Let There Be Light: John Huston’s Wartime Documentaries Blu-ray Review: From Propaganda to Trauma

It’s odd to feel nostalgia for a time one never lived in, and to envy men who are fighting in a war. But the Second World War holds an oddly nostalgic place in American culture, especially when uncritically examined. Some call it “The Last Good War” as if war were ever good, as if the times weren’t fractious then as well as now. Part of what makes World War II seem, when looking back, as a time of complete cultural consensus is the propaganda that Hollywood produced at the time. The studios worked hand in hand with the government to make sure an image of the war was carefully crafted for those at home.

None of this is necessarily nefarious – a government that loses support for a war cannot win it (as several conflicts over the last 60 years demonstrate). When a country has committed to a course of action, it makes sense to want to justify it, even if that justification requires, as all justifications do, simplification to maintain itself. To this end, many Hollywood filmmakers made documentaries about the war as it was on-going.

Not the least of these filmmakers was John Huston, who had directed his first feature in 1941. The next year he signed up with the United States Army and was tasked with making films. On this Blu-ray collection, Let There Be Light: John Huston’s Wartime Documentaries, all four movies that John Huston made are presented.

Huston’s military documentaries are often called a “trilogy” because the first short, Winning Your Wings, is not strictly a documentary at all, but a simple propaganda recruiting film. Starring and narrated by Jimmy Stewart, Winning Your Wings is in a documentary style familiar to anyone who has had Turner Classic Movies on and seen the shorts they play between the feature films. The congenial narrator has one purpose: to sell you on getting into an aircraft and fighting for your country. There’s even a sentimental scene of a young man saying goodbye to his family and kissing the girl next door before heading off to join his fellow man to seek adventure and make some money. Throughout the film, Stewart constantly reminds us exactly how much officers get paid per month. It’s not a film that acknowledges hardship or looks much like a real wartime show.

That sets it apart from the meat of the disc, the three documentaries filmed by Huston: Report from the Aleutians, The Battle of San Pietro, and the controversial and ultimately banned Let There Be Light. These are not studio-produced recruitment videos – they each serve the purpose of actually documenting events as they occurred, within the limits of the era.

By the limits of the era, I mean that these documentaries might not meet the expectations of the contemporary scholar, or modern fan of documentaries. For one thing, the style, even of the banned film, is nothing like modern documentary style. This is touched upon in the 25 minute introductory short that comes on this Blu-ray. Among other aspects, this short shows the storyboarding and planning done by Huston. He conceived of and controlled the images that showed up on screen. Report from the Aleutians showed a base on the Aleutian Islands that was set up to create a bulwark against a Japanese invasion of the U.S. through Alaska. Bombing raids were made regularly on the nearby Japanese-occupied island of Kiska. The planning and execution of one of these bombing raids is shown in the film, but it isn’t filmed in the modern style of a fly on the wall. Precise camera angles are selected, and edited in such a way that looks good to an audience but are, to anyone looking for documentary detail, obviously contrived.

This is simply how documentaries used to be done. They are not just “shooting what happens” but developing a cohesive narrative out of selected details. And the details in Report from the Aleutians add up to a striking portrait of the equal levels of monotony and camaraderie of Army life. When an actual bombing raid is depicted, it is not with the pulse-pounding excitement of a Hollywood thriller, but with the precision and occasionally boring repetition of real life.

Report from the Aleutians is the only one of these movies filmed in color, but the color photography and the conditions in the remote area mean it is a pretty rough-looking piece of work. The Battle of San Pietro is in gritty black and white, and it achieves a kind of terrible beauty, as it looks out over some real warfare: an incredibly costly battle for one small village in a valley in Italy. The film lays claim to having been shot in actual battle conditions, but this is questionable.

What isn’t questionable are the scenes of American bodies being tied up in blankets, dog tags hammered to crosses, and enormous graveyard being laid out after the battle’s end. Whatever narrative is being set out (and the battle was an American victory), the scenes of terrible destruction and devastation are the most indelible part of that film.

Similarly, the face of human wreckage is the most remarkable aspect of Let There Be Light, the final documentary on the disc and the most notorious. Let There Be Light is a study of post-traumatic stress disorder, documenting an eight-week therapy session at Mason General Hospital on Long Island, New York, where soldiers with emotional disturbances were sent to get treatment before being reintroduced into civilian life. It’s a simply made film, consisting mainly of excerpts of actual therapy sessions, with real, disturbed soldiers. The stories they tell are rarely flashy. They are men who have had one encounter or another too close with mortality, and something broke inside them.

Various styles of therapy are depicted, from talking to drug therapy and hypnosis. It’s a film made by the Army with the clear intent of demonstrating the services that the Army gave to its men, and to show that trauma is not incurable (whatever the actual success rate of the hospital, in the movie it looks like 100%).

It’s an engaging and haunting film, and though it ends with success stories, it is not hard to see why it was not favored by the military brass who kept it under lock and key for 30 years. The official reason was that it invaded the soldier’s privacy. John Huston maintained that he had release forms for everyone in the film, but they had disappeared. In its place the Army produced another film, Shades of Grey, which was a dramatization of the same process that Huston had documented, but with professional actors in the place of the real soldiers. That is included, for completeness sake, on this disc as well. It’s a professionally made film filled with charts and animations, with a confident narrator regularly assuring the audience about how mental illness was comparable to physical illness. Not a terrible or offensive film, but compared to Let There Be Light it seems glib, and ironically un-reassuring. It feels like it’s trying to sell the audience on something, rather than just depicting therapy.

The excellent introductory video on this hefty disc set (over four hours of material, including 30 minutes of raw, silent footage from San Pietro) makes the observation that the four documentaries form a kind of an arc of the wartime experience: moving from the optimistic recruiting video of Winning Your Wings to the dull drudgery of everyday army life in Report from the Aleutians, the traumatizing devastation of wrecked buildings and dead bodies in The Battle of San Pietro, to the post-war continued trauma observed in Let There Be Light. Clearly, no arc would have been planned by Huston, but it adds a haunting resonance to what are already fascinating, haunting films. And in the end whatever the intent of these documentaries at the time, they make a clear demonstration of the costs of war, on the smallest, most human level.

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Kent Conrad

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