Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 9, 2023

One Crowded Hour (1995), by Tim Bowden

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, retrieving unpublished reviews
from my journals 1997-2007

One Crowded Hour, by Tim Bowden (first published 1995)

I have some reading ‘history’ with this biography of Australian combat cameraman Neil Davis (1934-1985.  I’d been told a bit about its author by someone who knew him very well, which made me notice aspects of the book that I might otherwise have overlooked.  Now, checking out the Wikipedia entry for Davis, I see that he is — justifiably — lauded for his fearless determination to report on the Vietnam War from amongst local troops, not Western forces.

In 1986, Davis was posthumously entered into the TV Week Logie Awards’ Hall of Fame.

His work has been commemorated in the documentary Frontline by David Bradbury and in Tim Bowden’s biography One Crowded Hour which takes its title from a verse by Thomas Osbert Mordaunt: “One crowded hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name” a line that Davis wrote in the front of each of his work diaries. The award-winning Augie March song “One Crowded Hour” was composed by Glenn Richards while he was reading One Crowded Hour. (Wikipedia, viewed 7/2/23, lightly edited to remove footnotes and links.)

The Wikipedia profile suggests that if Davis had any flaw, it was recklessness.

But the Bowden biography is more warts and all than that, bringing into focus the role of the biographer in writing the story of a hero.

The biography’s author, Tim Bowden AM (b.1937) has had a prestigious career as a writer, broadcaster and producer on TV and radio, and as an oral historian.  His ABC Radio National series Prisoners of War – Australians Under Nippon is the best and most memorable record of the experiences of Japanese POWs that I have ever encountered.  Indeed, I mentioned it just the other day to The Spouse, when we were talking about the naiveté of very young soldiers who rushed to Australia’s defence in WW2.  I remembered the voice of one former POW who said he’d never before seen the rice which was all they had in captivity, and he had had no idea how to cook or eat it.

But in 1997 when I read One Crowded Hour my antennae had been alerted to misogyny, and I picked up on things not generally noted in the enthusiastic reviews I’ve seen at Goodreads. Reading these thoughts from my journal made me wonder if I’d been a bit unfair.  So I borrowed the book from the library…

And decided to self-censor the last paragraph of my review…

This Review from the Archive is another example of how once the book leaves the author’s hands, it is read by people with a variety of reading and life experiences and values, which colour their perspectives and the way the book is interpreted.

2nd April 1997, Reading Journal 1997-1998

This biography of Neil Davis, combat cameraman and hero of the Southeast Asian war, is quite unlike the Christopher Koch novel Highways to a War which is very loosely based on Davis’s life.

Bowden’s style is a jokey-blokey way of writing, and there seems little doubt that Bowden hero-worshipped his subject, a contemporary fellow-journalist. The nearest Bowden can get to criticism is some necessarily* sketchy references to Davis as a ‘ladies man’, but it reads as if Bowden thinks it’s really all okay — a justifiable foible if you’re continually risking your life.

[*Presumably to avoid defamation because some of Davis’s conquests were still alive.]

Still, One Crowded Hour is an astonishing account of a very brave man who took (and survived) extraordinary risks because he wanted to show the realities of war.  He filmed the South Vietnamese troops in action, rather than film US troops who made it comparatively easy for the press with helicopter rides, food and medical supplies and so on. Davis trekked through the jungles and paddy fields for days on end, living on rice and very basic rations.  He came to perceive the war from the perspective we see it now with the benefit of hindsight — as a civil war, as a war where many more SVRN troops died than the more publicly acknowledged American fatalities, and as a war where tremendous destruction was needlessly waged against the environment and the fabric of village life.

There is no doubt that Davis was indeed a hero but I have to confess to preferring the fictionalised version of him in Highways to a War. 

Well, these days we are all more alert to the dark side of the behaviour of a man who (a-hem) thinks he’s not a philanderer.  Being a ‘ladies man’ is not an epithet that most decent men today would want to have.  But assumptions were different in the 20th century and it was the sort of behaviour that a certain type of man boasted about and/or admired.  Women did not speak up about it. Today, any biographer would be alert to the way jocularity might be interpreted and he might hesitate before quoting some titbits (such as the underage sex) from Davis’s diary, even in a warts-and-all biography.

We’re also more sensitive to the reality that people in extremis behave in ways that might otherwise incite disapproval.  I’m thinking of The Love-charms of Bombs, Restless Lives in the Second World War by Lara Feigel which charted the sexual adventurism and adulteries of well-known authors at a time when death could come at any time.

Still, in 1997 I didn’t like the tone of the sections about Davis the ‘ladies man’, and I like it even less now.

Why did I self-censor the last paragraph of my journal?  Bowden writes that Davis was sensitive to the way in which reporting of some Southeast Asian cultural practices would be received in the West.  He did not film what he saw, and while we don’t know what use he might have made of his work diaries, I doubt if he would have stooped to including excerpts for shock value to attract interest in a book.

Bowden did not have the same sensitivity.

You can find out more about Tim Bowden at his website. 

Author: Tim Bowden
Title: One Crowded Hour, Neil Davis Combat Cameraman 1934-1985
Publisher: Imprint (Angus & Robertson), 1988, first published 1987
ISBN: 9780207169472, pbk., 436 pages including an index
Source: Kingston Library



  1. I spent years listening to the ABC, starting with late night music when I was still at school, then 3LO, cricket and football first and Peter Evans and all those daytime talkers; graduating, as I got tired even then of their know it all both-sides-ism, to Radio National, today just a shadow of its former, feisty self.

    So Bowden’s was one of those many plummy ABC voices I grew up with. And yes he’s earnest and informed which is more than you can say for his successors.

    I was aware of Neil Davis’ reputation as a war photographer, probably via Bowden. But The Quiet American and The Sorrow of War are probably as much as I’ll ever read about Vietnam.


    • Ah well, Vietnam was such a near thing for me and mine. And then going there as a tourist brings it into focus too.


  2. […] Fuente del artículo […]


  3. So interesting Lisa about how our reading antennae change over the years. I remember this book coming out, and of course I remember Tim Bowden – but I most remember Neil Davis from the documentary Front Line made by David Bradbury. I can’t recollect however whether “the ladies man” made its appearance felt there, but it may not have given a documentary is necessarily more compressed than a biography.


    • Well, it’s not the most important thing about him…I think he should be remembered as a very brave man who had a unique approach to reporting the war — which may well have contributed to the change in public attitudes about it.
      But perhaps the sort of gung-ho bravery that makes that possible also surfaces in other aspects of life, and then it’s a question for the biographer to deal with.
      Maybe attitudes haven’t changed that much. After all, Victoria is the state that gave a certain ‘laddish’ cricketer a state funeral.


      • Haha, yes you did! But at least you didn’t give a certain other personage one!

        But yes I completely get your point about Davis.

        Liked by 1 person

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