Monday, August 2, 2010

John Huston's War Documentaries

Still from Let There Be Light



In early 1942, just as John Huston was wrapping up principal photography of Across the Pacific, he was given a commission as a Lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps and assigned to a meaningless job in Washington. After a short while, he managed to get himself transferred to the Aleutian Islands and once there, made the first of three documentaries for the Army. Seen together, they represent very different views of the war and the effects combat had on the soldiers. They are fascinating chapters in the director's register.


REPORT FROM THE ALEUTIANS (1942)
This 43-minute film, shot in color, was narrated from start to finish by Huston himself. The opening shot is of a map showing the viewer exactly where the Aleutian Islands were, west of Alaska, with one island, Adak, located only 250 miles from Japanese-held territory.

Huston's film details the primitive airstrips and missions taken by the young pilots, many of whom were far too inexperienced in the air. Worse yet, they had to deal with flimsy planes with no radar, often battling rain and fog. Many planes did not come back and even for the ones that did, crashes on the airstrip were a routine occurrence.

Huston shows us the faces of these young men as well as the isolation of their surroundings. The missions were the emphasis here and the director was on several of those, along with a team of five or six other cameramen, capturing some remarkable images. One of the most striking is an over-the-shoulder shot behind the pilot as their plane flies head on into a rainstorm. Other images of the bombs being dropped have a eerie beauty to them.

Huston's job was to make a propaganda film, of course, and at one point, the narration has him saying, "The Japs were dug in like so many moles." However, these emotions were kept to a minimum, the result being a well-made, if straightforward record of the bravery of these isolated men. Few recall this part of World War ll, so we have Huston to thank for these memories.




THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO (1945)
This 33 minute film is one of the most beautifully realized works in Huston's canon. Detailing a particularly fierce battle for a small strip of land near the town of San Pietro in southwestern Italy (population 1412, as Huston proclaims in his narration), this is a gripping, visually rewarding film that retains its power today and was no doubt, an inspiration to filmmakers who made war films in Hollywood several decades later (Steven Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan, for one).

Shot in black and white, Huston opens the film with a brief speech by a nameless commanding officer who describes the importance of the Allies gaining hold of this small territory known as the Liri Valley, some 60 miles northwest of Naples and 40 miles southeast of Rome. This is a nice touch and reinforces Huston's belief in the bravery of these men; names are not important, only deeds.

Huston goes to painstaking detail to explain the various stages of the battle with intricate maps, showing where various regiments would be stationed and what their exact orders were. Seeing these plans acted out bring special impact to the film, especially seeing soldiers advance through the terraced groves of olive trees.




The hand-held camera work, much of it done by Huston himself, is thrilling and at the same time distrurbing to watch. As we see two or three soldiers advance amidst the dirt being tossed up by nearby grenades, Huston pans to the right as we watch a soldier being felled by enemy fire; this is still a bit shocking to watch. But even more disturbing are the brief images of the faces of a few soldiers being put into body bags; Huston does not show their entire face, but only a part, which gives these images a haunting quality.

Haunting and beautiful are the shots of the townspeople emerging from their hiding places once the Allies have secured victory. There are several lovely shots of children's faces with their innocent smiles as well as visuals of women washing clothes and men digging out from under the rubble. One of the best shots is of a local woman, balancing on her head, not a basket of clothes or food, but a casket.



This is a no-nonsense film that depicted the brutality of war as well as the simple beauty of the emotions of the local residents, grateful for their final plight. Huston recalls in his wonderful autobiography, An Open Book (1980), that at a premiere of this work for Army brass in Washington, several generals walked out on the film. Later, it was explained to Huston by an Army official that the film was to be shelved as it was "anti-war." He told the Army that if he ever made a pro-war film, "someone should take me out and shoot me." Thankfully, Gen. George Marshall, aware of the film's reception, asked to see the film and declared it as worthy of the heroism of the American soldier.

This is a must see film for anyone interested in John Huston's work.



LET THERE BE LIGHT (1946)
This is clearly the most controversial of the three Huston documentaries. The subject matter - the study of what was then called psychoneuroses on soldiers returning from the battlefront - guaranteed that, but it is the intensity of Huston's direction that makes this 58-minute film so troublesome to deal with for so many people.

Huston and his cinematographer Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons) filmed soldiers at the Mason General Army Hospital on Long Island, focusing on a few specific cases, ranging from one soldier upset at the loss of his girlfriend to another who could not walk due to neuroses. The cure is often hypnosis as well as a shot of sodium amathal; a drug that is referred to a having a "shortcut to the mind" by removing symptoms that could impede the patient's recovery.



Narrated by Huston's father Walter, the director focuses on the behavior of these troops who dream of the "torments of fear, uncertainty and loneliness." Some patients have mild problems, others are more serious cases. The most talked about scene in the film is that of a fragile soldier who can barely speak, as he can only manage to say a few words, often stuttering. We are told that the man is not a chronic stutterer, but someone who is suffering from battle fatigue. After he lays down on a cot and is given medicine, he suddenly recovers, saying in a voice that becomes louder and louder, "I can talk! I can talk! Oh god, listen I can talk!" The doctor then slowly converses with him about the specifics that caused this situation and soon the soldier is cured.

