Films: The Foreign War Correspondents

The job of ‘foreign’ or ‘war correspondent’ barely exists now, but the tradition remains alive in many off-beat if sometimes forgotten films.

07 May 2024 | James Porteous | Clipper Media

Photo: Dennis Hopper in Apocolypse Now

The rather sterile definition of a ‘foreign correspondent’ is listed as ‘a correspondent employed to send news or comment from a foreign country.

The job has gone the way of IBM punch cards, but there was a time when foreign war correspondent reports were not only essential, but most likely the only reporting available from the fronts lines.

During World War II, the first-person accounts were heard around the world via nightly broadcast reports.

And during the American war in Vietnam, the horrific filmed reports from the rice paddies, which often took two days or more to reach American TV screens, were sometimes said to have helped to turn the tide against the war.

Years later, the advent of embedded reporters found many correspondents delivering facts, figures and footage supplied by their host, the Pentagon.

With few exceptions, this was to be the end of Western war reporting.

Gone but not forgotten. As you will see below, there have been a slew of ‘foreign correspondent’ films released over the years.

Many of these titles may be unfamiliar and you won’t find any of the hundreds of ex-Navy Seal/ former FBI /elite war hero / films that now litter Netflix.

This is far from a complete list of films, but each one is worth seeing, if only for the often factual but off-beat perspective they bring to this often-historic events.

Think Dennis Hopper in Apocolypse Now.

The Films

The Year of Living Dangerously
A 1982 romantic drama film directed by Peter Weir and co-written by Weir and David Williamson. Mel Gibson. A young Australian reporter tries to navigate the political turmoil of Indonesia during the rule of President Sukarno with the help of a diminutive photographer.

Under Fire
A 1983 American political thriller film set during the last days of the Nicaraguan Revolution that ended the Somoza regime in 1979 Nicaragua. Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, Joanna Cassidy.

A 1986 American war drama film co-written and directed by Oliver Stone with James Woods, Jim Belushi. A journalist, down on his luck in the US, drives to El Salvador to chronicle the events of the 1980 military dictatorship, including the assasination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. He forms an uneasy alliance with both guerillas in the countryside who want him to get pictures out to the US press, and the right-wing military, who want him to bring them photographs of the rebels. Meanwhile he has to find a way of protecting his Salvadorean girlfriend and getting her out of the country. —Tony Bowden <>

The Killing Fields
A 1984 British biographical drama film about the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, which is based on the experiences of two journalists: Cambodian Dith Pran and American Sydney Schanberg. Sam Waterston, screenplay by Bruce Robinson; the musical score was written by Mike Oldfield

The Bang Bang Club
A 2010 Canadian-South African biographical drama based on the true-life experiences of four combat photographers capturing the final days of apartheid in South Africa.

Foreign Correspondent
A classic 1940 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock tells the story of an American reporter based in Britain who tries to expose enemy spies involved in a fictional continent-wide. Joel McCrea

A Private War
A 2018 American biographical war drama film directed by Matthew Heineman, and starring Rosamund Pike as journalist Marie Colvin. The film is based on the 2012 article “Marie Colvin’s Private War” in Vanity Fair by Marie Brenner.

The Balibo Conspiracy
A 2009 Australian war film that follows the story of the Balibo Five, a group of journalists who were captured and killed while reporting on activities just prior to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor of 1975. Anthony LaPaglia.

How to be a foreign correspondent

BBC: From Our Own Correspondent is the place where journalists get to tell the stories they want to tell: the stories behind the headlines; the stories they tell their friends and family when they arrive home – the ones that don’t fit neatly into a news bulletin… They take you to faraway lands, to meet some extraordinary characters and allow you to glimpse what life is like elsewhere in the world. In the process, they often provide snippets of what it’s like to report from other countries as a foreigner.

Robert Fisk was best known for his coverage of the Middle East, where he began reporting from in the 1970s

Robert Fisk, veteran UK journalist, dies aged 74

He had been admitted to St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin after falling ill at his home on Friday, and died shortly afterwards, the Irish Times reported.

Fisk won numerous awards for his reporting on the Middle East, starting from the 1970s.

But he also drew controversy for his sharp criticism of the US and Israel, and of Western foreign policy.

Covering wars in the Balkans, Middle East and North Africa for UK newspapers over five decades, Fisk was described by the New York Times, in 2005, as “probably the most famous foreign correspondent in Britain”.

Born in Maidstone, Kent in 1946, he later took Irish citizenship and had a home in Dalkey outside the capital Dublin.

