The Odd Angry Shot (1979) Australian SAS in Vietnam

A comment on my post Australian War Movies: A List put me in the mood to watch the Australian film  The Odd Angry Shot. The topic is quite unique as for once it doesn’t show Australians during WWI or WWII but Australians in Vietnam. The movie came with such high praise that I was really looking forward to it. However, before watching it, I had a look at Gary Freitas book on war movies and the movie had a rating of 1.5/5. I cannot remember having ever seen such a discrepancy between someone’s recommendation and Freitas’ assessment and was a bit puzzled and keen to find out for myself. The solution to the riddle is, in my opinion, that if you have the wrong expectations you might not like it but if you know what to expect chances are high you will.

The Odd Angry Shot tells the story of a group of Australian SAS soldiers who do a 12 month tour in Vietnam. Long stretches of boredom are broken up by recon and other missions during which there are casualties, some men are severely, others fatally wounded. During the periods in which there isn’t a lot to do, the men drink A LOT of beer, play games, tease each other. It’s an atmosphere of mateship and camaraderie and to watch them is nothing if not funny. Story-wise that’s it.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a war movie done like this and I can understand that if you think you are going to watch an intense war movie like Hamburger Hill or Platoon you will be very disappointed but that’s because you’re watching it with the wrong expectations. For me this is a war comedy, a movie that wants to show the spirit and the mateship in the Australian troops but still tries to show their sacrifice and achievements just without being graphic or gory. Judging from the reviews of a lot of Australian vets who commented on this movie, this is exactly how the Australians experienced Vietnam. They emphasized that most of the time, they were sitting around, waiting, being debriefed but that intense combat was pretty rare. Most of the time they were sent to capture the one or the other informant. In order to keep their spirits high, they did drink a lot, and try to have fun. A way to cope with the horrors of war.

The only real problem I had was that I still have no clue why the Australians felt they had to be in Vietnam. We hear absolutely nothing about the war as such, only that the majority of the people “back home” were not keen on it.

If you want to watch a gritty and graphic war movie in the vein of Platoon, don’t watch it. If you are interested in Australia and Australian movies, why not? If you look for an enjoyable and entertaining movie, it’s a great choice too. It’s very funny, the characters are extremely likable and Graham Kennedy does a great job. 

Here’s a short scene that captures the spirit very well.

Heaven and Earth (1993) The Third Movie in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam Trilogy

Heaven & Earth is Oliver Stone’s third Vietnam movie. He started his trilogy with the intense infantry combat movie Platoon (1986), followed by the harrowing tale of one soldier’s ordeal Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and then the third part, told from the point of view of a Vietnamese village girl Heaven & Earth (1993). It’s anti-climatic to start a review with a verdict, so let’s just say, Heaven & Earth is the weakest of the three. And the most sentimental.

The movie is based on the true story of Le Ly. It starts in the 1950s, with Le Ly as a little girl of five, living with her family in a beautiful village in Northern Vietnam. In 1953 the village is burnt down by the French. Her father teaches Le Ly that the most important thing is freedom and it’s not surprising that she and her brothers will later actively help the Vietcong. While the younger brother is executed and the older one hidden somewhere, Le Ly is captured and tortured by the Americans first and later raped by the Vietcong.

Le Ly (Hiep Thi Le) leaves her village and tries to make a living in Saigon. She and her mother work for a rich Vietnamese family until Le Ly has an affair with the husband and gets pregnant. They are chased away. Her mother returns to the village, while Le Ly stays in another city, Danang. Most girls from the villages end up as prostitutes but she sells cigarettes and other things, and fights off the advances of the American soldiers.

When her son is about five, she meets an American soldier (Tommy Lee Jones) who falls in love with her. They live together for a while and finally get married. Butler wants to take her back to America and some time later, after their first child is born, they leave for the US. Just in time to escape the chaos that breaks out in Vietnam after the war is over.

The US are a culture shock for Le Ly. But also a pleasant surprise. The way she sees it, this is the land of plenty. There is so much food and abundance everywhere. Everything could be great if her husband didn’t show signs of alcoholism and other issues. Le Ly who was a very independent woman in Vietnam, wants to open a business of her own but her husband is opposed to that. They fight more and more, the marriage is doomed.

In the final part we see Le Ly and her children return to Vietnam. She will forever be a part of both worlds, Vietnam and the US, Heaven and Earth.

I have seen a lot of negative reviews of this movie and while I was watching the first hour or so I didn’t understand why. The initial parts are not only beautifully filmed, they tell an intense and interesting story and the choice to focus on a girl from Northern Vietnam, to illustrate some of the complexities, wasn’t a bad choice. Unfortunately from the moment she meets Butler, the story starts to drift in a lot of different directions and from the story of a girl, exemplary for one nation’s suffering, it turns into the story of one woman and her failed marriage. It just didn’t work for me anymore, was too sentimental and lost its strength.

