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Cinema: The Disasters of Modern War

6 minute read
Richard Corliss

LET THERE BE LIGHT Directed and Written by John Huston

When “the best and the brightest” went to war against the Axis, there was no ambiguity attached to the phrase.

Many of the best fueled the American war machine with their guts and lives. Some of the brightest designed the strategy that won the war and the Bomb that ended it.

And a few heroes—John Ford, George Stevens, William Wyler, most especially John Huston—emerged from the klieg lights of Hollywood fantasy into the strobe lights of enemy strafing to record the war as artist-combatants. Ford, wounded while photographing The Battle of Midway (1942), kept on shooting and won an Oscar for his pains. Huston’s war trilogy suffered more serious casualties.

The first documentary, Report from the Aleutians (1942), included a shot of an aircraft bombsight, which was considered a military secret; the film was quickly pulled from movie theaters. San Pietro (1943-44) chronicled the battle for one ancient village in a forlorn corner of the Italian campaign; the film was chopped from five reels to three and its release delayed a year, until after V-E day. Let There Be Light (1945-46) showed the scarring effects of the war on soldiers hospitalized for shell shock; the War Department slapped a ban on it. Wrote Critic James Agee in the Nation of May 11, 1946: “I don’t know what is necessary to reverse this disgraceful decision, but if dynamite is required, then dynamite is indicated.”

Dynamite may have been required; patience was indicated. Let There Be Light remained suppressed for 35 years—until last month, when the Department of Defense finally authorized its release. There are good soldiers in peacetime too: silver stars should be awarded to Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, and Ray Stark, producer of three later Huston films, who lobbied with the Government to liberate Let There Be Light; Ron Haver of the Los Angeles County Museum, who organized the film’s first public showing; and Joseph Me Bride, whose barrage of articles in Variety cast light on the film’s splendid achievements and sorry history. This week the hour-long documentary receives its theatrical premiere at Manhattan’s Thalia theater.

Another task remains. Report from the Aleutians, San Pietro and Let There Be Light must be seen on a single program, as a single work. Each comments on, draws contrast with and enriches the others. Together they describe the arc of experience common to every foot soldier in every war: the preparation, the fighting, the hope of recovery and reconciliation.

Report is a 45-minute manual on the grunt’s first challenge: combatting boredom while he learns his job. War isn’t hell, it’s just a drag. In depicting men at work, at meals, at the meager forms of play available to them, the film seems relentlessly mundane. And so it is —if the viewer forgets that many of these youngsters, smiling or shivering or just hanging around, are marking time before an early, explosive death.

The 32-minute San Pietro begins with an Army officer uneasily informing the civilian audience that although thousands died in this particular action, “the cost in relation to the later advance was not excessive.” At strategic points in the film, Huston retreats from the carnage to outline the strategy with charts, pointers, abstract nouns, the passive voice — all the tools of military euphemism to which San Pietro’s corrosive images give the lie. Huston is aware of the absurdist irony: his camera pans up to the bombed-out cupola of the village’s 500-year-old cathedral as he intones, “Note interesting treatment of chancel.” But there is no ironist in a foxhole, or in the middle of these lost patrols. A soldier falls from enemy fire at the right of the film frame, like Brueghel’s Icarus; lifeless heads stick out of trenches as if in a Beckett play; corpses sprawl in pillboxes like discarded Raggedy Andys; men dig graves, hammer dog tags onto wood coffins, fold a comrade’s hands in prayer before wrapping him in a body bag. And at the end, when the enemy abandons the town, the people of San Pietro emerge from their caves and embrace the American soldiers who destroyed their town in order to save it.

For the participants in San Pietro — and in the hundreds of San Pietros that pocked the war — there seems only one appropriate response: madness. The glory boys have returned from battle, the cock eyed grins wiped from their faces and replaced by fretful, sidelong glances, or un ashamed tears, or no expression at all. They have not lost a limb, or a life; they have misplaced their reason, or their reason for living. They have come to a Long Island hospital in hopes of mastering simpler tasks than any taught in the Aleutians: walking, speaking, remembering, soldiering on into civilian life.

And even as disabled as they are, they display enough charm, dignity and desperation to break your heart.

“And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”

Biblical overtones reverberate through the film: in the godlike authority the men be stow on their medical-officer saviors (and on the omniscient movie camera); in the miraculous cures, some of which are accomplished in a few minutes; in the impassioned litanies of the healed patients (“I can talk! I can talk! I can talk! Oh, God, listen, I can talk!”); in Huston’s testimony that this was “the most hopeful and optimistic and even joyous thing I ever had a hand in.”

As the patients recuperated and prepared for life on the outside, so Huston’s war experience served as an eerie prophecy of his later films.

It was as if, deep in the minds of his doomed questers — from Ahab and Freud to the men who would beat the devil or be king — were both the memory and the anticipation of what happened on that Alaskan airbase, at that Italian battle, in that New York hospital. It is fitting for Huston, now 74, that a seminal document of one such quest should finally see the light. As a last happy irony, Let There Be Light may be eligible for a 1980 Academy Award. To honor the film, its maker and the men whose special heroism he recorded seems a small enough act of atonement.

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