Danger Close behind the scenes23 August 2019
Art imitating (Army) life.
It’s lunch time on a film set in the Gold Coast bushland. A group of actors – including Vikings star Travis Fimmel – are sitting around, casually chatting with Army veterans working as movie extras. The men are talking about muzzle etiquette and the correct technique for holding a rifle.
Queensland’s Defence community was buzzing when it learned the movie Danger Close – based on the infamous Battle of Long Tan during the Vietnam War – would be filmed on the Gold Coast in early 2018.
For local veterans, it presented an opportunity to help enhance the movie’s authenticity – whether as an extra, a volunteer or even by loaning wartime memorabilia to the filmmakers.
Directed by Kriv Stenders and produced by Martin Walsh, John Schwarz and Michael Schwarz, the movie stars Travis Fimmel as Major Harry Smith, who commanded 105 Australian men from D Company, 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) and three New Zealanders in a four-hour battle on August 18, 1966.
On that day, D Company found themselves trapped in a rubber plantation, under attack by an estimated 2500 battle-hardened Viet Cong (VC) troops. When it was over, 18 Australians were dead and between 245-800 Vietnamese (245 bodies were officially counted on the battlefield, however, more bodies were found after the battle and the official toll was never adjusted. VC tactics were to remove the dead from the battlefield, so no accurate counts could be made by the Allies).
Danger Close was shot over 40 days, from May 28 – July 6, in various Queensland locations, including Kingaroy, Gilston and Pimpama and was released on 8 August 2019.
REAL-LIFE SOLDIERS ADD EXTRA SPECIAL TOUCH
Army veteran Lukas Woolley is involved in Extra Specialists, the organisation established by fellow veteran Shaun Barry and contracted to source real-life soldiers to play extras in the movie. Lukas pointed out numerous benefits of getting veterans involved, including their work ethic, camaraderie, military experience and professionalism.
“Their willingness to work and the attitude with which the work was conducted made the experience very enjoyable for everyone,” Lukas said.
“The Australian Army has an inbuilt pride in our forefathers and a lot of people were involved because of the historical significance rather than to get their head on camera. It was a huge honour, even to lay a sandbag.”
Extra Specialists organised 25 former or current-serving members of 6RAR aged from 19-33 to play extras. Another 40 veterans also volunteered – helping build the set and filling 25,000 sandbags.
“Soldiers don’t seem to be very star struck by celebrities. It was a pretty relaxed environment and I think the actors enjoyed how non-celebrity the feeling was. A lot of our guys bonded well with Travis Fimmel, Luke Bracey and Lincoln Lewis,” Lukas said.
For the veterans involved, the experience gave them a sense of community similar to the Army.
ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME EXPERIENCE FOR VETERANS
One of the veterans selected as an extra was 27-year-old Jack Barden, who served in the Army for four years – including a tour in Afghanistan – and was medically discharged in 2014. Leaving the Army was a tough experience for Jack, which was further amplified when his father passed away from brain cancer.
He battled substance abuse, before discovering a love of traveling that helped him out of this low point. In 2017, he spent almost six months trekking over 2600 kilometres through Norway to raise money for veterans and inspire others to overcome their injuries.
“The idea of the trek was to show that physical and mental health issues are not a setback in life – they are an opportunity for self-progression and growth,” Jack said.
Jack was working as a bar manager in Vancouver, Canada, but visiting Australia when the opportunity to get involved in the movie came up. For him, the people and atmosphere on set were the highlight.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Jack explained.
“There was a lot of banter, which is really similar to what you get in the military. Everyone got along well. Even the actors would sit with you at lunch and have a good gasbag. Having that crew around lifted up your spirits.”
As an extra, Jack spent a lot of time cleaning up after mortars were fired, running around as mortars were incoming and – he laughs – “a lot of fake smoking!”. After serving in the ADF and trekking across Norway, “Playing Army was pretty easy. We got pampered every morning by makeup girls – it was so much fun.”
“It was also great to know that the culture or community we had in the Army is still alive in people. I hadn’t had it since I left the military. It was a breath of fresh air.”
EARLY MORNINGS AND COLD RAIN – SIMILAR TO ARMY LIFE
Twenty-five-year-old Nathan Barnes took leave from the Army Pay Corps at 7th Brigade in Ennogera to spend 14 days playing a soldier in 12 Platoon Delta Company. Prior to transferring to the Pay Corps, he spent four years in the infantry and deployed to Afghanistan in 2014.
“The Battle of Long Tan is pretty significant to Australia and the Vietnam War. I thought it would be cool to be part of it and help tell the story,” said Nathan.
“When some of the Vietnam veterans that were actually in the war rocked up [on set] it was really good to listen to their stories and their interpretation. Getting to talk to them, you feel a connection. They thought we were doing a pretty good job.”
As well as their military knowledge, Nathan believed the values of discipline taught in Defence made them ideal extras.
“If we got asked to do something we would just go up and do it. We wouldn’t complain,” he said.
The most challenging aspects were early morning shoots and getting cold during the fake rain scenes, but Nathan said it was similar to the Army and, overall, the experience was a lot of fun.
MOVIE BASED OFF BOOK BY COMMANDER
Retired Lieutenant Colonel Harry Smith SG MC – now 85 years old and living on the Sunshine Coast – was the commander of D Company, which fought in the battle. In 2005, he wrote the book The Battle of Long Tan: As Told by the Commanders, on which Danger Close was based.
“I am very pleased the iconic battle of the Australian Vietnam War is being made into a movie for the public screen, albeit 52 years down the track,” Harry said.
“It will show the courage and determination of my soldiers. I am extremely proud of my former soldiers, over half being national servicemen, and the way in which they fought off an enemy regiment that was known by ATF HQ to have been in the area.”
Although he didn’t have a lot of involvement in the movie, Harry visited the film sets in Wooroolin and Pimpana and met Travis, who played him in the movie, and Emmy Dougall, who played Little Pattie.
Harry said the Vietnam War was an unwinnable war and a waste of life on both sides, describing his most vivid memory of the battle being “The enemy assaulting us in suicidal waves and my soldiers mowing them down, thousands of tracer bullets in the air, and most of us surviving”.
HUEY FLIES AGAIN
Caloundra RSL Sub Branch added further realism to the movie by loaning producers an original helicopter that flew in the Battle of Long Tan.
The A2 – 1022 was one of two Iroquois helicopters “Hueys” that helped evacuate casualties and resupply ammunition during the battle. The chopper was lovingly refurbished by a group of Sub Branch members and has been the centrepiece of Caloundra RSL Memorial Garden for years.
“We were delighted to assist with this project,” Caloundra Sub Branch President Pat Horgan said.
“It provided some authenticity to scenes involving close-ups of the aircraft, because it was so well restored. A number of our veterans, including two of the original aircrew at Long Tan, were also able to visit various scenes of the production.”