Production company: Samson Productions Pty. Ltd. (in association with the Australian Film Commission, New South Wales Film Corporation)
Budget: A$600,000 (Murray's Australian Film). According to co-producer/director Tom Jeffrey in the DVD commentary, the film ran two days over in the shoot, and ended up costing $617,000
Location: Australian army base at Vũng Tàu was filmed at Sydney's Malabar rifle range; Vũng Tàu street scene at old Sydney showground (now Fox Studios), and the Buddhist Temple and war action and base camp scenes were staged at the Australian Army's Land Warfare Centre, Canungra, South Queensland. The airport departure scene was filmed at Sydney airport.
Filmed: July - August 1978, six week shooting schedule, 6 day weeks, 36 days (co-producer/PM Sue Milliken) (plus the two day overage)
Australian distributor: Roadshow
Theatrical release: premiered Melbourne's Russell Cinema Complex 2nd March 1979; it opened on Thursday 22nd March 1979 in Sydney at Village Cinema City, Paramatta, Blacktown, Hornsby, Balgowlah and Gosford, in a relatively wide opening splash.
The film was also screened at the Cannes Film Festival in the marketplace, and at the Cork Film Festival.
Original video release in Australia: Thorn EMI Video
Rating: M (January 1979, 2,468.7m)
35 mm Eastmancolor lenses and Panaflex camera by Panavision ®
Running time: 90 mins (Cinema Papers), 92 mins (Murray's Australian Film)
Region four DVD timing: 1'28"01
Box office: The Film Victoria report into Australian box office claims that the film made A$866,000, equivalent to $3,386,060 in 2009 A$.
The DVD makes claims of a box office gross in excess of a million dollars, suggesting that the FV figure is probably close enough for what has always been a rubbery sort of calculation.
According to the DVD, the weekend after the 2nd March 1979 premiere broke all previous box office records for a first weekend at the Russell street complex, and despite the mixed reviews, co-producer and director Tom Jeffrey could later report with satisfaction that the film had gone into net profit at a relatively early point in the film's release.
The film didn't travel that well internationally - other countries by this stage had accumulated their own Vietnam war films.
Significantly, the film was largely overlooked at the 1979 AFI Film Awards - the year that My Brilliant Career dominated proceedings.
The DVD's production notes claim that the film won an AFI Award for Film Editing, but according to the AACTA website the award for editing in 1979 went to Mad Max (Tony Paterson, Clifford Hayes).
The film did however receive a nomination in the category:
Nominated, Best Achievement in Film Editing, sponsored by Atlab Film and Video Laboratory Services (Brian Kavanagh)
The film screened at the Cork Film Festival.
The film was released in region four on DVD by Roadshow with a smattering of extras, including commentary by co-producer/director Tom Jeffrey, co-producer/production manager Sue Milliken (who at the time of filming was also Jeffrey's partner), and actor Graeme Blundell.
The image is of good quality, and so is the sound. The commentary is congenial, and informative enough though on occasions a listener might wish for additional insights on the making of the show.
There's also some production notes, a short "Dossier" in old-fashioned DVD 'PowerPoint' style, which looks at the source, the production, the music, and the publicity. There's also a picture gallery, with graphics intruding on the unidentified images in a way that was fashionable in the early days of DVD.
There's also a short script to screen sequence, and an NFSA restored trailer, running 3'25", but in 4:3 format.
Since Roadshow got out of the DVD game in Australia, it doesn't seem as if anyone else has added it to their catalogue, but in 2013 the film was released in the United States on Blu-ray, available via Amazon and other suppliers.
This version offers a new high definition 1080p 1.78 transfer from "original vault materials", and retains the audio commentary by Jeffrey, Milliken and Blundell, along with the original trailer.
In addition, it offers a featurette, Stunts Down Under, featuring Buddy Joe Hooker, who spent a week in Australia staging and choreographing the fight scene between US and Australian soldiers which erupts when a fight between a spider and a scorpion goes the wrong way (the US soldiers wisely back the scorpion). According to Sue Milliken, Hooker "brought more than his trampolines with him" when he came to Australia.
The disc (also available on DVD) is yet another example of a foreign supplier taking more of an interest in local product than local distributors, though Oz movie fans who caught up with the film on its Roadshow release will probably think that was enough and did the trick. New viewers will look to the Synapses version, provided they can play region A (with hi def removing the usual problem with Never The Same Colour versions).
If your idea of watching a feature-length film is to watch a few short clips, then the ASO has three clips here.
The film is based on the book written in six days by William (Bill) Nagle, a 98 page novella published in 1975 by Angus & Robertson, which won the National Book Council's 1975 Award for Australian Literature. It featured an SAS patrol force in the Vietnam war (the SAS were elite troops based in Perth, motto Who Dares Wins).
Nagle joined the Australian Regular Army in 1964, and in 1965 qualified as a cook in the Australian Army Catering Corps.
In March 1966 he was reassigned to the SAS regiment as a cook - and as noted by actor Graeme Blundell in the DVD commentary, his status had an affect on perceptions of the film:
l remember some of the soldiers (saying) that the writer Bill Nagle wasn't in fact a combat soldier, 'he was just a cook mate, he was a cook' and the controversy sort of dogged the film in some ways …
Nagle's time in the army is still wreathed in mythology, including the claim that he was given fourteen days punishment and forfeiture of pay for "Disobeyed a lawful command - Refused to cook egg custard" , and having his nose broken, and losing four front teeth after shrapnel hit his troop carrier.
It's also recorded that he had his nose broken at one time by an American soldier while laughing at a group of American soldiers being beaten up by Australian soldiers. A notorious larrikin (he told this writer that he carried a gun everywhere he went), Nagle died in 2002 after spending his last ten years in the United States.
Nagle was reported to have belted radio star Derryn Hinch in a ruckus after the movie premiere (an angry Hinch had flayed the script), so at least Nagle had his heart in the right place.
True to form, Nagle also argued with writer/director Tom Jeffrey. and loved a little press notoriety when it came to feuding in the press:
Controversy - Nagle on the Screenplay
From the Melbourne Truth, 6th May 1978:
Author hits 'soft' war script
The author of a prize-winning novel about Australian soldiers in Vietnam claims that the film version will be "watered down".
The author, ex-commando Bill Nagle, said that his novel, The Odd Angry Shot, which won the National Literature Award, was an "anti-Vietnam war, but pro- army book".
Nagle said: "But the director, Tom Jeffreys, is going to film an old-comrade-pro-war flick, which is completely against everything I wrote."
The film version of the novel will go before the cameras in Canungra, Queensland, in June. Graham Kennedy has been tipped to play a tough sergeant.
Bill Nagle said that the rough army language had been watered down because "the director's wife considered some words sexist".
He added: "When soldiers are being shot at they don't stop to think if the four letter words they are using are sexist. I object to the watering down of my honest dialogue."
Nagle said he regarded the Vietnam war as a "bloody waste of lives, manipulated for political purposes".
He said: "The politicians sat back here while the diggers copped it. My book tells it how it was."
Director Tom Jeffreys said he was amazed at Nagle's outburst.
He said: "I don't know anything about it. The last time I spoke to him everything was fine."
He admitted that the hard language in the film had been "softened".
He said: "We have a chance to get an M-rating for this film instead of an R-certificate, which would limit the audience potential. The words were not taken out because they were sexist, but because they would have given us censorship problems.
In his DVD commentary, director Tom Jeffrey notes that the final falling came out after a scene which features two black American soldiers.
Nagle wanted a scene where everyone was drunk and bodies were lying around, as in an orgy, but Jeffrey refused and just kept the scene of John Jarratt's character going with a Vietnamese prostitute. They only made up at a screening after the film was finished.
Jeffrey says that it was his partner of the time, Sue Milliken, who had originally discovered the book, read it and thought it would make a good movie, and drew it to his attention - despite the ongoing unpopularity of the Vietnam war in many circles in Australia.
Jeffrey had this to say about his approach as a writer and director to the material:
...from a director's point of view ... there was a certain criticism about the structure of the film itself, that it was very episodic and there didn't seem to be an obvious narrative plotline. Well, in my view there was. We looked at the journeys, over the course of the year, of each of the six main characters. It's not your traditional structure for a film. There was no Holy Grail at the end. The Holy Grail, if there is one, is the fact that they survived. But even in surviving, they weren't happy. They weren't happy they had lost mates, they had lost friends and they wondered what it had all been about.