Heaven and Earth is cinematographically compelling and the first part is well above average. Then, unfortunately, it tumbles down and I don’t think it works well as a third part in Stone’s trilogy. It may however work as the story of one woman who may not have been able to free her country but herself.

Habermann (2010)

The German/Czech/Austrian co production Habermann tells a chapter of German history which is easily forgotten. The movie is based on a true story and tries to exemplify the destiny of the Germans living in Sudetenland. This is one of those movies which touch on a historical fact which is so painfully absurd in its arbitrariness one can hardly believe it.

Habermann is a rich mill owner in Sudetenland. The tragedy of the Sudetenland was that it belonged to Czechoslovakia before the war but almost 90% of the people living there were Germans. When Germany decided to annex the Sudetenland in 1938 this posed a huge problem to people like Habermann who lived peacefully with the Czechs. Habermann’s best friend is a Czech (Karel Roden), many of his mill workers, his accountant and other people in important positions are Czechs. Being so friendly with the Czechs makes him look suspicious to the German authorities who take up residence in the small village in which he lives. When the despotic and sadistic Sturmbannführer Karl Koslowski (Ben Becker) arrives in the village, things go from bad to worse. He wants Habermann to get rid of the Czech workers, spies on him and the Czechs, bullies and controls him.

But the worst isn’t even known to Habermann and his wife yet. Although she grew up as an orphan and was  brought up by Catholic nuns, her father was a Jew. When Koslowski finds out, the tragedy cannot be averted.

Another dramatic story line circles around Habermann’s young brother you joins the Nazi’s.

There were a lot of things I liked about this movie and the story of the Sudeten Germans is a story which needed telling. The real tragedy for most only started after Germany lost the war and the Czechs turned against them. This drama is shown well but what I didn’t find too good is that there is too much emphasis on the character of Koslowski. Ben Becker is one of my favourite actors and I watch every movie he’s in. I think he is simply brilliant but he is also the type of character who just crushes everyone around him. He is often chosen to play a nasty Nazi villain and does that well, only giving him this role, putting so much emphasis on this characters, almost makes you think that the whole tragedy was linked to this one man while this was a collective tragedy and not just related to one sadistic character.

Still overall I think Habermann is well done, not one of the best but a very watchable movie and the actors, Ben Becker, Karl Roden, Mark Waschke as Habermann, Hannah Herzsprung as his wife, are really good.

István Szabó’s Sunshine (1999)

I’m in two minds about István Szabó’s epic movie Sunshine. It tells the story of a family of Hungarian Jews, the Sonnenscheins (which means Sunshine in German), from the end of the 19th century until the end of the 20th. While I think it told me a lot about Hungary and the treatment of Jews in Hungary, I was far less thrilled about the length (3hrs) and the choice to have the three main characters, grandfather, father and son played by the very same actor, namely Ralph Fiennes. I would have found this artificial with any actor but given my dislike of Fiennes, it added annoyance. If you do not mind seeing the same actor in three different roles and are fond of Ralph Fiennes, you will probably like this movie a lot. I do not understand why Szabó chose to do it like this, why couldn’t there be three actors? I remember the Archers chose the same approach in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp in which Deborah Kerr plays three different women but that worked much better.

The Sonnescheins are a modest family but then the patriarch invents a recipe for a tonic which makes them incredibly rich. As a direct result of their social ascendance, the two sons, Gustav and Ignaz, both study and become doctors, of medicine and law respectively. While Ignaz is loyal to the Emperor, Gustav feels more and more alienated by monarchy and becomes a communist. WWI changes not only Hungary but Europe as a whole. The biggest change in the lives of the Sonnenscheins’s however is that they choose to change their name from Sonnenschein to the more Hungarian sounding Sors. Long before WWII breaks out, the Jews are seen as a nuisance and it is very hard for them to integrate.

Ignaz’s and Valerie’s son Adam becomes the Hungarian fencing champion and wins at the Olympics in 1936. After having changed their name, the Sors also change their religion and the family converts to Catholicism. Still, this doesn’t help them, when WWII breaks out, the family first lives in the ghetto, some are killed, some escape and Adam and his son Ivan are sent to a concentration camp where Adam is tortured and killed. His son will never forgive himself that he just stood there and did nothing. After the war he joins the communist party. Anti-Zionist sentiments are spreading. The government changes often and depending on who is in charge, other groups are persecuted but what they all seem to have in common is that anti-Semitism reigns again.

When the end of the communist state has finally come, Ivan realizes that the only way to be really free, is to be true to yourself. He decides to change his name back to Sonnenschein and to be proud of his heritage, no matter what government and changes the future will bring.

