The Vietnam War had been used as subject matter in films and television shows all throughout the ’70s – but the Vietnam War subgenre really came of age at the end of the decade with a wave of films that included Coming Home, The Deer Hunter and Who’ll Stop The Rain. Around the same time, Australia made a lesser-known but equally worthy contribution to this subgenre with The Odd Angry Shot. Though smaller in scale and budget, it is powerful enough to rank alongside those films.
The Odd Angry Shot focuses on Australia’s contribution to the American effort in Vietnam via their Special Air Service. The audience’s point of entry into the story is Bill (John Jarratt), a young man who enters the service for patriotic reasons. The unit he serves with includes leader and veteran soldier Harry (Graham Kennedy), communications man Dawson (Graeme Blundell), jokester Rogers (Bryan Brown) and regular-guy Bung (John Hargreaves).
As the other soldiers indoctrinate him into wartime life, Bill discovers that patriotic service isn’t all it is cracked up to be. It’s an uneasy blend of boredom, drudgery and sudden bursts of unexpected violence that can wipe out his fellow soldiers in an unpredictable way. The thing that keeps him going as he deals with these rigors is the cameraderie with his fellow soldiers, with the brave and good-natured yet cynical Harry setting the tone for how to survive.
The Odd Angry Shot succeeds in saying a lot about war and the life of the front-line soldier without ever straining for effect. The key to this balancing act lies in the script by director Tom Jeffrey, adapted from the novel by William Nagle. Jeffrey never applies a message with a heavy hand: instead, he carefully constructs an episodic narrative that shows a variety of sides to the soldiers’ lives. As the story takes us through Bill’s tour of duty, it effectively communicates the meaningless nature of Vietnam War while also allowing the viewer to admire the resourcefulness, bravery and team spirit of Bill and his fellow soldiers. Thus, it manages to be simultaneously anti-war and pro-soldier without belaboring either message.
Jeffrey’s direction is similarly effective: he bypasses overwrought emotions and florid visuals to create a clean, crisply-paced style that pushes the story to the fore in an energetic but unobtrusive way. Cinematographer Don McAlpine’s visual style makes the most of the primarily outdoor settings, giving them a gritty poetry, and Brian Kavanagh’s editing plays a crucial role in creating the businesslike speed that keeps the film’s episodic narrative taut.
Jeffrey’s approach also allows the actors to take center stage and he gets consistently strong performances from his ensemble. Jarratt gives a committed but subtle lead performance, allowing his character’s pattern of change to unfold naturally, Brown shows off the appealing Jack-the-Lad quality that would endear him to international audiences and Hargreaves handles a high-emotion scene late in the film with skill. Fans of ’70s Ozsploitation will be amused to see sex comedy regular Blundell playing a straightforward dramatic role and doing it well.
That said, the film really belongs to Kennedy as the erstwhile leader of the men. His performance is quite charismatic, blessed with a sharp comic timing that reflects his t.v. comedy background, but he handles the dramatic material in an understated and convincing way. He has two key monologues in the film – one that explains how he ended up in the armed forces, the other expressing his cynical yet determined view of his role in the war – and they are the film’s dramatic highlights.
In short, The Odd Angry Shot is a gripping, sometimes moving war drama – and it’s all the better for the blend of subtlety and craft that the cast and crew apply to it. Any serious student of Vietnam War cinema should see it to get an interesting alternative to the usual approach.