Opinion: Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan is let down by portraying Kiwi war hero Maurice Stanley as Australian

OPINION: War films are difficult cinematic beasts for filmmakers - do they make their film ultra-realistic, or frame the blood and guts in a pair of rose tinted glasses?

That question takes on more importance when they base their war film on real people experiencing real historical events.

This was the artistic dilemma faced by the makers of new Australian film Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan, which is playing as part of the 2019 New Zealand International Film Festival.

It's an impressive film with elements of greatness, but its portrayal of a celebrated New Zealand war hero as an Aussie is very disappointing.

The film depicts the titular one day battle in August 1966, widely regarded as the great mea culpa of Australian and New Zealand efforts during the Vietnam War.

Danger Close recreates the battle and the men who fought it - mostly young Australian conscripts who haven't learned to shave and their various squabbling commanding officers.

The Aussie troops, most from D or Delta Company, are drawn into a protracted firefight with vastly superior numbers of Viet Cong soldiers, and all hell breaks loose trying to save them from certain death.

Supporting the pinned down Aussies is a New Zealand Artillery regiment, who continuously hold back the Viet Cong advances with devastating high explosive barrages carried out with pinpoint accuracy.

In the real battle, the Kiwi gunners fired over 1100 shells that proved decisive in the Aussie positions not being overrun. They were supported by artillery batteries from Australia and the United States.

Helping the Kiwis make sure they dropped their shells on the Viet Cong and not their own allies were New Zealand artillery observers - who were in forward positions with the troops to relay grid references back to the gunners on radio.

The Aussie soldiers, albeit based on real life participants, are portrayed in the film with all the usual war film tropes.

There is the soon to be married larrikin who used to shoot rabbits instead of the Viet Cong, the frightened lad freshly arrived in Vietnam and convinced he'll soon die, the young rebel Lieutenant who'd rather be playing poker with his men than leading them into battle, and so on.

There are also a smattering of Kiwi support characters.

A physically imposing Māori artillery gunner, Muriwai 'Murray' Watene, is played in the film by Kiwi actor Richard Te Are.

Kiwi artillery officer Ken 'Padre' Deacon is portrayed by Aussie actor Ben Esler, who plays him at times with a slight English accent, but he can always be recognised by the New Zealand badge on his shoulders.

But there is another Kiwi character in Danger Close who was arguably the battle's real hero - Captain Maurice 'Morrie' Stanley.

Stanley, along with two other Kiwis - bombardiers Murray Broomhall and Willie Walker - were attached to D Company as artillery observers, and at times crawled on their bellies just under the hiss of Viet Cong bullets to gain accurate coordinates to relay back to the New Zealand gunners.

Stanley grew up in Napier and joined the New Zealand military in Wellington, before being accepted into the prestigious Duntroon Royal Military Academy in Canberra. He finished his training at Waioru in the central North Island.

Unfortunately, Stanley is portrayed in the film by Australian actor, Aaron Glenane, who speaks in an Australian accent.

This begs the question: what are the filmmakers trying to do here, rewrite history with a twist of Australian, rather than Kiwi heroism?

Why not insert a brief bit of dialogue where it's made clear Stanley is a Kiwi, and not Australian?

Stanley's Australian accent is a lazy and distasteful choice - and dents the film's realism and credibility.

That's not to say the film isn't incredibly realistic at times, with bullets, explosions and soldiers being shot in all the gory detail one expects from a modern war film.

The viewer also gets a real sense of the battle's scale thanks to overhead camera angles and close-up shots of pins on a map, each representing a platoon within the trapped D Company's sector. 

The film and battle ends when muscle-bound actor Stephen Peacocke, more used to surfing the beaches in Home and Away, arrives just in the nick of time with his squadron of armoured personnel carriers to blow away the Viet Cong, just as they're about to overrun the besieged Aussies.

Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan isn't a bad war film, in fact it's a good one. 

It's depiction of the Vietnam War comes from a refreshing Antipodean angle, and is a welcome different taste to the smorgasbord of American Vietnam fodder that invaded our television screens and theatres in the 1980s.

My only wish is that it's depiction of Kiwi war heroes was just as satisfying and engaging as the Australians it portrays.

Morrie Stanley, who passed away in Auckland in 2010, would most likely have agreed.


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