While I wasn’t blown away by the movie and would have preferred if the main character had been played by three different actors instead of one, the movie isn’t bad at all. It had a lot of thought-provoking elements. There is the incident in the concentration camp in which three guards control 2000 prisoners. Ivan’s uncle later tells him that it is unforgivable that they didn’t do anything. This is a reproach one hears occasionally. People don’t understand why 2000 wouldn’t fight against 3 or 10 even if those were armed. The movie implies an answer which is interesting. It is obvious that if they had fought back the guards, some of the Jews would have been killed. The majority would have been saved but that would have needed the sacrifice of a few others.

Another interesting element is the fact that Hungarians sent Jews to the camps and not Germans. There were a lot of collaborators among the Hungarians. The movie underlines that the Hungarian society, whether it was during the monarchy or later under communism, was to a large part anti-semitic.

What I really liked is that the movie focusses on one family only and like that manages to give a much better feeling of the incredible changes which took place. To enhance authenticity Szabó included some original footage which in some cases was quite chilling. When Adam takes part in the Olympics of 1936, Szabó included original footage of the opening in which we see Hitler.

Because it’s a very long movie, it’s a very complex movie and I know I didn’t do it justice. There are for example some very troubled love stories which I didn’t mention in my summary but which are quite important. I liked the story between Valerie (Jennifer Ehle) and Ignaz but didn’t care for the love triangle including Adam, Hannah (Molly Parker) and Greta (Rachel Weisz).

I would recommend Sunshine if you like epic films and have an interest in the history of Hungary and the Holocaust from another perspective.

Nordwand – North Face (2008)

Maybe the German/Austrian/Swiss co-production Nordwand – North Face isn’t strictly speaking a war movie but it contains one of my favourite subjects, Nazi ideology and propaganda and therefore still qualifies. Plus it’s a stunning movie which had me glued to the screen until the end.

Before I start the summary, let me share a little anecdote. I remember when I was a kid we stayed at the holiday house of my parent’s friends in the Alps. The house was facing the Eiger. I was just 8 years old and scared. I found the mountain to look as if it was looming. I had the feeling it was moving towards me and just about to swallow me. I had no idea at the time that Eiger means ogre. Funny enough, my father, a typical big city person, had a similar reaction. He wasn’t scared but admitted to feeling uncomfortable. My mother who had been living in Switzerland much longer, didn’t mind that much but she didn’t enjoy it either.

When I saw North Face I was catapulted back to this holiday. I’ve hardly ever seen a movie capture how scary those mountains are. The Eiger’s North Face (Nordwand) was called “Mordwand” (murder wall) for a reason.

The movie is set in 1936. Until then nobody had managed to climb the north face of the Swiss massif the Eiger. Athletism was an important pillar of Nazi ideology and propaganda. Athletes incorporated the Nazi ideal to perfection so naturally there was a lot of interest in Germans being the first to manage what nobody else had managed before. At the same time as Germany was about to annex Austria and the Olympics were imminent, a win on the Eiger would be good for the reputation of the Nazis.

Luise Fellner is a young woman trying to become a journalist. She grew up with Toni Kurz and Andi Hinterstoisser who are some of the best climbers at the time. When her boss, an eager journalist, finds out about the connection he sends her to her home village to try to persuade them to climb the North Face and give her the chance to prove herself as a photojournalist. Despite Andi’s efforts to convince his friend, Toni, the more thoughtful of the two, is reluctant. He thinks climbing the Eiger is by far too dangerous. Only when Andi finally decides to do it on his own, he follows him.

Luise and her boss travel to Switzerland and stay at the hotel in front of the Eiger. Meanwhile it has become a real competition. There are climbing teams from Italy, France and Austria. In the end only two teams, the German and the Austrian team, will start the climb.

Nordwand is an amazing movie. The cinematography is stunning. This is as close to climbing as you can get without actually doing it. It’s also a love story and the story of an emancipation as Luise faces a lot of prejudice and sexism in her profession. Furthermore it is a story of a unique friendship and one of the most tragic true stories I’ve ever seen.

The movie also shows nicely how the media contributed to the success of nazism, how people already then were keen on sensationalism, how they were hungry for drama and tragedy without thinking of the human pain and loss this meant. There are some interesting secondary characters who illustrate this well.

Another aspect which certainly contributes to the movie’s success are the actors. They  are outstanding, Ulrich Tukur plays the overeager older journalist, Johanna Wolkalek stars as the young photojournalist and the two mountaineers are played by Benno Fürmann as Toni Kurz and as Florian Lukas as Andi Hinterstoisser.

North Face is one of the best mountaineering movies, certainly a great war themed movie but most of all an incredible and really tragic true story.