run at the NFT with a feature by Michael Atkinson in Sight and Sound (July 2011). The re-release has been timed to be part of the BFI’s Jeff Bridges Retrospective. This is interesting for several reasons. It’s John Heard who in some ways steals the show in the film and the Bridges on view is the young man who was so beautiful rather than the post-Dude Bridges who is now a cult figure. Audiences who might be drawn to the film by Bridges’ presence may be surprised by what they find. Lisa Eichhorn is mesmerising as an alcoholic. She never got another major role of this quality and the American Film Institute reckoned her performance to be the most under-rated of the era.
Outline (no spoilers)
Santa Barbara, Southern California. Part-time yacht salesman and occasional gigolo Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) witnesses an odd incident on a rain-swept backstreet when his car breaks down. He only realises later that a murder has been committed and that since he was at the crime scene, he is a suspect. Bone spends much of his time at the home of disabled and often drunk Vietnam vet Alex Cutter and his wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn). Alex is quick to persuade Bone that he has seen the murderer – local business leader J. J. Cord. Alex wants revenge on the people who have caused all the trouble in the world, not least the useless war, and Cord fits the bill. Can Cutter and Bone finger Cord?
When I began to think about the film I realised that there is a great deal to explore – possibly too much for a single post. Let’s begin with the background to the adaptation. The Sight and Sound coverage of the film by David Thomson (Spring 1982) is an excellent read. Thomson reveals that the rights to the book were bought by an independent producer, Paul Gurian, who first interested EMI (which at this time was seeking to distribute films in North America as well as the UK). At this point, Robert Mulligan was to direct with Dustin Hoffman as Cutter and John Heard as Bone. But this didn’t happen. Mark Rydell was then going to direct before the script (by Jeffrey Alan Fiskin) was picked up by United Artists. This was at the time that Heaven’s Gate was in production and UA decided to go with Cutter and Bone if they could persuade Jeff Bridges – one of the younger players in Heaven’s Gate to play Bone, allowing Heard to become Cutter. Passer came on board at this stage. Unfortunately, when Heaven’s Gate crashed, nearly closing UA down, a $3 million production like Cutter and Bone was not a priority. The film was released and withdrawn almost immediately in March 1981. Only spirited critical responses could persuade UA to reconsider and it was passed to the new ‘UA Classics’ division (with a name change to the less helpful title of Cutter’s Way). Gradually the film began to pick up fans and festival appearances and it was released in the UK in early 1982.
I’ve introduced Cutter’s Way as in some way the a late entry into the ‘New Hollywood’ of the 1970s. I need to explain the term. The period between 1965 (the date of the last major success of the traditional Hollywood studio musical, The Sound of Music) and 1975 (the appearance of the first modern ‘blockbuster’, Jaws) was a time when the studios to some extent lost control of American filmmaking. They still made films – or at least acquired them for distribution, but the nature of the films changed and many of the conventions of Hollywood production fell away – like the Production Code, the tedious happy ending, the genre certainties. The new films attempted to engage with the counter-culture and with politics – ‘personal’ and ‘hard political’ – and social issues. This period is often confused with the rise of the ‘Movie Brats’ and indeed Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Peter Bogdanovich and William Friedkin did initially make films which seemed to challenge ‘Old Hollywood’, but Lucas soon followed Spielberg into making the new form of blockbuster – essentially in homage to 1940s Hollywood. Coppola followed later. For me the interesting purveyors of 1970s Hollywood were older, wiser or more embittered and had histories in television and theatre. They weren’t Hollywood at all: Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah, Alan J. Pakula and Robert Altman. (I’ve read somewhere recently that Pakula was judged to be a nouvelle vague follower.)
Passer has an affinity towards this group but he properly belongs to the European émigré group of the period – Passer’s old colleague from the Czech New Wave, Milos Forman plus Roman Polanski and the Brits, Karel Reisz, John Boorman and John Schlesinger. All of these directors made films in the 1970s which explored American genres. The other two films that share some elements with Cutter’s Way are Polanski’s Chinatown (1975) and Karel Reisz’s Dog Soldiers (Who’ll Stop the Rain?) (1978). Cutter’s Way has a similar trio of characters to the Reisz film with the aggressive Vietnam vet Cutter, the indecisive commitment phobe Bone and the depressive Mo. In a sense this trio represent three responses to the craziness of America in the post Vietnam era. Andrew Britton put it very well in a 1980 piece in Movie 27/28. His argument includes the observation that the Vietnam War cannot be ‘explained’ satisfactorily within American ideology. It’s no use just assuming that the war is morally wrong since the war was inevitable given the American commitment to imperialism and fighting communism. For that position to be tenable would mean endorsing socialism in an American context which Hollywood can’t do. I haven’t space to go into the full analysis but it means that the normal ‘heroic’ role for the ‘US male’ is not available in a Vietnam film. Thus the hero is forced either to be ‘passive’ (‘acted upon’ rather than acting) or psychotic – there is no available way of being heroic. Cutter and Bone are in effect psychotic and passive. So does this then mean that the woman in the threesome must be depressive since neither man can offer her a fulfilling relationship?
Inevitably perhaps Cutters Way has to be carried by the performances and it is here that Passer’s direction works so well. The film is engrossing because the characters are believable and all three actors grasp their roles and deliver. This is a film you can keep on watching.
The opening sequence to Cutter’s Way featuring Jack Nitzsche’s wonderful score: