Later Film Years

In 1970 John was honoured by the Queen with the OBE – Officer of the Order of the British Empire – in recognition of his contribution to the film industry.

John Heyer receiving the OBE from HRM Queen Elizabeth II

Later that year, as the anniversary of Captain Cook’s discovery of Australia was approaching, he was asked by the Australian Broadcasting Commission to make a feature documentary on Cook’s voyage along the east coast of Australia.  The result was The Infinite Pacific

In 1977 the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) commissioned him to produce a documentary about the Great Barrier Reef for general distribution to try and convince the government and the public that the world wonder they had on their doorstep was in danger from pollution, tourism and over fishing. Prince Philip, HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, president of the ACF took an active interest in the project and agreed to do the pre-title sequence. The Reef drew attention to the fragility of the Great Barrier Reef and the dangers it was already encountering long before this was common knowledge.

John Heyer and HRH Duke of Edinburgh discussing The Reef

During John’s research for The Reef he met Steven Domm, head of the Barrier Reef Research Station on Lizard Island. Steve had been appointed his scientific advisor and his excitement for anything connected with the Barrier Reef soon infected John and turned him into an enthusiastic amateur marine biologist and wreck hunter.


In the 100 years since records began, 500 ships had been wrecked on the Barrier Reef – one of which was HMS Pandora, the 24-gun frigate sent out by the British Government in 1791 to round up the mutineers who took over the HMS Bounty and left its captain and crew to their fate in one of Pandora’s longboats, living on fish and rain water. The wreck of the Pandora had never been found.


After the acquisition of a suitable search boat to live on and some 12 months of research, they finally located Pandora on November 15th 1977, 60 feet down with her timbers fairly well preserved in the sand in which she was almost completely buried. 

John and Steve Domm on the hunt for the HMS Pandora
John while on the hunt for HMS Pandora

The Australian Conservation Foundation had raised funds for the production of The Reef from several major institutions.  One of these Qantas Airways which flew . Being on a Qantas commission John was given a first class seat to Australia, and – luck was on his side – he sat next to Ahmed Backer, son of Sheik Rashid, the ruler of the UAE. Ahmed was the head of the Sheik’s construction consortium – the Dubai Transport Company – which had just taken the first steps to build the biggest manmade harbour in the world at Jebel Ali on the coast of the United Arab Emirates.


It wasn’t long before John had convinced Ahmed that it would be a good idea to produce a film on such a giant undertaking and he agreed. By the time Ahmed got off at Dubai and John went on to Sydney, they had arranged for him to visit Dubai on his way back in a couple of months’ time to commence production! 

The result was Jebel Ali, a half hour film on the great harbour project and two other films on aspects of the UAE: Hatta the Oasis and Dubai State of Change for American TV. The latter two were to support Sheik Rashid’s continuing campaign to enlighten the world about the Arabs and the UAE. He was aware of the tendency of popular opinion to see Arabs as swashbuckling adventurers on white horses galloping out of 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom' and 'The Desert Song' but in fact, while the British were still painting themselves with woad and running about in bear skins, they were inventing mathematics, writing poetry and constructing some of the most beautiful architecture in the world.

In 1983, John was honoured with retrospective screenings at the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals.  In 1986, he was appointed a Member of the European Academy of Arts, Sciences and Humanities and in 1997, on behalf of the Government of Australia, the Queen invested him with the OAM – the Order of Australia Medal.  He was in regular demand in both Australia and London to speak about his experience as a documentary maker and he travelled regularly between the two countries.

For the remainder of his life, he tried to obtain funding for Capricornia, a film based on Xavier Herbert’s novel for which he had taken out an option many years before.  However, he was unable to raise the money for production, either as a feature film or a TV mini-series – despite the necessary film scripts that had been written with the assistance of top writer Louis Nowra who created a play of the same name.