Neil McDonald — pictured above in photo by David Brill — died in Sydney on February 25. He had been Quadrant’s film columnist since the March 1999 issue, when he wrote on Saving Private Ryan.
Neil had a phenomenal memory for the many thousands of films he had watched over his lifetime. Knowing film history far better than most other film critics, he understood that the DVD release of an old film or television series could be just as important to his readers as a newly-made film. In fact, he became less enamoured of new films in recent years, found fewer of them worth discussing, and had little time for many of the trends in commercial film-making. But he was a great admirer of some current film-makers such as Kenneth Branagh and Bertrand Tavernier, and a keen analyst of the better detective series on television. One of his many areas of expertise was Shakespeare on film; but there was little he didn’t know about the entire history of cinema.
Neil also made a name for himself as one of Australia’s best historians of the war correspondents, film-makers and other reporters of the Second World War. His books included War Cameraman: The Story of Damien Parer (1994), 200 Shots: Damien Parer, George Silk and the Australians at War in New Guinea (1998, with Peter Brune), Damien Parer’s War (2003), Chester Wilmot Reports: Broadcasts that Shaped World War II (2004), Kokoda Front Line (2012), Valiant for Truth: The Life of Chester Wilmot, War Correspondent (2016, with Peter Brune, shortlisted 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Award).
Although his political leanings often diverged from Quadrant’s, and at times annoyed some of our readers, he was proud to be a long-time contributor to this magazine and part of its exchange of ideas, and often expressed his appreciation of articles that others had written.
He had many health problems in recent years but his enthusiasm for his work never faltered. He was planning his next column on one of his favourites, the French actor Jean Gabin, when he died.
At his funeral in Sydney on March 6, the following tributes to his life and work were paid.
* * *
There are three thoughts which come immediately to my mind when I think of Neil. There is Neil the teacher and academic; Neil the film critic; and Neil the researcher and respected author. Now, these characteristics combine very well—all provide a compendium of the man we all knew: artistic, academic and eccentric.
However, Neil was also a man with values. Perhaps in this modern era these values may be regarded as old-fashioned, but courtesy, honesty, respect and consideration for others are to my mind far from being old-fashioned. They provide the basis of a balanced and caring society and, without them, that balance will disappear.
I look at the term honesty and I suggest that for Neil this was objectivity. Perhaps I could cite a couple of examples. In his most recent book, Valiant for Truth, Neil uncovered some serious suggestions of questionable practices by a senior army commander during the Second World War. He mentioned these as guest speaker at a service-oriented formal dinner late last year. His discovery supported common gossip which had been circulating for seventy-five years. But there was no irrefutable evidence, so Neil did not include the matter in his narrations or writings. It would have been so easy to seek instant headlines, so simple to boost the sale of his book, but he refrained.
The other example: Neil was a confirmed socialist, no secret about that. He was a regular correspondent for Quadrant, which in practice took an opposite political stance. But there was never any conflict between his presentation and the magazine’s established line. Neil, true to his principles, always remained objective.
Neil was born on June 20, 1940, to Alexander Neil McDonald and Elsie (nee Kiddle). His father was an engineer with Unilever and, true to the McDonald name, his parents were imbued with the Scottish tradition and were members of several Scottish associations. I suspect that this is the origin of Neil’s middle name, Napier. John Napier was a famous Scottish mathematician whose name is perpetuated in Edinburgh Napier University.
Neil spent most of his life in Sydney. He had no siblings. The family lived at Willoughby and he was educated at Mowbray House Preparatory School, Drummoyne Boys High School and Sydney University.
Things were tough in the dark days of the war and it would not have been easy for his father to provide for his wife and son. The family would have gone without many benefits we now think of as necessities. Food was rationed, freedom of movement was restricted, as was freedom generally, and some of these restrictions continued until Neil was in his early teens. He was reared in the Presbyterian tradition, but he did not adhere to any obvious religious belief.
One notable aspect of Neil’s early life was his introduction to film, which was to become a passion and at which he became one of Australia’s leading critics. We can thank his mother Elsie for this. She introduced her son to film and then took him with her to see all the latest releases.
Neil graduated from Sydney University with an honours degree and a Diploma of Education, and he became a teacher. He taught at North Sydney Boys High School but his real career as author and critic commenced after he was a high-school teacher.
The words I’ve offered here provide merely an outline of the man we honour today. To have a glimpse of the real Neil we need to fill in that outline, and the people who can speak in detail of the real man are those who knew him best. I’d like to invite one of his colleagues, a man with whom he collaborated in the world of cinematography, the legendary Tasmanian film-maker David Brill.
John Moore was the celebrant at the funeral service.
Neil was an honorary member of the Australian Cinematographers Society since 2002. He was a passionate supporter who cared and respected both the cinematographer and the art of cinematography in all fields.
He wrote the wonderful book on the war cameraman Damien Parer, which is the definitive account of this iconic cinematographer. Over the years Neil attended several ACS functions and enjoyed the company of people who had continued Damien’s legacy but he also loved watching our work up there on the screen. Neil was always proud to wear his ACS badge when he delivered his presentations to the numerous institutes and book events where he was guest speaker.
In addition to his biography of Parer, Neil wrote on the work of former Life magazine photographer George Silk and Damien Parer in 200 Shots. This book examined how two fine photographers shaped our understanding of Australians at war. Neil continued this approach when he wrote on the ABC/BBC war reporter Chester Wilmot in the biography Valiant for Truth and also Chester Wilmot Reports.
Neil was also one of the most authoritative and knowledgeable film reviewers in the country. He wrote for many journals over the decades including Quadrant, where he would show an appreciation of the unique skill and artistry of the cinematographer in the creation of movie magic.
On a personal note, Damien Parer was one of my heroes when I was growing up. I was inspired not only by Parer’s fine camerawork but also by his determination to show us the tragedy and suffering of the Australian troops on the Kokoda Track. If it wasn’t for Damien we would not know the truth of what happened.
I was in the Australian War Memorial shop in Canberra one day when I noticed three copies of the Parer biography for sale. So I bought the lot, knowing that the books were difficult to come by. Afterwards I went to a Charles Bean Foundation lunch at the Press Club where I saw a solid but unassuming man seated on his own. I introduced myself and he told me his name was Neil McDonald—I was flabbergasted! I asked if he was the author of the books I had just bought. He nodded, and that was the start of a long and wonderful friendship.
David Brill has been a film-maker and war correspondent since 1966. In 2008 he was inducted into the Australian Cinematographers Society Hall of Fame.
I think I have one of the hardest tasks here this afternoon. I have to explain in a few minutes the influence Neil has had on me for most of my adult life. But I’ll try.
Going back almost two decades I was his chief researcher in his Parer and Wilmot books—that is when I was not involved in my own career and travels. But my association with Neil began much earlier, when I enrolled in his film and documentary class at Mitchell College of Advanced Education, Bathurst, in the first semester of 1981.
I’d always loved the cinema and I thought, hey, this subject certainly beats dreary old economics as a major for my journalism degree! We watched films as diverse as Birth of a Nation and Battleship Potemkin, Triumph of the Will, Chimes at Midnight, North by Northwest, Sons of Matthew and Dirty Harry. Neil was not just showing us films. He brought in directors and actors and writers to talk to us—Ken G. Hall, John Duigan, Bob Ellis are just a few of the names I recall—and what an exciting time it was! We were surfing the crest of the new wave in Australian cinema.
We also made documentaries of our own. I remember one project where we recut Kokoda Front Line following Damien Parer’s dope sheet. We came to realise how much of the narrative he created through the lens, despite the limited stock he had available.
But my education went beyond that. I discovered the marriage of sound and vision, the rules of composition and editing—invaluable skills and knowledge which guided me during my first post-college job as a journalist and photographer on a small rural newspaper and working in my own made-up black-and-white darkroom. Through Neil and the late great Owen Weingott at college, I also discovered the Shakespearean stage and in particular theatrical fencing.
My college years were the first time I encountered legends such as Damien Parer and Chester Wilmot and Osmar White and others of Kokoda. Since then, what a privilege it has been. Besides years of typing, organising Neil and trying to create order out of the mountains of files, books and interviews, I’ve met Ralph Honner, Black Jack Walker and other legends. I’ve been a guest of Wilmot’s widow in England, held the Oscar for Kokoda Front Line in my hand in Ken G’s lounge room, and spent time with the families and friends of Osmar White, Ivor Hele and Parer himself. I’ve spent many happy hours immersed in libraries and archives everywhere—handling original documents signed by Churchill and Montgomery—some of which had been hidden for more than half a century.
Through Neil I learnt one of the most important lessons of all when it comes to research. Go back to the original source as much as you can and treat it as impartially as you can—don’t colour your interpretations with your prejudices.
And most of all, thanks to Chester Wilmot and Damien Parer, and those who have taken up their mantle since like David Brill and Neil Davis, and so many others I should name, I myself wanted to tell the stories of the men and women of the Australian Defence Force, with integrity and honesty. So in 2004 I was accepted into the Royal Australian Navy Reserve as a public affairs officer: Lieutenant Debra Holland. I am so proud of my thirteen years in uniform.
So you see, while I first knew Neil as a teacher, he has been my mentor, my colleague, my friend. He moulded my career and my life in so many ways. Good teachers have a way of doing that. But don’t just take my word for it.
Shortly before Neil died, he received an e-mail from one of his former students from North Sydney Boys High, Graeme Ratcliffe, who is now a writer in Brisbane and has worked as a professional actor and creative arts director. I will end my tribute to Neil with part of Graeme’s e-mail:
I suspect you probably remember me; I was one of your students at North Sydney Boys High. You attempted to teach me English during the four years I spent absorbing a secondary education: 1965–68. Despite all your hard work and your urging me to do otherwise, I chose not to complete high school, instead shifting to art college. Do you recall?
[You] being the only English teacher I ever had, I have no reliable means of comparison to others of that class of profession; nevertheless, though it was probably not apparent to you at the time, I was very impressed by your obvious dedication to your work. It is not often that a person can boast having an English teacher who built a one-metre-high model of the Globe Theatre (with working parts).
However, I was less appreciative of the many other considerations you showed me. For the life of me I cannot find it anywhere, but you once gave me a marvellous book: an anthology of critical essays on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Though much of it was over my head, I delighted in the sheer beauty of the prose, and because of that, read it several times. This could not have hurt me when I sat down to do my school certificate exam.
You were also kind enough to invite me to take part in a recording of (I think) excerpts from the Bard, where all the other participants were Brahmin lads from the “A” class. Strangely, this did not make me smug; it actually gave me a quiet confidence I had never felt before.
It is not an exaggeration to say that I found you an interesting, passionate and inspiring teacher; and though you may have found your time dealing with the spotty-faced and unruly young chaps at North Sydney Boys High frustrating it was not, at least, not in my case, wasted. Thank you for being such a marvellous teacher.
Neil, you remind me of that movie character Mr Chipping, when he mused to a fellow teacher: “I thought I heard you saying it was a pity … pity I never had any children. But you’re wrong. I have. Thousands of them.” So did you, Neil. Goodbye, Mr McDonald.
Debra Holland is a journalist and naval public affairs officer.
I first met Neil just over thirty years ago, when his research and mine crossed paths through us meeting Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Honner of the 39th Battalion. Out of that meeting came a sharing of material for Neil’s War Cameraman and my Those Ragged Bloody Heroes. Over the years the collaboration didn’t cease. Along came 200 Shots and of course Valiant for Truth.
I well remember having a laugh when I found out that at the Australian War Memorial we had been named the “Odd Couple”—one of us known for jeans, T-shirt, sneakers and at times, given to the odd use of profanity, and the other usually in a three-piece suit, extremely well-read, considered and well-spoken. Yet all that was merely superficial to what lay underneath.
Collaborative writing can be a minefield of petty egos, different writing styles, the need or desire to dominate events, and resulting arguments and torment. I’ve seen and heard so much about it over the years. Fortunately for me, I’ve only worked with one collaborator—Neil McDonald.
My mind immediately turns to just one of many instances of our work together—the Kokoda section of Valiant for Truth. I can see Neil now at his desk in his den writing parts of it whilst I was in Cynthia’s dining room writing another. As an aside, I can also picture about an hour’s work and then Neil sneaking past the door for a lie down. Profanity ensued. Head down like a little boy who had just been caught at the biscuit tin, he wandered back to the computer. But the magic came. He would read my part and offer minor changes, and I would read his and offer similar minor changes. When we had finished, he came and sat beside me and we wrote a considerable amount of that work together. Never a cross word, never an argument. The project was everything. It just flowed. And when the three pieces of work were done, it all looked and read the same. Neil often said that there was a McBrune writing style. The “Brune” will always love the “Mc” part of that writing.
When Valiant for Truth had, for various reasons, slowed almost to a halt, I was coerced by the then publisher into the responsibility for its completion. Getting work out of Neil wasn’t always easy. A lie down, an intellectual digression, the regular sojourn out for a morning croissant, perhaps a two-hour break for lunch, all masked, so I eventually discovered, a simple lack of confidence. I learnt to just say, “Neil, just get it down son, it’ll be brilliant.” And it always was. Neil’s work needed but little editing and never structural changes. He was a talented historian and an even better writer.
I could relate many wonderful experiences and memories of Neil McDonald. We all search for the right words, the telling memories of one who is leaving us. As a young man, I wrote a thesis on Gandhi. His words to a departing friend and colleague—whom he knew he would never see again—ring true for me today.
Neil McDonald, there are no goodbyes between us, because you are in my heart forever. Take care, old mate, and if there’s an extensive library where you’re going, would you please put books back on the shelves instead of scattering them all over the place? Rest in peace.
Peter Brune is one of Australia’s leading military historians. Among his other books are Descent into Hell: The Fall of Singapore—Pudu and Changi—The Thai-Burma Railway (2014) and Ralph Honner: Kokoda Hero (2007).