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Davis, Neil Brian (1934–1985)

by Tim Bowden

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Neil Brian Davis (1934-1985), cameraman and war correspondent, was born on 14 February 1934 in Hobart, youngest of four children of Tasmanian-born parents Geoffrey Crocker Davis, farmer, and his wife Marjorie Elaine, née New. Brought up on subsistence farms at Nala and then at Sorell, Neil was educated at Sorell State and Hobart High schools. At 15 he joined the Tasmanian Government Film Unit as an office-boy. Although nicknamed `Tiny’ as a child, he was by this time a wiry six-footer (183 cm) playing as a ruckman in the Sorell district senior Australian Rules football competition. Intensely competitive, he became a professional footballer while still a teenager, partly to augment his paltry salary at the film unit, and took up middle-distance running. In 1952, shortly after completing national service training, he contracted poliomyelitis. Through will-power and intensive exercise, he was back playing football in four months.

Davis had acquired the basics of photography while taking still pictures with flash powder at the film unit. He was introduced to news cinema-photography in the late 1950s when the unit was making 35-mm segments for Cinesound Productions and Fox Movie-tone News. Film footage was scarce and expensive, and he learned to be economical with his coverage and to `edit’ in the camera, a practice allowing the quickest possible processing of stories. In 1961 he became a staff cameraman with the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Three years later he was a roving news correspondent in South-East Asia for the British Commonwealth International Newsfilm Agency, known as Visnews. He quickly established a reputation for his fast, accurate and daring reporting of the two wars then taking place in the region: Indonesia’s confrontation with Malaysia, and the growing conflict between the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). His simple upbringing in rural Tasmania had created, he believed, an instinctive empathy with the peasant farmers whose lives were damaged by war.

In Vietnam Davis realised that, as a lone operator, he could not match the resources of the United States of America’s networks, which were covering only American military action. He accompanied soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, staying out in the field for up to a week at a time, eating local food and drinking paddy water. Using a spring-loaded Bell & Howell 16-mm camera, and with a cassette recorder strapped to his waist, he employed a mix of intuition and experience to bring distinctive Asian images of the war to television screens around the world. In February 1973 he was the first Western cine-cameraman to cross into South Vietnamese territory held by the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (Viet Cong), surviving a savage aerial attack by Allied helicopter gunships.

Recording front-line combat in Laos and Cambodia (Kampuchea) as well as in South Vietnam, Davis was wounded many times. He was seriously hurt on 11 April 1974 in Cambodia when an exploding mortar shell almost severed his right leg just below the knee. A transfusion of fluid from a green coconut kept him alive until he reached medical help. He was back at work within three months, despite having no feeling below his right knee. Early in 1975 he began working for the USA’s National Broadcasting Corporation. On 30 April he achieved his greatest scoop—filming the last act of the Vietnam War, a North Vietnamese tank breaking down the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon. Because of his reputation as a fair and honest reporter, the North Vietnamese regime allowed him to stay in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) for three months. He then moved to Bangkok, to cover from the Thai border the tragic events unfolding in Cambodia.

Davis made friends with many of the leading politicians in the region. He was generous with his expertise, giving information and background to print journalists on stories he could not record on film. Never cynical, he retained his compassion and often risked his life to portray the human tragedy of war. He was particularly moved by the plight of Asian children, and supported charities that assisted them. Specialising in his `one-man-band’ operation—shooting pictures and standing in front of his camera while recording his own commentary—he also worked in Africa and the Middle East. He achieved iconic status in his profession, and his later nickname of `The Old Fox’ belied his blond hair, slim frame and perennially boyish good looks. In 1980 David Bradbury’s documentary Frontline, a portrait of Davis, was released to international acclaim.

A compulsive and successful womaniser, on 29 January 1977 Davis had married Chou Ping (Julie) Yen, in Taipei. They had no children and later separated. He was killed by tank fire, covering a failed Thai coup in Bangkok on 9 September 1985. A professional to the last, he had filmed his own death as his locked-on camera captured the continuing action. As he had requested, a Buddhist cremation was carried out in Bangkok. His wife survived him. In the front of every one of his meticulously kept work diaries he had inscribed lines from the English poet Thomas Osbert Mordaunt that summed up his philosophy of life:

One crowded hour of glorious life
Is worth an age without a name.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Bowden, One Crowded Hour (1987)
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 14 June 1971, p 15
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 May 1975, p 1
  • Mercury (Hobart), 10 Sept 1981, p 1
  • Davis collection (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Tim Bowden, 'Davis, Neil Brian (1934–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/davis-neil-brian-12408/text22283, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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