Overly dramatised or realistic? The representation of the Vietnam War in Australian Film and Television?

When people think of film and television regarding the Vietnam war, most of us will haveVietnam Poster ryan bodycote American films in mind like Good Morning Vietnam, Rambo, We Were Soldiers or Platoon. As much as some people might like Sylvester Stallone slurring words and mindlessly killing for the length of a feature film, Australian productions regarding the Vietnam War offer a much deeper insight into (changing) ideas about the war. Plus, many of them have Australia’s modern day actors in their early roles with old-school hairstyles.

Vietnam, a simple, distinctive, yet incredibly vague search term of a name for an Australian television miniseries.  It was released in 1987 with Director’s Chris Noonan and John Duigan at the helm and was a key example of changing ideas about the Vietnam war in Australia. Having seen the atrocities on television for the first time, the Australian population had a significantly negative view on the Vietnam war and did not show much respect for its returning soldiers. Fast forward a decade later and there is a surge of historically themed mini-series. The 1980’s and early 90’s were a time when Australia was reassessing its national identity through screen. Shows like A Town Like Alice (1981), 1915 (1982), All the Rivers Run, The Dismissal (1983), Bodyline (1984), Anzacs (1985), The Cowra Breakout (1985), A Fortunate Life (1986), Vietnam (1987) and Brides of Christ (1991) are all television series that were produced in this period. What was great about Vietnam was that it took all of the polarising aspects of the Vietnam war and surrounding issues and dealt with them in a confronting manner. The anti-war resistance, soldiers experiences, the political sphere, returning veterans and the home front. Vietnam manages to deal with it all whilst focusing on one families experiences. It manages to interweave each major characters plot points into a complex narrative that attaches you to them with a historical mindset at the end of the series. While it does have an significant historical accuracies, its intense focus on the one family is where it detracts from historical accuracy and begins to develop a rich narrative story.

There are a lot of general connotations regarding what allied forces did while in Vietnam. Statements regarding allied forces burning down villages, raping women and not providing the medical aid and assistance to the villages are quite common. Directors Chris Noonan and John Duigan distanced the Australian soldiers from the U.S army and presented them as a pseudo-enemy that caused more harm than good.  In comparison to American approaches, the hero character (Phil) was presented as a vulnerable, ambivalent person who is uncertain of his role in an increasingly complex conflict. In this mini-series, Australia is portrayed as the ‘middle-ground’ of the conflict. They are innocent assisters with humanistic concerns for the local Vietnamese population. The inclusion of a Vietnamese character (Lien)  as a love interest of the major characters story lines is also an example of shifting ideas towards the war. The domino theory, yellow-peril theory, concerns of Asian immigration and a general fear of communism were ideas surrounding the Vietnam war, so it is an impressive development.

The most important contextual event surrounding the release of this mini-series was that 1987 was also the year that the official ‘welcome home’ march occurred. Vietnam deals with issues surrounding veterans and returning soldiers in considerable detail. However, in a time where Australia was seeking to reconcile with its war heroes and welcome them home properly, Vietnam glosses over the problems at the end in a rush to reconcile the family together. There is also no mention of a welcome home march, which further plays into the idea that returning soldiers did not receive a proper welcoming.

Whilst watching the series it was interesting to find out how it would frame the ending of the war. In quite a different approach to other films and shows. Vietnam does not show the war as a victory or defeat. Popular nationalism plays a significant part in the rushed reconciliation at the end in an attempt to show that Australia as a country should be unified and honour Australia’s involvement in the war, rather than honouring the victory or mourning the defeat. Vietnam on the whole, is representative of shifting ideas towards Australia’s involvement, reconciliation and acknowledgment of the efforts of war veterans.

Further Reading/References:

Arrow, Michelle. Friday on our minds: popular culture in Australia since 1945. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2009

Cunningham, S. “Style, form and History in Australian mini series” Southern Review 22(3)(1989): pp. 315-330

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2 comments on “Overly dramatised or realistic? The representation of the Vietnam War in Australian Film and Television?

  1. danielqatmq says:

    Hi Ryan, I really liked this blog! You showed a great sense of humour while getting across the key issues of your essay. You also did a great job covering the miniseries for someone who had never watched it.

    I am particularly interested in the link between the welcome home march and the making of the mini series. Do you know which one came first? Historically it’s such an interesting topic because you can really sense the change occurring over time. I think the idea that there was a distinct difference between American actions and Australian actions really helped in reconciling the veteran with the public

  2. adamthecon says:

    Hey Ryan,
    The role of popular media and national identity seem to cross with particular abandon in Australian culture, especially when it comes to films dealing with the experience of war. I find the portrayal of the American army as a pseudo enemy as particularly interesting. It seems to suggest part of a wider narrative of Australian identification with a Great Power; in particular the growing pains associated with the popular understanding of a transition from Britain to America. While the real power in Australia’s Great Power relationship obviously changed decades before Vietnam, Richard Meaney in his essay ‘Britishness and Australian identity’ points towards a delayed response in Australian perception.
    Very interesting summary my friend, and an enjoyable read.

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