Review by Robert T. Trate
Starring: James Stewart, Walter Huston
Directed by: John Huston
Running time: 281 minutes
Year of release: 1942-1946
World War II documentaries are certainly nothing new. The era has been examined over and over again as a turning point in not just the American Culture, but in shaping the world. There are so many now, that it is practically impossible to find one that does retread something you don’t already know. Enter into the picture Let There Be Light: John Huston’s Wartime Documentaries. John Huston, the director of The Maltese Falcon, joined the Army Signal Corps with the intention to help rally the troops with patriotic short films, which is the vein of his first one, featuring Jimmy Stewart, called Winning Your Wings. However, as Huston began to live with these men, on a day-to-day basis, he saw that war was not that a glamorous thing that motion pictures and writers have made it into. As his chronicling of the American soldier continued, Huston time and time again met with opposition about his pictures. Imagine the worst studio head possible (Uncle Sam), and know that you have to sell War Bonds (tickets) with these pictures. This brings us to the pinnacle of Houston’s war time documentaries, Let There Be Light. Ironically, that film features soldiers coming home from war and, until last year, was still classified by the US government.
The urge to see anything that was deemed classified and is now not, is too strong to resist. I tackled Olive Films’ release of all of John Huston’s war documentaries in their chronological order. What I found was a story of war that doesn’t end with John Wayne dying gloriously for his country, or the crew of the Memphis Belle celebrating making it home. This was something very different.
This combination of 281 minutes of pre, during, and post war time footage does really play like a modern American film. Winning Your Wings is your opening bright-eyed hero off to fight the good fight. Report from the Aleutians is war at a distance, with bombing raids and extreme conditions. The war is close but not in your face, yet. San Pietro is the reality of war. There aren’t just good guys and bad guys, but people stuck in between. When we finally get home, Let There Be Light shows that not everyone was met at the dock by their sweethearts. If any film comes even close to it, it would be The Best Years of Our Lives.
The first three documentaries have been readily available for years. In fact, despite numerous military personal condemning Huston’s initial cut of San Pietro, a conflict in Italy, all have been praised and shown to the troops for years. As you know by now, Let There Be Light is the exception. The “reason” the film became classified was that it was deemed an invasion of privacy by the US government, a fact that was disputed by John Huston as he had consent from all 70 of these men profiled after the war for an 8 to 10 week stay at a medical facility for neuropsychiatric treatments. In one respect you can understand why the government, which may have thought, post WW2, that a conflict with the Communists was unavoidable, that showing new soldiers the possible mental horrors they could face was not the best propaganda tool. Yet in seeing the Let There Be Light now, it honesty is right there for all to see. War is not a glamorous thing. It is ugly and brings out the worst in people. What the government may have forgotten or chose to ignore were the nurses and doctors that kept fighting to bring those men home all the way. Their bodies may have survived, but their minds and souls needed repairing, too.
Documentaries can be a tad dull from time to time. They are more a collection of facts or a perspective presented by the filmmaker. Olive Films’ release of Let There Be Light: John Huston’s Wartime Documentaries is an incredible release that shines a light on how one filmmaker decided to tell a story about how he saw World War 2. I recommend this collection for anyone that says they have seen it all about the war. John Huston clearly shined a light from 1942 to 1946 that still burns brightly and it is one we all need to see.
San Pietro: Raw Camera Footage (32:58)
Shades of Grey (re-cut US Government approved version of Let There Be Light, 1:05:46)
Order Let There Be Light: John Huston’s Wartime Documentaries here at Olive Films.