One of the difficulties was that it was released in the same year as The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, which means we were rather overwhelmed by the American examination of conscience or whatever they were doing in those films. It came out before Gallipoli, but it seems to go back to 40,000 Horsemen with the larrikin style personalities of the Australians troops overseas, with that ironic humour as well. So that was one of the Australian angles on the experience of Vietnam...
...The structure of the film ... was that you would have a black moment and then there would be relief through ... the larrikin humour or the larrikin activities of a group of Aussie soldiers. Yes, we're like that as people and, if it came through, I'm pleased about that. The other thing which I've always been conscious of is that, in the tradition of the English, Australians, when times are tough, get through it by having a laugh. That's typical of Cockney humour and we poke fun at ourselves or find something to humour us, to get ourselves through. (Peter Malone's invaluable website, here)
In the usual way for the times, the novel was republished in 1979 in an Arkon paperback movie tie-in edition with eight pages of plates from the movie - more details about various editions of the book at Trove, here.
(Below: the film tie-in)
The cast is notable for featuring TV performer Graham Kennedy as the star name, scoring the first slot in the head credits, just below the main title. Director Jeffrey wanted him in particular for his sense of comedy timing.
The film also assembles a good range of young Australian actors who were hot at the time - John Hargreaves, Bryan Brown and Graeme Blundell in particular.
In the DVD commentary, some attention is paid to John Hargreaves as a performer - Hargreaves titillated Graham Kennedy, always uncertain about his own skills, by being able to summon screen energy at will.
But Hargreaves was also something of a nightmare, because no one knew what he might do next as a performer, at what level he might deliver his lines, how to maintain a consistent make up style on his face, or how the production office could locate him for call time, given his tendency to disappear into the night life for wild times.
Oddly, in the minor roles there are a disproportionate number of comedians, or nightclub performers, including Johnny Garfield, who played the padre, two night club performers, Chuck McKinney and Freddie Paris, who played black American soldiers, and singer Frankie J. Holden, who can be briefly spotted as a "spotted soldier".
Max Cullen can be briefly spotted as an aggro NCO, but his participation was conditional on him not being given a credit - Milliken suspects it was possibly because Cullen would have liked to have been one of the team in Harry's patrol.
The few Vietnamese featured in the film mostly came from the university in Brisbane (close to the Canungra army base where filming took place), with others found in Sydney for the street scenes. Some fifty Vietnamese resident in Sydney appeared, including some who had fled Vietnam on boats.
The woman who played a Vietnamese prostitute was a tertiary student, and apprehensive about playing the role.
Director Tom Jeffrey can be seen in the final club scene as an extra wearing a blue jumper, with Graham Kennedy and John Jarratt walking past him.
Finally, devotees of the Australian stage, or lovers of Krishnamurti, will be be pleased to note that Enid Lorimer appears very briefly at the start of the show. Lorimer was so well known in her time, that she even scores a short biographical entry at the Australian Dictionary of Biography, here.
The production had a short rehearsal and training period. The key actors were put through a one to two week training course by soldiers, including commandos, at the then North Head Army facility in Sydney.
Graham Kennedy loafed during the training, preferring to do his exercises by drinking a glass of champagne.
According to actor Graeme Blundell on the DVD, the cast faced certain restrictions:
I remember the advice we had from the seconded army personnel was interesting, in that certain things were allowed to be shown and certain things weren't allowed to be shown, and of course the actors wanted to show everything the way it was, and there was some restrictions on the weapons we carried and the way we treated the locals.
During the rehearsals, director Jeffrey noted a similarity between himself and many of the cast:
... the actors and I were talking about Vietnam during the course of rehearsal and during the shooting and at some stage we were just commenting on what we ourselves were doing at the time that there was all that social tension within Australia about our participation. And all of us were actively against the war in one way or another. I suppose John Hargreaves was probably the most active in the sense that he participated in that march down Collins Street, 70,000-strong anti-Vietnam protesters. Dr Jim Cairns led it, as I recall, but John was somewhere up near the front. Then, ten years on from that in 1978, we make a film where we're actually examining that war, that action, from the soldier's point of view. I'm pleased that I had the opportunity of making that film. (Peter Malone's website, here).
In the DVD commentary, actor Graeme Blundell notes that he too was active in the anti-war movement.
During the filming, director Jeffrey encouraged the key patrol cast to do a lot of ad libbing and to be competitive in attracting the camera's attention. The frequent ad libbing resulted in some continuity problems.
It also resulted in extensive use of coarse language, with the actors jokingly said to be doing "the American version" (this led to concerns about a television 'safe' version, with the cast sometimes doing a softer modified take, but in the end it wasn't prepared, and instead vulgar words were either beeped or cut).
Graham Kennedy, who had once created an uproar on his TV tonight show by imitating the sound of a crow as Faaawk, was particularly fond of ad libbing four letter words, thereby ensuring some reviewers would be offended by the language.
The Army provided some personnel and equipment to the film (irritating left wing critics who wondered at what cost to the editorial independence of the film), but in reality the film was extremely ambitious for what was a relatively low budget. There were three key Army advisors - Phil Thompson, Gus Pauza and John Mosel, though they aren't given a tail credit.
The Army provided the key location, the Jungle Warfare Training Centre at Canungra in south east Queensland. This had been used to train soldiers, including conscripts, during Vietnam war days, but actor Graeme Blundell remembers it fondly as proving convenient for after hours sorties to Surfers Paradise, and the Penthouse nightclub. (There was, according to the DVD commentary, drinking of beer on camera, and much drinking offset, with John Hargreaves leading the way in a wild night life).
The departure of the patrol to Vietnam was filmed at Sydney airport, while the Australian army base at Vũng Tàu was mocked up at the Malabar rifle range in Sydney. The street scenes in Vũng Tàu were filmed in what was then the Dog pavilion at the Sydney Showground (it would later turn into Fox Studios), and left over bits of the street scene were shipped up to Canungra to build the Buddhist temple used in the patrol reconnoitre scene.
Vũng Tàu radio tapes were obtained from the Australian War Memorial and mixed into the background to help create an authentic environment for the troops.
Director Jeffrey had only three Iroquois helicopters for one day, and another helicopter for half a day for the rescue of the soldier played by Bryan Brown, resulting in rushed coverage and a little too much Australian bush in camera for director Jeffrey's taste.
When tipped off that a Chinook helicopter would be flying past the film location on other military duties, they got out the cameras and shot it as a freebie (it appears briefly in the later rescue scene).
The Army didn't have many blanks available for the guns, and what they did were inclined to jam, but they did break out a real phosphorous grenade for a climactic scene - Army advisor Gus Pauza let it off.
The Army also provided the hoses for the many rain and wet down scenes, with the "dry" sequences filmed first, as a way of retaining wet weather cover, and "wet" sequences held until the end, though this involved shooting out of script order (leeches were a problem in the wet conditions).
Army advice was not always correct or followed, according to director Jeffrey.
Initially they were advised that as patrol leader Harry (Graham Kennedy) should have been a corporal but later were told that in the SAS he would have been a sergeant (in charge of the five or six who made up a typical SAS patrol), while on actual patrol advisor Phil Thompson said to be realistic, the soldiers should have been spaced much further apart in jungle patrol scenes - but as noted by Jeffrey this correct military advice would have been a cinematic disaster, with the distant soldiers disappearing from camera view. The characters stayed relatively close together in the wide shots.
For the Australian spider versus the US scorpion scene, real creatures were used, and filmed in a fight to the death - the film would be unable to carry a "no animal harmed" credit of the kind now common. (According to Jeffrey, the scorpions came from the western Queensand desert, and the spiders from north Queensland. The losing Australian spider was nicknamed Gladys Moncrieff in honour of the Australian singer.)
Stunt man Grant Page asked that US stunt man and fight choreographer Buddy Joe Hooker be imported for a week to help stage the fight between the two sides (He "brought more than his trampolines with him" says production manager Sue Milliken on the DVD commentary, without specifying exactly what Hooker brought into the country).