Irish President Michael D Higgins has expressed his “great sadness” about Fisk’s death on Sunday.

“With his passing the world of journalism and informed commentary on the Middle East has lost one of its finest commentators,” he said in a statement.

After starting his career at the Sunday Express, Fisk moved to Belfast in 1972 to cover the Troubles as Northern Ireland correspondent for the Times. He became the paper’s Middle East correspondent in 1976.

Based in Beirut, he reported on the civil war in Lebanon, as well as the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the Iran-Iraq War.

He resigned from the Times in 1989 after a dispute with the owner Rupert Murdoch and moved to the Independent, where he worked for the remainder of his career.

In the 1990s he interviewed Osama Bin Laden three times for the paper. He described him as a “shy man” and looking “every inch the mountain warrior of mujahedin legend” in their first interview in 1993.

After the 11 September attacks plotted by Bin Laden, Fisk, an Arabic speaker, spent the next two decades covering conflicts throughout the Middle East, including in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

He was highly regarded for his knowledge of, and deep experience in, the region, and often dismissed journalists who sat behind desks instead of venturing out into the field.

But he also drew criticism for his attacks on Western policy in the Middle East and was accused of being lenient towards the Syrian government in his reporting of the country’s long and brutal civil war.

Articles by Fisk about the US and Israel were often considered highly controversial. He said the Trump administration’s acceptance in 2019 of Israel’s annexation of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights showed Israel had effectively annexed the US, and repeatedly accused Israel of committing war crimes against the Palestinians.

In 2011 Fisk was forced to apologise after the Independent was successfully sued by the then-Saudi interior minister over a report that alleged the minister had ordered police to shoot and kill unarmed protesters, based on a document which turned out to be fake.

Fisk married US journalist Lara Marlowe in 1994 but the pair divorced in 2006. He had no children.

The Real-Life Heroes Behind “Foreign Correspondent”

Posted by Joel Gunz on

As a reporter, how far would you go to get your story? Lie? Cheat? Walk into a spray of bullets? Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940) addresses those questions. If you haven’t seen it, you’re in for a fun ride in the tradition of The 39 Steps and North by Northwest.

Dubbed “The Best Spy Thriller of All Time” by American Cinematographer magazine in 1995, this movie follows the trajectory of a young reporter, Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea), as he matures to express his patriotism as a news correspondent. Extremely loosely based on the memoirs of World War I reporter Vincent Sheean (1899 – 1975) (among other changes, the setting was updated to take place during World War II, then building up steam in Europe), the movie is a tribute to war reporters of the time. Says its prologue:

“To those intrepid ones who went across the seas to be the eyes and ears of America. To those forthright ones who early saw the clouds of war while many of us at home were seeing rainbows. To those clearheaded ones who now stand like recording angels among the dead and dying. To those foreign correspondents this motion picture is dedicated.”

Vincent Sheean

While Sheean’s exploits are all but omitted from the movie, one name does come up in a conversation between Jones and his editor, Mr. Powers (Harry Davenport), who suggests that he go to Europe and cover the impending war “in the tradition of Richard Harding Davis,” “one of our greatest war correspondents forty years ago.”

Richard Harding Davis

The original man on the street, Davis (1864 – 1916) traveled to exotic locales to cover the news and bring stories in from faraway places. Sheean himself followed in that tradition, writing,

“I had not been sent to China to write about politics or the Chinese Revolution, but to engage in some kind of personal enterprise, capers or high jinks, that would carry on the tradition of romantic adventure (the “Richard Harding Davis tradition”, it was called) to which my various employers insisted on assigning me.”

Likewise, Johnny Jones (under the pseudonym “Huntley Haverstock”) was tasked to cover the European scene from the street level. Says Powers, “I don’t want any more economists, sages, or oracles bombinating over our cables. I want a reporter!”

Initially, Jones, Like Davis, simply wanted to get a good story. But as the movie progressed, he abandoned that old school romantic adventure writing. Before long, he saw that he was reporting on important events and that real lives were involved. The stakes were political and, increasingly, so became his motives. He began to resemble no one more than the great Edward R. Murrow (1908 – 1965).

Edward R. Murrow at the end of World War II.

