‘The Mills of the Gods’ at 50: The Groundbreaking Vietnam War Documentary Is Still Shocking

CBC Digital Archive

In 1964, Canadian filmmaker Beryl Fox went to Vietnam on behalf of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She’d just finished Summer in Mississippi, a critically acclaimed documentary on the American South during the Civil Rights Movement. This jump from the domestic frying pan into the fire of international intervention wasn’t easy. Fox had to fight pushback from CBC executives, frustratingly reticent to send a woman halfway across the world to cover an armed conflict. Yet in the end she won, and The Mills of the Gods: Viet Nam aired as part of the controversial This Hour Has Seven Days documentary series on December 5, 1965.

A blunt record of three weeks spent with American soldiers, assembled from tense visits to peasant villages and bloody military actions, it caused quite a stir. It is often cited as a major reason for the cancellation of This Hour Has Seven Days the following May. When the film later aired on the BBC, the broadcaster chose to precede it by a critical and apologetic introduction from Canadian CBS reporter Morley Safer. He said that the filmmaker “got carried away,” according to an interview with Fox in The Documentary Conscience: A Casebook in Filmmaking. This was particularly harsh coming from Safer, who himself had just gotten on the wrong side of Lyndon Johnson for his own reporting that summer.

Of course, Safer had only featured footage of marines burning down the empty homes of evacuated villagers. Inflammatory, to be sure, but nothing compared to the journalistic broadside Fox fired on America’s military presence in South Vietnam. Two and a half years before the My Lai Massacre and four years before it became public, audiences were’t used to seeing images of tremendous violence on television. A full three years before the Tet Offensive, victory still seemed entirely possible. The Mills of the Gods not only shows the brutality of American action in Vietnam, but also hints pretty damningly at its potential futility.

Fox’s style is an extension of the fledging Direct Cinema movement, born both out of Canadian television production and equally political work from the USA. Yet The Mills of the Gods also upends a lot of the facile assumptions made about the movement’s principles. There is no “fly on the wall,” no platonic ideal of an exact representation of what actually happened. And, as was true of the similarly idealized Neorealism of Italy in the 1940s, the easiest way to show the hand of the filmmaker among these truthful images is to listen.

The power of The Mills of the Gods is in its soundtrack, and how it bristles against its images. Perhaps the most entertaining example comes midway through the film, when Fox takes a break from covering military action to ask some American soldiers how they feel about Vietnamese women. The response is mixed, from the shy denials of men with wives back home to the racist derision of others, as well as the guys who blush and admit that they like the local girls.

Fox then cuts to a montage of downtown Saigon at night, a wartime red light district whose delights need not be explicitly stated (particularly on television). This is underlined by the soundtrack: Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” For context, the bouncy pop song had only been released the prior November. It was #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January of 1965. Imagine if a contemporary documentary hinted at the sexual playgrounds of American soldiers abroad with the use of “Uptown Funk,” which hit the top of the charts the very same week in 2015.

This wry, biting use of music also extends to the way that Fox pairs image and voiceover. She didn’t interview many experts, and so what little testimony there is in the film is often very pointed. Much of the audio space is yielded to American intellectual Bernard Fall, an early supporter of the war who became quite pessimistic about it as things progressed. And while much of his dismal reading of the situation seems in tune with Fox’s message, it’s hard not to grin when she pairs his extensive praise of the “friendly, strong” Vietnamese peasant, a figure he exclusively refers to as “he,” with the stoic image of an old woman.

An unnamed military expert, on the other hand, speaks to Fox of America’s great potential for victory in this ever-more-complicated war. Each battle won will lead to another, he says. “When you believe no one can beat you, somehow it’s hard for people to do that.” His words of now-obviously absurd confidence float over the images of American soldiers peering into the forbidding trees of a swamp, fruitlessly pursuing an enemy they cannot see.

Fox is much kinder to the testimony of actual front line soldiers, generally letting them speak their minds without damning juxtapositions. Part of this is simply because the words themselves are so inherently sad that they don’t need any interpretation. “I haven’t killed anyone yet, at least I don’t think so,” says one fresh-faced young man. Some share their support for the war, others are vocally opposed to the government’s choices. And sometimes a soldier’s very attitude toward the enemy chills to the bone.

The climax of the film comes from that last category. It’s a sequence of remarkable, perhaps unprecedented honesty and shock. Fox is up in a plane with an enthusiastic pilot, out on a mission to bomb and napalm the trenches of Vietcong below. He seems overjoyed at the opportunity to share his feelings and his methods. As he shows Fox where the bombs fall, driving the enemy out of their trenches so that they can cut them off with napalm fire, he tells her that he thinks it’s all “great fun.” “That’s what we’re here for; it’s outstanding to really catch them out in the open.” He shouts in a mix of awe and glee, “Look at it burn! Look at it burn!”

His last words are perhaps the most disturbing: “I would really like to see how effective it is.” And while it’s unclear whether this particular pilot will ever get the chance, Fox goes down to the bloodied terra firma and shows it to us. Men and women lie on the ground, brutally mowed down by bombs and fire and bullets. One wonders what the man up in the sky would say to such destruction, but it’s hard for anyone watching this on television to feel anything but woe and disgust.

And it is here, in these final moments, that Fox lands her coup de grace.

The film began with a group of soldiers singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” with some altered lyrics. “Glory, glory, what a hell of a way to die.” It’s easy to assume that the song is about the death of American soldiers, a bleak ode to the drafted and fallen, particularly in 2015 after much of the Vietnam lingo has fallen out of memory. After the bombing sequence it returns, but Fox lets the singing go on a little longer. The revelation is terrifying, as it turns out that the song is not about fallen Americans but about the Vietnamese that have fallen before their guns. The refrain morphs from “his truth is marching on” to “and he ain’t gonna jump no more.”

The hammer fallen, Fox switches from the perverted lyrics of these soldiers to a passionate rendition of the original lyrics by Paul Robeson. And now, 50 years later, here is the time to reflect on what has changed. First, the era of war as a landscape of men has begun to end with the Pentagon’s announcement this week that all combat roles will be open to women. The absurd optimism of America’s warmongers has stuck, however. That nonsense assertion of victory through confidence that Fox so blatantly skews could easily come from the mouth of Donald Trump or Mike Huckabee, who just this week claimed he could defeat ISIS, Hezbollah, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda and Iran in “a 10-day exercise.”

Yet perhaps the most chillingly prescient element of The Mills of the Gods is the testimony of the pilot and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The obvious comparison is to Francis Ford Coppola’s use of “The Ride of the Valkyries” in Apocalypse Now, which looked back on the war from 1979. Both scenes drip with satirical bombast and a biting lack of reverence for the glories of war. Yet Coppola’s Valkyries are helicopters, the second stage of aerial attack. Closer to the ground, their wrath is more direct. They can see the destruction they bring, and as a result their violence feels more like real combat.

Fox’s pilot is much higher above the chaos he wreaks, sharing more with the pilot at the end of Dr. Strangelove than anyone in Apocalypse Now. His happy innocence and vicious brutality coexist because he’s too far from the death he causes. This horror, underlined by the stinging use of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” looks ahead to drone warfare and the thoughtless destruction of the 21st century. His reality is the thrilling fire of the napalm and the pillars of smoke, but not the lives buried beneath. And so he shouts in glee, “Look at it burn!”

Watch The Mills of the Gods: Viet Nam below, thanks to CBC Digital Archives.

CBC Player

More to Read:

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.