John Huston is best known for directing Hollywood classics ranging from The Maltese Falcon to Annie, but perhaps his most interesting films are three that were shot at the behest of the US army during the Second World War. The Army Signal Corps requested a series of propaganda films, which Huston duly filmed… and which were then released only in a limited way, never really used during the war effort.
Perhaps the least controversial of the three was Report from the Aleutians, which was reasonably aligned with what the government wanted, but was delayed by Huston’s portrayal of Army life as monotonous – not a particularly welcome message for a wartime propaganda film, obviously. It can be viewed in its entirety, here.
The most surprising thing about Let There Be Light is that it was allowed to be filmed in the first place. 1946 was hardly a time to focus on the “nervous condition” and treatment of veterans. It brought to light a whole raft of issues that are only really being taken seriously today, and which were extremely unwelcome in the dawning light of the cold war. The one unsurprising chapter in its history is that it was banned by the Army until 1981. It can be viewed here.
The final film is, by far, the most interesting of the three. It is called The Battle of San Pietro, and was filmed during and immediately following the battle of the same name, during the Italian campaign.
As a film that documents a victory for the Allies, this one could have been (it is arguable that it should have been, as that was what he was being paid for, after all) a paean to the justice of the Allied cause and an ode to the heroism of its troops and to the inevitability of victory when one took into account the combined virtues of justice and heroism.
But Huston, unlike his Nazi counterpart, documentary genius Leni Reifenstahl, decided not to obey his masters’ commands to the letter. He let an evident love for truth in documentary filmmaking overrun his assignment, and showed just how hard-fought the victory had been. Dead GIs are not something one normally expects from a film meant to raise US morale, nor is the effect of the war on civilian populations… but they are present. The film was released, in 1945 (though some troops saw it in 1944), and eventually even allowed to be called a classic in its own right (and by far the most famous of Huston’s wartime work), but it was a close-run thing. Curious people can watch it here.
Perhaps the fact that Huston could do this kind of thing and still get promoted means that the correct side won the war. The fact that he wasn’t sent to Siberia or executed without trial for disobeying the spirit, if not the letter, of his contract makes these films even more valuable today.
The fact that both of the above were a close-run thing… bears thinking about.