Let There Be Light: John Huston’s Wartime Documentaries
When John Huston went to war he took his mission seriously… as an artist. He made four wartime docus for the army. San Pietro and the long suppressed Let There Be Light are the classics we studied in film school; Winning Your Wings is typical enlistment booster material and Report from the Aleutians a remarkably good record of how the war was really fought in far-flung locations.
Let There Be Light: John Huston’s Wartime Documentaries
Color and B&W
1:33 flat full frame
Street Date January 19, 2016
available through the Olive Films website
Directed by John Huston
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Of the Hollywood directors who ‘went to war’ and made high-profile Signal Corps films for the public, John Huston was surely the most innovative. He made one enlistment booster for the Army Air Corps and then three pictures that the Army thought were either too long, too pessimistic, or simply too intense/disturbing for distribution to the general public or for Army personnel. The Signal Corps showed John Ford’s squirm-inducing Sexual Hygiene to hundreds of thousands of troops; it now plays as a camp riot. William Wyler’s protégé John Sturges made Thunderbolt near the end of the war; it was decreed too bloodthirsty and went unreleased for over two years.
In short, Major John Huston took his mission seriously, and tried to make pictures that showed the truth of the conflict from angles other than the ‘morale building’ norm. Let There Be Light: John Huston’s Wartime Documentaries collects Huston’s four major wartime pictures (leaving out his contribution to Frank Capra’s Tunisian Victory) on a single Blu-ray disc, with a good extra video featurette to help explain them in context.
Winning your Wings (1943) is a good place to start because it exemplifies the typical war propaganda film (in the good sense) at its best. It’s a high-pressure sales job to entice young college men to enlist in the Army Air Corps. Patriotism is emphasized but also the perks of being a fly-boy in a girl-bait uniform, with wings on one’s chest. Staged scenes show a new recruit saying goodbye to the folks and then his blonde babe girlfriend from next door. The uniform seems to be the big draw at the dance, where hot number Dolores Moran (To Have and Have Not) makes a beeline to a handsome young aviator. Host James Stewart, himself succumbing to P.R. duty before shipping out, downplays the aw-shucks mannerisms in favor of a wink-wink sales job that says, “I can’t say out loud what this will do for your love life.”
Huston put together the 18-minute show in conjunction with seasoned short subject director Owen Crump. The script doesn’t show any particular Huston influence, either. At the time, Huston had a reputation for mischief that was one or two scandals short of Playboy of the Western World status. An original wild card, he didn’t mind turning a film assignment into a prank. His last feature before shipping out was Across the Pacific. It sounds apocryphal, but corroborating testimony appears to bear out the fact that Huston took the job knowing he’d have to leave it before filming was finished. He then made sure that his relief director (Vincent Sherman) would be left with the big problem of a final scene in which no logical story resolution seemed possible. Huston did take his wartime films more seriously.
Winning Your Wings is presented in an excellent transfer from a studio vault; a couple of scratches appear on the titles and that’s it. I suppose it would make a fine short subject to screen with Stewart’s later jingoistic Strategic Air Command, or in a more ironic mode, the pessimistic The Flight of the Phoenix.
With 1942’s Report from the Aleutians the director becomes more personally involved. He did spend some time in those windswept Northern Pacific islands where thousands of soldiers and airmen fought a particularly un-glamorous sideshow battle against the Japanese. The 47-minute picture goes over the topography of the land, while the images show the Americans trying to keep their makeshift airfields operating in all kinds of bad weather. The obvious Huston contribution is the rough-sounding but poetic narration, which admires the young airmen without the sticky sentimentality heard in John Ford’s Navy pictures. We believe that Huston might have been on-site, rather than supervising his cameramen (notably the director’s close collaborator Jules Buck) while taking notes in a screening room back in a studio. With its emphasis on the non-glamorous reality of real military service — the buxom babes of Winning Your Wings are conspicuously absent — Aleutians is an excellent depiction of the war experience. Producer Stanley Rubin did his war service as a flier in the Aleutians, and told me that he thought Huston’s film was accurate.
