Not all lives are measured in years.
This is a guest article by one of our regular commenters, Blackswan. It grew out of a conversation we had about the relatively unknown people we admired and when Swannie mentioned him, I admitted I’d never heard of him and being intrigued by the snippets I’d been told, asked if a thumbnail sketch to share him with others might make a good piece. Swannie delivered and I certainly got a real sense of the man.
I’ve always felt that what defines my heroes is not their courage, but their generosity to other people in circumstances that would scare the rest of us ordinary souls shitless. They only rarely get immediate recognition, once in a while get it years afterwards, and mostly wouldn’t want it anyway. They’re hardly ever what establishment thinking would call model citizens. Cliché though it may be, so many of them are the outsider scallywags of decent society who never forget what being abandoned and isolated feels like. They have their own ragged code and that’s the one thing in their life they can never quite do the smart thing and walk away from.
He was a film-journalist and when I went looking for a picture of him to head up this piece only found two or so; one was from the book cover of a biography of the man and the other one was of him being stretchered out of somewhere with a lot of bullet holes in him. Obviously, he was more interested in life on the other side of the lens.
Enjoy a life well lived.
He was everything I love about Australia and its people – he was Tasmanian, he was resourceful, independent and he was utterly fearless – he was Neil Davis, combat cameraman, and in 1985 he was shot dead on the streets of Bangkok.
He deserves to be remembered.
In 1987 Tasmanian journalist and author Tim Bowden, in a Foreword to his friend Neil’s biography, (a project they began together in 1984) wrote;Sound, sound the clarion, fill the fife, Throughout the sensual world proclaim, One crowded hour of glorious life, Is worth an age without a name.
Thomas Osbert Mordaunt (1730-1809), written during the Seven Years War of 1756 – 1763.
Neil Davis wrote the last two lines of Mordaunt’s verse in the flyleaf of every work diary he kept in Southeast Asia from 1964 to 1985. He told me it was his motto, and summed up his philosophy.
Mordaunt wrote those lines to honour all warriors who take up arms; Davis took up a camera. There could be no other title for the book – “One Crowded Hour”.
In 1934, the lean years of the Great Depression, Neil Davis was born into a farming family in the southern midlands of Tasmania. Those low rolling hills bear the full brunt of the icy winds that sweep down from the York Plains, seemingly cold enough to freeze the very marrow in your bones. Neil and his brother went barefoot in the frost and snow, their shoes saved for school or rare outings to the nearby Georgian village of Oatlands.
The family later moved to Sorrell, a small town closer to the provincial city of Hobart, and there Neil went to school. Another famous son of Hobart High School was the Hollywood icon Errol Flynn, and Neil was to share certain characteristics with Flynn, including a well-deserved reputation as a ‘ladies’ man’. As a lad he borrowed a Box Brownie camera and took to it immediately, showing his innate perception in subject matter when one of his first projects was to take a series of photos of a local eccentric character who roamed the streets of Sorrell.
School didn’t hold much interest for Davis and he left at the age of fourteen, taking a job as a junior trainee at the Tasmanian Government Film Unit. The enthusiastic lad learned every aspect of viable film journalism beginning his training with a cine-camera and, as it was a small office run on a shoestring budget, he quickly learned to make every inch of film count as he recorded people and events of local interest for the cinema newsreels of the day.
Compulsory national military service saw him conscripted at the age of eighteen. He had always been a natural athlete, passionate about his Australian Rules football, and the completion of his service saw him supremely fit. Within weeks he’d contracted poliomyelitis, was completely paralysed and confined to an iron lung. The road back was long and challenging; it never occurred to Davis that he would not recover. With his survival instincts, and singular determination to be the master of his own destiny, he threw himself into a painful and arduous program of physical training, progressing from the status of a helpless kitten back to the field with his beloved football team. He confounded the medical professionals and his friends and family alike.
With the advent of television in Tasmania in 1960 he had joined the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) where he honed his craft, also writing and recording his own scripts to accompany the news footage, an invaluable asset for his future prospects as a war correspondent.
In 1963 he landed a coveted job with Visnews, the Reuters of the film world, covering Southeast Asia, to be based in Singapore. From his first encounter with the heady exotic sights and sounds of the tropical East, Davis was hooked. He loved the people, their cities and their rural lives, his background finding an instant rapport with the farmers of the region which was to later stand him in good stead as he tramped the rice paddies of Vietnam with combat troops from both sides of the conflict.
In those early years his field of operations included Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia as well as brief assignments in Africa. The tall quietly spoken Tasmanian was well-respected among his peers and became noted for his generosity in giving leads and tips to his opposition correspondents in the notoriously competitive world of hotspot news-gathering, though always after he’d secured a scoop for himself. He was also a favourite of street urchins, often loading his vehicle with these waifs for a joy ride or two. He never ignored the ‘little people’ of no apparent consequence, always making a point of being friendly to the staff at the various hotels where he stayed, of getting to know the street vendors and beggars with whom he was always generous. In stark contrast, most western correspondents chose to ignore such people on the basis that if they were ignored they would disappear. Davis knew better; most of his tips for action came from the streets, bars and brothels.
As the Vietnam War progressed from an American ‘advisory’ role, he relocated to Saigon. He became something of an ‘institution’ in the conflict and remained with Visnews for the independence they afforded him and their willingness to publish all his stories and film footage with minimal editorial interference. Over the years the major American networks repeatedly attempted to secure his services offering him massive amounts of money, but he remained with Visnews valuing the ability to cover stories as he saw fit. He eschewed the American networks’ policy of reducing every story to little more than captions to film footage, most of which ended up on the cutting room floor.
Unlike American correspondents, he saw his role as telling both sides of the story. This earned him a great deal of criticism within the western journalism community but he preferred to accompany South Vietnamese troops, not just the Americans, and he respected their courage and professionalism on the battlefield, an opinion never shared by the Americans who continuously blamed them for the rising casualty rates.
Being Australian, he was granted access to leaders, officers and Heads of State denied to most European or American journalists. His knowledge of the languages of Asia and his neutral non-judgemental stance, his innate respect for the people of these conflicted nations in turn earned him great respect among such leaders and he was well-rewarded with their confidence, allowing him to write stories from a unique perspective.
When Cambodia was forced into war he relocated to the capital Phnom Penh. It was in Cambodia that Davis found his spiritual sanctuary, intending to make it his permanent home. He loved the people, their history, their attitude to life and death and they in turn welcomed him to their community. Sadly, Fate had a different destiny in wait for Neil Davis.
As the Khmer Rouge gained ascendancy and surrounded Phnom Penh, Davis escaped, forced to leave behind all his worldly possessions – all his documents, film archives, photographs, mementoes and furnishings – taking only his meticulous work diaries for all his years in Indochina. His greatest heartache in that conflict was what had become of the people; his friends and companions in times of great peril and great joy. He grieved for them for the rest of his life. In the Indochina wars over 90 journalists and cameramen had been killed and Davis was wounded more than twenty times, six of them life-threatening and he survived them all. He said he owed his longevity on the battlefield to an innate sixth sense, to his refusal to take reckless risks. He was an inveterate gambler, but he never took uncalculated risks with either his life or others.
He relocated to Bangkok and in 1975, as the Americans withdrew from Vietnam with indecent haste, he went to Saigon’s Imperial Palace and got unique film footage of the North Vietnamese tanks crashing through the iron gates then raising their flag over the palace, the ultimate demonstration of their decisive victory. He later covered the war in Angola, disclosing the murderous activities of European mercenaries in that conflict.
However, it was in Bangkok, during a minor coup staged by the military, that the minutes finally ticked away for Neil Davis, bringing his ‘one crowded hour’ to a tragic end. His American sound-man also died in a hail of shrapnel as a tank opened fire on the position where several journalists sought shelter. There was no escape for Davis this time.
He once discussed the moral dilemma of a cameraman confronted with scenes of clear and present danger; does he put down his camera and render assistance, or is the greater purpose served by filming that story, its immediacy and peril conveying much to the wider world, thus saving many lives in the process? True to that principle, Davis kept his camera rolling and effectively filmed his own death. As the camera fell to the ground it filmed a dark stream gushing across the pavement; the lifeblood of a man who was a professional to the end.
What was it about this tall, rugged quietly spoken Australian that captured the imagination of this Tasmanian and earned him a place of remembrance in the hearts of this island community, proud of our heritage and of the sons who made a difference in the world?
Undoubtedly it was his integrity – his courage and tenacity in bringing the truth of political wars to the people of the world. He refused to compromise his principles for the big money offered over the years. An indication of his sense of honour in always keeping his word was his odd behaviour regarding smoking. A friend’s life was in peril and Davis swore that if his friend survived he’d never buy another cigarette in his life. And he never did – simply spent the rest of his life cadging cigarettes from everyone he met.
He was innately compassionate and, unknown to most friends and colleagues, he financed an orphanage in Vietnam caring for the children of the conflict. He had a wicked sense of humour, was a practical joker; he gambled too much, drank too much, adored women as much as they loved him, was admired and respected by colleagues and those he mentored.
He didn’t just film a battlefield, he filmed the men behind the guns; he knew that a man’s eyes were the window to his soul and the many eyes who stared into his camera lens, in fear, in resignation, in pride fighting for their nation, told the story of civil war in a way that words alone could never convey. The images of young Cambodian combat troops slipping a small Buddha into their mouths as they prepared to meet their fate is an unforgettable reminder that for them it was truly life and death, and not just a subject of politics to be discussed around our safe dinner tables.
He was not a perfect man; he never pretended to be a paragon of virtue, but his life had meaning – it made a difference. He lived every minute of his ‘crowded hour’ thus ensuring that, rather than ‘an age without a name’, Neil Davis would be remembered by his countrymen and all those whose lives he touched. His last words when he knew he’d been mortally wounded were perhaps his best editorial on the futility of the tide of war and death that continues to sweep the world and take so much humanity with it ….. “Oh, shit!”