The Shell Years

In 1948 Shell Australia advertised for a film Producer/Director to set up a Shell Film Unit. As film production by the National Film Board was moving more and more towards tourism and restricted budgets, John applied for the job and was successful. 

It was while he was working for Shell that he made his most famous documentary, The Back of Beyond (1954), about the 320 mile journey of a mailmanTom Kruse, who drove his Leyland Badger across the inhospitable terrain of the Birdsville Track, delivering mail and connecting the remote communities along the way.  During the three month recce through the Australian desert, he was accompanied by his friend the painter Sidney Nolan and by his wife Janet, returning to Sydney to prepare the shooting script with Janet and writer Roland Robinson.  Poet and playwright Douglas Stewart collaborated in writing the narration and dialogue.

Janet remained with him throughout the film.  He admits that he could not have made it without her.  She was invaluable in so many ways, helping with the practical requirements of filming, calming any tensions along the way and acting as a perceptive critic at all stages of filmmaking.

Queen Elizabeth watched the film on the S.S Gothic, the royal yacht from 1952-1954, and the film earned Tom Kruse an MBE the following year.

Grand Prix Assoluto Award at the Venice Biennale for The Back of Beyond in 1954

The film was highly acclaimed and won the Golden Seahorse, the Grand Prix Assoluto at the 1954 Venice Biennale, the prize awarded to the best film screened at the festival across all categories. This was the first Australian film to win any international award and, significantly, it beat all other films shown at the festival.  Between 1954 and 1955,  750,000 Australians, over 10% of the Australian population had watched the film and it is still in demand today.  \

John’s next film, The Forerunner, which followed in 1957, won awards at the Cannes, Venice, London and Turin festivals and was nominated for the BAFTA Best Documentary.

After these successes, Alex Walcough, the head of Public Relations at Shell International Petroleum in London invited John to join the London Shell Film Unit as Executive Producer, Films and Television with a substantial budget to make films within any of the same topics as he had in Australia – Transport, Agriculture and Health. Shell products did not feature in any of them except peripherally and where naturally applicable. John had always admired the high standard of films produced by the London Shell Film Unit; it had the funds and the foresight and international facilities that enabled it to attract top film makers and technicians from around the world and it used them wisely and well.

In 1956, he moved his family to London and for the first twelve months travelled in Europe, America and Canada studying film production. He visited Germany for Allied Control Commission and, together with Robert Flaherty, gave the opening oration broadcast by the BBC at Edinburgh Film Festival. In the following years he made films for Shell International, travelling to countries wherever they had interests and a use for films about their activities. All went well until the vast Shell International Petroleum was broken up into various national companies – some 75 – and Shell Film Unit lost its financial contributions from them; the film budget went from riches to rags in 12 months and production dried up.

With no more film projects coming from Shell, John decided that the only  alternative seemed to be to start his own company – John Heyer Film Company Pty Ltd. Fortunately, the family house in Putney, London lent itself very well – with a mini-studio upstairs (Janet’s painting studio) and a study and office on the ground floor.

John in the garden of their Putney home
Janet in the garden of their Putney home

In 1957, despite the illnesses she had experienced after the births of both Elizabeth and Frederick, Janet continued to wish for another baby. In view of her previous unpleasant experiences they consulted two specialists. As some eleven years had passed without any problems they both considered she would be most unlikely to experience such trouble a third time, so they decided to take what appeared to be a minimal risk. But they were wrong again. The birth of Anna in April brought with it the same severe illness experienced with Elizabeth and Frederick and resulted in hospitalisation at St Thomas’ Hospital, London for several weeks.

Although John was deeply concerned about Janet’s health, his film career seemed to be blossoming. In 1958 England won the Coupe de Venice for the first time with six films – four of which he had produced.


Not long after Anna’s birth, Janet felt a small lump in one breast which St Thomas’ Hospital identified as cancer. The early prognosis that it could be cured, or at least contained, was unfortunately wrong. Within two years the cancer had spread to her other breast.

It was the beginning of nine years of recurring pain and sickening sessions of radio-therapy treatment that strained and drained her mind and body until she died on 20th February, 1969: John’s three children had lost a devoted mother and he had lost the most wonderful experience of his life. His mental and physical reaction at first was seemingly under control but in fact within a few weeks he collapsed and was taken by ambulance to St. Thomas’ Hospital with ‘clinical exhaustion’, a condition in which the glands and control systems of the body fail or become erratic. When discharged from St. Thomas’ a week later, he became an out-patient at Queen Mary’s Hospital at Roehampton close to the family home in Putney. It was over a year before he was able to take up film production again but even then only half-heartedly. The difficult years through which he had struggled emotionally and financially to provide a warm and meaningful home for his baby daughter and two children in sight of their dying mother had had a very destructive effect on his creative ability.