The Sapphires: Australia’s Vietnam Sing-a-long

Throughout the 70s and 80s American cinema gave us the Vietnam War film.  Often moving, difficult to watch and self-critical, directors began to explore the impact and lasting effect that the war in Vietnam had and continues to have on American people and culture.  Many of these films including Apocalypse Now, Platoon and The Deer Hunter are considered masterpieces of cinema and are often placed in lists of the greatest films of all time.  Watching characters struggle to confront the horrors of the Vietnam War gives a serious representation of the horrific experiences faced by both the American and Vietnamese troops.  For me, one of the most memorable aspects for any Vietnam War film is the soundtrack, getting lost in the opening sequence of Apocalypse Now as Jim Morrison tells us that ‘this is the end’.  It seems as if 70s and 80s rock music is one complete entity with the Vietnam War film.  However, in The Sapphires we are given a different take on Vietnam, the music and the characters we follow.  The Doors is swapped up for Wilson Pickett’s Land of 1000 Dances.  Captain Willard and his crew searching for Colonel Kurtz is traded for Chris O’Dowd and the aboriginal quartet searching for fame.  Although the film does not explicitly set itself out to be a Vietnam War film, I believe that it should be considered one.  Scholar David Everett Whillock questions ‘Is there a Vietnam war film genre?’ (Whillock, 1988, p244) and notes ‘while the icons found in the Vietnam War film remain alike, the conventions begin to underline the discrepancies among the separate combat films of the Vietnam War’ (Whillock, 1998, p248).  These icons and discrepancies are massively obvious in The Sapphires, the film starting off in rural Australia it seems like it will flow in a conventional musical film direction.  However, several sequences ground the film within a Vietnam War film philosophy.  For example, when the Sapphires find out they have lost their military escort it feels similar to the sequence in Apocalypse Now when Willard and the crew have to travel down the river alone after being dropped off by the military.  Both are groups of individuals who are strangers in a foreign land, left alone without further military support on a journey deeper into the country.  One group cram into a car, the other onto a boat.  Apocalypse Now’s decent into madness is mirrored as an ascension to fame and finding one’s self in The Sapphires.  Early in the film, Chris O’Dowd says that “country and western music is about loss. Soul music is also about loss.” and believes that although the styles are presented totally differently, at their core they share similar values.  The Sapphires although presenting itself in a totally unique way for this style of film, at its core can be viewed as a Vietnam War film.

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Works Cited:

WHILLOCK, D E., 1988., Defining the Fictive American Vietnam War Film: In Search of a Genre. In: Literature/Film Quarterly. Vol. 16, No. 4. Salisbury University.

Neil McLeod, 2016

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