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RIP JOHN PILGER, INVESTIGATIVE DOCUMENTARY MAKER. JOURNALIST & AUTHOR (9th October 1939 – 30th December 2023)

  • January 11, 2024
  • 6 min read
RIP JOHN PILGER, INVESTIGATIVE DOCUMENTARY MAKER. JOURNALIST & AUTHOR (9th October 1939 – 30th December 2023)


JOHN PILGER’S FIRST TV FILM. ITV’s WORLD IN ACTION – THE QUIET MUTINY (1970)

Introduction

John Pilger, the Australian born journalist, was based in Britain from 1962 onwards. He was a BAFTA and EMMY award winning documentary filmmaker, a published author, and The Daily Mirror’s investigative reporter. A lifelong committed truth seeker. I’d venture that his greatest ‘overlooked documentary’ is a half hour film about the on-going war in Vietnam in 1970. It was made for Granada ITV’s World In Action series. An investigative weekly mainstay, which transmitted in primetime for 35 years until its demise on December 8th 1998. 

The Quiet Mutiny (1970)

Pilger’s commissioner was one Jeremy Wallington, later Programme Controller for Southern’s ITV franchise. Later CEO of Limehouse Studios in London’s Docklands. Wallington told me in 1986 that he had allowed Pilger “a personal view” on rebelling American conscripts, situated in the frontline camps of Vietnam. Pilger described the soldiers as “Smoking pot, painting their faces, wearing love beads, while growing their hair long”. He used uncompromising language, hitherto unheard on ITV. He described the ‘Grunt’ conscripts as ‘The Grunts’ who aren’t, “Taking anymore bullshit!!”  


The producer of the film, Charles Denton, sympathised with Pilger’s stance on injustice and his critique of America’s colonial insinuation in the former Indochina. Years later in 1980 a 26 episode Canadian CBC TV series coined The Vietnam War as The 10,000 Day War (November 1st 1955 till April 30th 1975). An era when the IBA’s (The Independent Broadcasting Authority) concept of reporting meant embracing, “the notion of balance”. Hence Pilger’s perennial tagline of, ‘A Personal View by John Pilger’. This preceded virtually every TV film that Pilger ever made. His detractors described Pilger’s work as “empiricist”. A former BBC TV Nationwide reporter, Diane Harron, went on air on the BBC 1’s Nationwide series in 1976 in response to a 1976 Pilger film, accusing him of “emotional journalism”. A claim many considered to be unfair.


Impact & Legacy

The producer of The Quiet Mutiny, Charles Denton, would go on to work with John Pilger at ITV from 1974-1977. This 16mm colour documentary was originally transmitted in black and white on ITV. The Quiet Mutiny was concerned with disillusioned  American conscripts in Vietnam. It blew the whistle on what was going down in ‘Nam’. For a few ‘in the know’ this film’s influence was historically significant. Yet this episode of World In Action remains virtually unknown to the wider public, despite its being freely available on youtube and vimeo in 2024. US Forces, DJ Adrian Cronauer’s, opening line in The Quiet Mutiny inspired Barry Levinson’s 1987 movie Good Morning Vietnam, starring Robin Williams, to have a matching opening scene. 

Cronauer blaries out, “Goo-ood Morning Vietnam!”  Another Hollywood funded Vietnam movie has a famous helicopter sequence. The Wagnerian scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic Apocalypse NowThe Quiet Mutiny had documentary scenes of Helicopters playing-out tapes of echoing, sonic dissonance, fused with sounds of Elephants braying. The very stuff of nightmares. Played-out loudly above jungle via the USAF. Known as “Wandering Soul”. A warning of the carnage yet to come. It was a clever tactic. Elephants were regarded as symbols of war in Vietnam. Coppolla, however, went for something more glorious. Seen retrospectively as the glorification of war. ITV’s South Bank Show’s Melvyn Bragg, took Coppola to task on this very matter in 1979. 


The down at heel Quiet Mutiny captured a wholly disillusioned American conscript, showing the ‘Grunts’ rebelling. President Lyndon B.Johnson awarded soldiers with cheap ballpoint pens, adding insult to their injuries. Although he met no Grunts on this visit. The bonus gift of a Miss America Pageant recalls another scene in Apocalypse Now, while the closing shots by World In Action’s great documentary cameraman, George Jesse Turner, captures a truly poignant final scene. A large Red Cross bus moves slowly across a runway. It pulls to a halt to empty endless stretchers of badly injured servicemen. All about to be flown back home . The pointlessness of a pointless war. Captured in one haunting end sequence. 

The Resonance of The Quiet Mutiny

In 1986 feature film producer Iain Smith offered me a job on a Vietnam feature that was in pre-production at Pinewood Studios, called  Babe West. A movie about a fictional American Country & Western singer from a script by Buck Henry (screenplay writer of The Graduate and the original Catch 22) to be directed by Karel Reisz. I showed Reisz The Quiet Mutiny. He was hugely struck by it, and asked me numerous questions. Babe West was never made. It went into “turnaround”, meaning ‘shelved for good’.  

Years later in 2004 – while working as a Producer on Don Letts’s documentary Punk Attitude – I said to the director, Letts, “You want Punk Attitude? Look at these American troops in The Quiet Mutiny. This is Punk Attitude!! Quiet Mutiny clips made it into the final cut of this award winning 2005 music documentary. 

Encounter with John Pilger

After this time I later shared a Carlton ITV office with a John Pilger production, while working on a music documentary as an Archival Producer. Sadly, Pilger and his producer were not getting on. So I never said, “Hello”. I regretted not speaking with him. As fate would have it, a few years later – when my laptop crashed – I found myself using a Clapham High Street internet cafe. There were only two free seats. After about 15 minutes a man logged-on next to me. It was John Pilger. Pilger explained to me that he was almost certain that he was being tracked by, “The powers that be. Those around us from on high'”. He was using this now defunct internet cafe to do crucial research in “anonymity”. I met Pilger there several times. We shared some coffee and conversation. I talked about my old Archival  ‘role’ in TV as well as his illustrious career. Most importantly, however, we talked about my admiration of The Quiet Mutiny. His brilliant first film. 

John Pilger was a  true hero of our times. He talked truth to power. Pilger’s 1986 book, Heroes, remains a testament to his early work. John Pilger passed-on on December 30th, 2023. My short ‘Pilger Tribute’ appearance in ITV’s News, which I consulted on, transmitted in an early evening bulletin at 5.45pm and then again just before midnight on New Year’s eve of 2023 into 2024.

About Author

Henry Scott Irvine

The published author of Procol Harum's hardback Omnibus Press biography, Henry Scott-Irvine's writing began in the script departments of the British film industry. He continued as a Film & TV 'Music & Arts' researcher. He has a long background in published journalism. A radio producer-presenter since 2009 as well as a producer of the award winning documentary film Tales From Tin Pan Alley. He's a successful campaigner for securing listings and preservation for London's music & film heritage sites.

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