Some great WW2 documentaries don’t look as good as they once did because of the way they were filmed and printed. There was no reliable professional mono-pack color film in the early 1940s, so the AAC shot millions of feet of 16mm Kodachrome reversal. The same as old 8mm home movies, it produced a high contrast positive for screening, and no negative. The color quality was excellent but it was too slow for filming at night. Technicolor Hollywood made 35mm blow-up separations from the 16mm original, and then used Technicolor printing to make the dupes look as good as possible.
I’ve seen original 35mm Technicolor prints of Edward Steichen and William Wyler’s The Fighting Lady, which look incredibly good — slightly soft, with colors that bleed a bit, but really good. I haven’t seen a decent print of Report from the Aleutians. Olive’s copy may be the best there is: slightly murky and soft, with muted colors. The diminished quality might be even more understandable, if what we see is a 16mm reduction from the 35mm enlargement. It’s still good enough to appreciate the shots of Consolidated Liberator bombers, Bell Airacobras, and Lockheed Lightnings.
Aleutians won John Huston an Oscar but his best-known WW2 docu by far is 1945’s San Pietro (aka The Battle of San Pietro), a from-the-battlefield account of the U.S. Army’s grueling struggle against the Germans in Italy. Huston’s given mission was to record the suffering and resilience of the Italian people, but that aspect is reduced to a sentimental opening and closing, that evokes Christian imagery backed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
For years San Pietro was taken as bona fide combat footage. It’s rather embarrassing personally to admit that I accepted this claim at face value in film school. Not only does the show carry a disclaimer saying that some things were staged, the nature of the shots are a dead giveaway that scenes were recreated before and after the battle. It is possible that almost combat scenes were filmed during actual firefights. Huston personally arrived in the Liri Valley on Dec. 16, the final day of the battle. Real you-are-there combat footage, as was shot in the Pacific theater, is harrowing in its immediacy, with ragged hand-held angles, sometimes shot through blurry foreground grass. Some of the most memorable images from Guadalcanal are actually out of focus — a wounded man half-falling, half-dragged into a ditch, action caught, or just missed on the edge of the frame, that sort of thing.
Time and again in San Pietro we see well-composed images of men crawling as explosions burst in the background. There are some impressive handheld shots, with long lenses and shallow focus, and they may have been taken in the thick of battle. One angle makes it seem as if the cameraman were jolted by an explosion close by. Huston or his cameramen may have picked up on those qualities to fake the realism, but that seems highly unlikely. Neither Huston nor his editor Gene Fowler Jr. used such devices in their later features.
More than a thousand lives were lost to advance just a short distance. The victory was so costly that it almost seems a defeat. John Huston again impresses us with his intelligent, insightful narration and his honest willingness to depict the heavy losses to our forces. The Army kept San Pietro from general release, reportedly because they thought it wouldn’t contribute to the war effort. It was difficult enough to attract new conscripts without a show like Huston’s that depicts miserable combat casualties, followed by burial services. Even as finally released, the film was reportedly heavily edited. It is said that one deleted montage contrasted the smiling faces of fresh troops with images of battlefield corpses. That sounds a little heavy-handed… maybe.
This film has survived in great condition, and has appeared on earlier DVD collections of important archive holdings.
The only war film by Huston that can be said to have been actually suppressed is his Let There Be Light (1946), a truly important and progressive document of the psychic price paid by combat soldiers. The 1940s were still the dark ages for mental health awareness; soldiers that crumbled under fire were labeled cowards, and those that really folded up from the stress were considered mental weaklings. But the armed forces were very aware of syndromes variously called shellshock and battle fatigue, and a serious effort was made in the military medical corps to rehabilitate these soldiers in a non-punitive manner.
Huston’s film stages scenes like the arrival of the selected study group, a baseball game and shots of nurses waving. But its core material shows the filmmakers to be aware of the difference between true and false reportage, and attempting to document an objective truth. Huston set up two cameras on opposite sides of the interview table. A psychotherapist counsels his select group of impaired vets, and makes use of hypnotism. One man can’t speak, another is stricken with involuntary spasms, and others appear to be lost in a bottomless depression. The doctors speak to their patients with respect, urging them to work through their feelings of helplessness, shame and anguish. Some of the soldiers are more articulate than others. One of the subjects is an ‘ordinary’ black man, and Huston affords him equal status with his peers. For 1945, shamefully enough, that fact would probably make the movie Not Suitable For General Audiences.