According to director Jeffrey, Hooker made a huge difference in staging the fight scenes, though these would be later criticised as being too American and too much like a 1950s Hollywood western or war movie bar brawl. Page still did many of the stunts, and Graham Kennedy was particularly pleased to be shown punching out both Page and Hooker.
The effect in the last shot of John Jarratt's nightmare scene (which juxtaposes his nude girlfriend with a temple image) was achieved in camera by turning the camera upside down and running the film backwards.
According to director Tom Jeffrey, the orangutan joke told in the film originally came from the second world war, and was set in Borneo, a more appropriate home for orangutans.
Tiger beer was imported from Singapore, along with the various brands of Australian beer that are heavily featured, but there are a few errors for trivia buffs - as noted on the DVD commentary track, Centrepoint tower in the centre of Sydney, which can be seen in the distance in the final shot, had yet to be built in the Vietnam war period.
The film had attracted sometimes controversial press coverage during its production, and it managed more on its release - actor Graeme Blundell claimed it was even dubbed Carry On Up the Mekong by some critics.
The film was ravaged by certain kinds of reviewers, especially those working for liberal or left magazines and newspapers, which irritated director Jeffrey:
It was an attempt to have a look at the Vietnam War and the soldiers in it, telling it from the soldier's point of view. When it came out, it wasn't well received by some reviewers because they felt we should have been critical of Australia's participation in the Vietnam War, that we didn't show much of the other side - we didn't show Vietnamese people being killed with napalm bombs and all that sort of stuff.
Well, my answer to them at the time was that it wasn't that kind of film. Our intention was to show how the men survived in that environment. Again it's interesting, isn't it - you've got a group of men and we are looking at the dynamic within the group and how they survived. There was a statement about their loyalty and commitment. They're permanent officers; they weren't National Service people - the main characters - so they had no recourse but to go, no other alternative but to go, because they were professional soldiers. But once there, their concern was about survival.
Now, it took the Australian community ten years after that film was made to actually welcome the veterans home and I have found, since the film was made twenty years ago, that it is still highly regarded by people who had a connection with Vietnam. They remember it well and remember it fondly - or with affection, I should say - and I'm very, very grateful about that.
But the Vietnam war and the opposition it generated continued to run deep in the Australian psyche, and the trauma also ran deep in conservative Australian politicians.
As a result, when the film was selected to be screened on March 18th 1979 to Charles, Prince of Wales during his official stay in Perth, the then West Australian Premier, the very conservative Sir Charles Court - concerned about the film's language and nudity - put a stop to the screening
According to the DVD's production notes, the Western Australian leader of the Opposition said that the story of how a 67 year old politician had prevented a 30 year old Prince from seeing a film approved for 15 year olds would have the world laughing at Western Australia.
Despite being bashed by conservative politicians and leftist film reviewers, and despite facing competition from the United States - Hollywood just having discovered Vietnam in films such as The Deer Hunter - Tom Jeffrey later noted in an interview that the film had gone into profit:
...I'm pleased and grateful that the film did work, notwithstanding The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. There were a couple of other films just prior to that - the Americans made The Boys of Company C, which worried me greatly, and I went and saw it and I thought it was a load of old cods. So after seeing it, it didn't bother me. But The Deer Hunter was actually the one that gave us a bit of difficulty in the marketplace. We released The Odd Angry Shot in Melbourne in March 1979 and already there were posters up all over the place for The Deer Hunter. It did take away a little bit from the release of The Odd Angry Shot. Notwithstanding, over the years it has done moderately well. It went into profit early on and is still making money for the investors even as we speak. They have re-released it on video here this year, a very good deal. I understand that already - it's about five months into the deal - a lot of the units have been sold. So yes, it will keep on keeping on, I think. (Peter Malone's invaluable website here).
Remarkably, it was Jeffrey's last film as a director, though he continued working in the industry, first as a producer, and then as a teacher for a period at the the film school, the AFTRS.
The music attracted a considerable amount of critical attention but on the DVD, director Tom Jeffrey insists that the sentimental Peter, Paul and Mary track was selected because of its emotional resonance with Australian Vietnam veterans.