The film continues with Q and A sessions between a group of soldiers and a doctor; as a group, they are in fine shape after their treatment. We then see shots of them playing softball and enjoying life, presumably for the first time in years.

All in all, while this does have a few marvelous sequences, the film lacks the dramatic punch one would expect. It is watchable and informative, but this is not the end-all study of war illness it could have been. This makes the Army decision to ban this film puzzling, as the end result of the film is seeing the expertise of the Army doctors who have cured the patients. These soldiers walked in with frazzled nerves, but the leave as relatively normal human beings, free of neuroses (for the most part).

The film was finally given a public showing in 1981 and is available on the internet (as are the other two films mentioned above). Huston wrote in his book that he believed the decision to ban this film was the Army's way of maintaining the "warrior myth" of the American soldier. The Army has said that the filmed interviews were invasions of privacy of the specific soldiers, but Huston writes that he had each individual sign a release, allowing him to film them, so Huston's explanation that he showed the troops at less than zealous heroism, is probably as good as any.

One final note: many reviewers of this film have written that Huston staged much of the film, especially so Cortez could get the proper camera angle and lighting setup. This may have happened - who's to say for sure - but I believe Huston when he wrote that:

"the cameras ran continuously, one on the patient and one on the doctor. We shot thousands of feet of film... just to be sure of getting the extraordinary and completely unpredictable exchanges that sometimes occurred... As the men began to recover, they accepted the cameras as an integral part of their treatment."

While I wanted an even more detailed look at these soldiers, this is a fine film and recommended not only as a historical document, but also as a look at the unglamorous side of combat, a side too often forgotten by filmmakers.

4 comments:

  1. Of these three films, I've only seen Let There Be Light, which might actually be the greatest war documentary ever made, don't you think? I'm probably missing some essential titles of course, but that film is absolutely searing. The soldier screaming, "I can talk!", the soldier who can't remember his name, the soldier who has an uncontrollable twitching problem--what's so shocking is that it's all true (unless parts of it really were staged... though I don't know if I would entirely mind).

    In some ways Let There Be Light is an essential viewing in judging Huston's supposed auteurism as well. Many of the patients that Clift analyzes in Freud seem like clones of the exact patients Huston photographed for this film; and the close examination of wounded war veterans would later be used again in Key Largo and Wise Blood. If Key Largo shows us what happens when a recovering veteran returns home, then Wise Blood shows us the flipside: a perfectly healthy veteran returns home from the war, and life in small-town America ends up doing him far more damage than the war ever did.

    Aside from the lack of detailed look at the soldiers (though maybe that might have breached their privacy and validated the Army's complaints), one thing about Let There Be Light that kept bugging me was the corny "thrilling" music that plays on the soundtrack during the recovery scenes. Otherwise, a masterful piece of documentation on film, and we apparently have VP Walter Mondale to thank for finally getting it released to the public after so many decades of unjustified censorship.

    You've made me want to see Aleutians, and you've definitely made me want to check out San Pietro, since I wasn't even aware that one of these films took a hard, brittle look at the actual warfare. I'm especially intrigued by your suggestion that Spielberg was inspired by San Pietro, as it would lay to rest the charges by Jonathan Rosenbaum that Saving Private Ryan was inspired by only fictional war movies and not the real thing. It's a fact that Let There Be Light was one of the movies Scorsese screened for his Shutter Island cast (for reasons that would later be explained just by watching that movie), and so it delights me that the modern Movie Brats have taken such a liking to Huston's WWII docs! I've always loved Huston's "if I ever make a pro-war film I hope somebody shoots me" quote.

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  2. Adam:

    Thanks for your insightful comments. You're not the first person who has compared Huston's later film on Freud with sections of Let There Be Light.

    One thing I didn't mention about San Pietro was that Huston also filmed shots of dead torsos and boots with feet still stuck in them. These scenes were trimmed from the final version, as the Army feared these images were too shocking.

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  3. I have only seen THE BATTLE FOR SAN PIETRO (believe on TCM) and remember feeling this was one of the most realistic and as you say "disturbing to watch." I am not surprised that some military brass at first wanted to shelve this film labeling it as anti-war. It is rough to watch and they did not want folks back home to see what their sons were really going through. It wasn't until the Vietnam war (the television war) that folks back home really got a taste of war.
    I really do need to see LET THERE BE LIGHT. I am glad someone covered these shorts!!!

    Thanks for a great review!!!

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  4. John:

    Interestingly, in 1980 in his autobiography, Huston wrote that he might have included a few scenes he decide not to show in his original version of San Pietro if he made the film 30 years later. His reasoning was that the new generation had been through so much (via TV, as you point out).

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