The testimony is always moving and occasionally devastating. I believe that in 1945 the average person didn’t have the camera awareness that many people have today, after living our lives watching the deportment of people on TV. Bystanders on the local news intuit how to ‘perform’ for the camera, while participants in Reality TV are compelled to behave outrageously, as if their fifteen minutes of fame were an audition for stardom. A ‘Rupert Pupkin’ effect can kick in – many people suddenly muster a photogenic personality when a lens is stuck in their face.
I think the behaviors of the soldiers in Let There Be Light are 99.9% unaffected by the presence of the camera. They’re too busy wrestling with their problems to be additionally self-conscious. The film’s most jolting moment occurs when, through hypnosis or a calming drug (I forget which), a soldier who couldn’t stammer out two syllables recovers the power of speech. He’s so emotional that the doctor has difficulty calming him down: “Oh my God I can talk, I can talk again!” It’s as if he’s rediscovered a lost hope and can now rejoin the living. It’s one of the most intensely human moments I’ve seen in any movie.
The Army pretty much locked Let There Be Light away for thirty years… we wanted to see it in film school and had to be satisfied with the reports of the few critics and academics that had seen it. The Army has always been portrayed as the villain in suppressing the film. Even John Huston complained when scheduled screenings were canceled at museums and film festivals. It’s easy to see the Army deciding that the movie sent messages unconstructive to their agenda — mainly that combat stress is less likely to make you a hero than to seriously f___ you up. The Army took some of Huston’s footage and made their own, ‘everything’s ducky’ version of the same story. What’s good is that Huston’s original cut of Let There Be Light was retained intact.
But the Army’s given reason for not distributing the film makes ethical sense — privacy issues. Huston asserts that he got releases from the soldiers before filming them, therefore he’s in the clear. But some or all of those men were clearly incapable of giving consent in the proper frame of mind. If Huston obtained consent after the fact this might be different, maybe. But the Army could have been sincere in its desire to protect the privacy of medical patients. Mental Illness has always carried a severe social stigma. Now is bad enough, but in 1945 anybody with a ‘problem’ could routinely be made a pariah. In the schools in the 1960s, I remember kids with even minor speech or motor problems being afforded little real sympathy from students or teachers. This ethical issue is much more crucial today.
This film is also in excellent condition.
Olive Films’ Blu-ray of Let There Be Light: John Huston’s Wartime Documentaries is a thoughtful, respectful packaging of these impressive movies. It should attract viewers interested in combat reality; for students of the documentary form it would be essential viewing. As stated above, three of the four pictures are in excellent condition, while Report from the Aleutians looks better than I’ve seen it elsewhere. We think of John Huston as a gambling wild man, a bull in the Hollywood china shop who lived on charm and talent and never looked back. He had barely begun his directing career when the war hit, and by the end of the conflict he was using film in experimental ways that clearly did not please the Army powers-that-be.
John’s father Walter Huston provides narration and various voices for some of the films. Dimitri Tiomkin reportedly composed scores for the last three. A co-writer on Let There Be Light was Charles Kaufman, who collaborated with Huston again on his 1962 feature film Freud.
Olive includes An Introduction, an overview featurette on the four films. Writer Bret Wood may narrate as well; he sketches the basic facts, adds interesting observations and includes audio excerpts from later speaking engagements by John Huston. Here’s where we learn that Huston filmed some scenes for Aleutians from storyboards. In Let There Be Light the interview cameras were left running unmanned. The cameramen exited, so not to distract the doctor and his patient.
Two other extras are essential to studying the films as documentaries. The self-explanatory San Pietro: Raw Camera Footage is 33 minutes of proof that almost everything in the show was cleverly staged. Shades of Gray is the Army’s final docu feature (66 minutes) filmed to take the place of Let There Be Light.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Let There Be Light: John Huston’s Wartime Documentaries Blu-ray rates:
Video: three Excellent; one Fair + / Good —
Supplements: raw footage, introduction, extra feature documentary (see above).
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 17, 2016
Visit DVD Savant’s Main Column Page
Glenn Erickson answers most reader mail:
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson