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Canada’s Documentary Essentials: ‘The Mills of the Gods: Viet Nam’

Dir. Beryl Fox, 1965


By the end of the 1960s, the horrors both suffered and inflicted by American G.I.s in Vietnam had become a regular sight on the nightly news. Direct cinema-style documentaries like Pierre Schoendoerffer’s The Anderson Platoon (1967) and Emile de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig (1968) provided even rawer views of the conflict in Southeast Asia.

Yet there was almost nothing to prepare viewers for the nightmarish vision of war in The Mills of The Gods: Viet Nam when Beryl Fox’s pioneering hour-long film debuted on CBC-TV in December 1965. After a strenuous effort to convince her CBC bosses that a woman correspondent could in fact cover the war, Fox shot the film over many months in Vietnam, displaying the same steely nerves evident in Summer in Mississippi (1965), her earlier doc for the CBC about the civil rights movement.

Her shocking gallery of images ranged from the tortured and injured bodies of Vietnamese peasants (including children), through calloused troops as they burn villages, to U.S. combat planes dropping napalm, which one pilot deems to be “fun” in a scene that anticipates the pitch-black humour of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).

As the first Vietnam documentary of its kind, The Mills of the Gods inevitably met a divisive reaction—Morley Safer famously assailed it in an introduction aired before it played on the BBC. Yet the impact of Fox’s work can also be measured in the prizes it won—including a George Polk Award in Journalism—and its influence on the Vietnam movies to come, both fact and fiction.

Read more POV picks for Canada’s Documentary Essentials!

Watch The Mills of the Gods below:

Jason Anderson writes about film and music for such publications as Cinema Scope, Sight and Sound, Uncut, Movie Entertainment and the Toronto Star. He teaches criticism and feature writing at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University and is the director of programming for the Kingston Canadian Film Festival.

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