Tom Jeffrey’s film, based on the memoirs of William Nagle, to some extent comes across as an Australian flavoured, poor man’s version of Catch 22 or Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H (1970). Although primarily concerned with depicting the seriousness of young soldiers being tossed into a warzone, scenes of bawdy irreverence provide a welcome counterbalance, with the men using frivolity as a psychological defence against the implications of their presence in Vietnam.
The film, though its edge has been dulled by time, is notable for the strength of its cast. Graham Kennedy is excellent as Harry, the grizzled veteran, quick to proffer a sobering observation or two on the harsh realities of the group’s 12 month stint in ‘Specialist Services’. Offering able support is a trio of recognisable larrikins: the ever dependable John Hargreaves as Bung, Graeme Blundell as Dawson and Bryan Brown as Rogers. Then there’s a very young John Jarratt as Bill, whose going away party opens the film and around whose experiences the film is shaped.
Each actor is able exploit the screenplay’s shortcomings, for although it’s devoid of detailed characterisation, important personal moments bleed through to give the narrative some much needed depth: there’s Harry’s dissolving marriage which became the motivation for his decision to first join the military; the tragic death of Bung’s wife and daughter back home in a car wreck, and the abandonment of Bill by his girlfriend who had proclaimed undying loyalty to him before he left home.
Though far from unwatchable The Odd Angry Shot lacks a gripping sense of realism. A handful of combat scenes offer mild tension but a dearth of opponents and unnaturally flung bodies take an edge off the otherwise sobering portrayal of confrontation and the danger posed by well-concealed enemies. When the paths of the men cross those of a group of American soldiers, the accents sound like deliberately staged exaggerations too.
A broader political or social slant on proceedings is mostly sidestepped, though Harry fields a query about the real reason for their presence, proclaiming it’s “because you’re a soldier” and “there’s no one else”. He also laments the lack of diversity in terms of social class amongst the make-up of the group, noting that it’s the economically depressed who sign up for national service like sheep.
The grind of daily survival and infliction of battle scars aside, ultimately the film is best recognised as a testament to the camaraderie of soldiers and a celebration of the Australian spirit in times of duress. Going the extra yard for a mate, leavening the tension with a raucous joke or practical joke: these are the hallmarks of our national identity that receive poignant exploration.
Review by David O’Connell