Jeffrey also asked composer Michael Carlos to write a brass band march for the opening and closing titles - in the opening to create a sense of energy and lift-off for the soldiers off to war, and at the end to provide a little balancing up-lift over the end credits, after Normie Rowe's song, also specially composed for the film, provides a gloomy downbeat accompaniment to soldiers Harry and Bill as they buy a beer and take an alienated look at Sydney harbour (Rowe was well known as a Vietnam war veteran).
Carlos also decided to use eastern instruments in his underscore, and located a Sydney musician with 13 tuned chromatic gongs of Asian origin.
According to the DVD, Carlos wasn't phased at the need to include the two songs:
I have never tried to work music into a film which was not mine. Fortunately, they are both strong songs, and I like them very much. They reflect not only that period of the 60s, but also have an up-to-date relevance.
Lyrics for the song Who Cares, Anyway?, sung by Normie Rowe, and played over the final scenes of the film:
Who cares, anyway?
And who am I to ever say?
If it's right or if it's wrong
It's easier to go along
Knowing what I do today is lost …
(under dialogue … in yesterday)
Somewhere in the past
Good or bad, you know
It can't last …
It can't last ...
Black or white or shades of grey
Some we win and some we lose
But you know you can't refuse … (fades under dialogue)
It's all moving on
Look around, yeah, soon it is gone
It is gone
Somewhere in the past
Good or bad
You know it can't last
It can't last
Who cares, anyway?
And who am I to ever say?
If it's right or if it's wrong
It's easier to go along
Knowing what I do today
Is lost …in yesterday.
Now, who cares, anyway?
Busy living for today
Everything is here and now
Everybody gets by somehow
Tomorrow's drifting by
6. Bill Nagle:
The Melbourne newspaper, the Herald Sun, published this obituary of author William Nagle on 15th March 2002 (AustLit also has a short biography of the author here):
Bill Nagle was a soldier and author who won the Australian Book of the Year prize for his novel The Odd Angry Shot, on his experience of Vietnam, which he knocked out in six sleepless days.
Born in Bacchus Marsh, Bill attended St Joseph's College in Geelong, as a boarder and on leaving school at 17, he joined the Australian Army.
He completed his basic training at Kapooka near Wagga and served in various units until at 18 he applied to join the Special Air Service Regiment based at Swanbourne near Perth. His unit, the Third SAS Regiment, did a tour of duty in Vietnam in 1966.
When a mortar exploded in front of his troop carrier, he was hit in the back with shrapnel, his nose was broken and four front teeth were knocked out. Contrary to his hopes he was not sent home and was forced to serve his full 12 months.
His nose was broken a second time when, while laughing at a group of Americans getting a whipping from several Aussie soldiers, a giant American soldier decided to wipe the smile off his face.
On discharge from the army at 21, he began working for Channel 7 in Melbourne as a member of the floor crew. Suddenly he resigned and announced he was going to write a book about Vietnam, not about the horrors of war but with a focus on the mateship he had encountered.
His family took his undertaking with a grain of salt, but after writing 24 hours a day for six days straight, much to their amazement, he finished the first draft.
When published, The Odd Angry Shot received the joint Australian Book of the Year award and was produced as a movie starring John Jarrat, John Hargreaves and Graham Kennedy.
Bill also wrote and acted on various television productions including The Sullivans.
A connoisseur of the pub environment, when working next door to a pub in South Melbourne, he would often joke with coworkers that they should build a door in the wall that gave direct access to the pub because that was where most of the business occurred anyway.
A notorious larrikin, he would often take his five-year-old niece to the pub, ostensibly for lunch.
His niece enjoyed eating lemons and Bill and his mates would bet the locals $50 that they could make her eat one.
After cleaning everyone out, Bill would shout her a lemonade.
He later wrote and produced Death of a Soldier, which told the story of Eddie Leonski, an American GI hanged in Melbourne for the murders of three women during World War II.
A great story-teller, he liked nothing better that whiling away a few hours down at his local and telling a good tale over a few beers.
He moved to the US about 10 years ago and established himself in Los Angeles where he died.
He leaves his wife, Laura Glendinning-Nagle in the US, and sister Colleen, niece Siobhan and nephew William in Australia.
Bill established a scholarship fund through St Joseph's College Newtown, Geelong. His memorial service was held in LA at his favourite bar, Bergins on Fairfax Ave.