Murrow’s first taste of fame occurred when he reported on Hitler’s march into Vienna on March 13, 1938, on CBS’ first broadcast of its still-running “News Roundup.” Revolutionary at the time, the Roundup was a rapid-fire succession of live news reports from such places as Paris, Berlin and Washington D. C. But Murrow was in the catbird seat for that first airing. Assigned to Vienna, he delivered a live, eyewitness report of Hitler’s annexation of Austria. With that, modern broadcast journalism was born. So was Murrow’s celebrity.

Interesting background for sure. But Hitch liked using current topics and events in his movies for the frisson of immediacy they provided, and in the movie’s producer, Walter Wanger, he found a kindred spirit. That’s why he updated the setting and gave special attention to that new breed of reporters “who went across the seas to be the eyes and ears of America.” Wanger went so far as to keep Hitch up-to-date on overseas news so that the movie would be as timely as possible upon its release. With events in Europe happening quickly in 1939, that meant the script was constantly taking revisions right up until the last possible moment.

They had been watching events so closely that, thanks to changes pushed through by Wanger, Foreign Correspondent accurately predicted the German bombardment of Britain.* Quoted below is the final scene, filmed on July 5, 1940. Jones is delivering a radio broadcast from London as bombs drop about him:

“Hello America, I have been watching part of the world be blown to pieces … I’ve seen things that make the history of the savages read like Pollyanna legends…. [Overheard: the noise of bombs dropping and the broadcast booth goes dark.] I can’t read the rest of this speech I had because the lights have gone out. I’ll just have to talk off the cuff. All that noise you hear is not static. It’s death coming to London. Yes, they’re coming here now. You can hear the bombs falling on the streets and the homes. Don’t tune me out. Hang on awhile. This is a big story and you’re a part of it … It’s too late to do anything here now except stand in the dark and let them come. It’s as if the lights were all out everywhere except in America. Keep those lights burning! … Hello America. Hang onto your lights. You’re the only lights left in the world.”

Five days later, the first German bombs began to fall on Britain. The film was released on August 27 and as it continued its run, it had the shocking immediacy of a newsreel.

“All that noise you hear is not static. It’s death coming to London.”

Summing up Murrow’s role in covering those dark days in London, writers have all but recalled that final scene in the film:

“You burned the city of London in our houses and we felt the flames that burned it.”— Archibald Macleish, 1941.

“[Murrow] seemed to experience life with a special intensity and empathy, and he could capture those qualities in his reports. . . . Murrow was among the first to use ambient sound in radio journalism, and he also called more vivid attention to the plight of Londoners, as well as to himself.”— Nicolas Lemann, The New Yorker, January 23, 2006.

There is little doubt that Johnny Jones’ combination of eyewitness reportage, unabashed patriotism and showmanship would have called to the minds of 1940 audiences Murrow’s on-the-scene dispatches. As Patrick McGilligan wrote in his biography Alfred Hitchcock — A Life in Darkness and Light,

“The blitz attacks… made the ending especially prescient — a “flash forward,” with McCrea’s radio address eerily presaging Edward R. Murrow’s famous broadcasts from a blacked-out London.”

Some feel that Jones’ broadcast is rather tacked on and doesn’t fit the flow of the rest of the movie. I have to admit they’ve got a point. As McGilligan noted from this interview with the director:

“It was a speech ‘out of key with your kind of picture,’ Peter Bogdanovich told Hitchcock, fishing for confirmation that it was forced upon him by the politically active producer.

“‘It’s all right,’ the director said blandly. ‘It worked.'”

Foreign Correspondent is a perfect expression of the adage that all politics is personal. Like Murrow, Jones grew to “experience life with a special intensity and empathy.” These qualities make him an attractive character study. Hitchcock’s films are often occupied with living life with full intensity — a pursuit that so often means facing death and pain with equal gusto as embracing pleasure. Looked at in that perspective, this movie is almost a sermon on how to live.

Unlike many propaganda films of the era (but not unusual for Hitch, who directed several such films), Foreign Correspondent has aged quite well. In fact, if the 2006 Good Night and Good Luck‘s portrayal of Murrow’s televised ass-kicking of Senator Joseph McCarthy is a sock in the eye to corporate journalism of today, Foreign Correspondent is its long-overlooked wake-up call.

*For another example of such prescience in a Hitchcock film, see Notorious, which was written in the early months of 1945 (though released in 1946) and foresaw the advent of atomic weaponry. Unlike Wanger, however, producer David O. Selznick was so skittish about the use of uranium ore as the film’s MacGuffin that he sold the film as a package to RKO. That August, the atom bombs fell on Japan and, I imagine, Selznick poured himself a stiff drink.


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