John Huston

“Whenever I make a film that’s for war, you can take me out and shoot me.”

 

by Stacy Ketcham, Omaha Chronotype-Mercury War Correspondent in Italy*

 

Italian Colonial Exposition 1940

Buildings of the 1940 Italian Overseas Exposition before the war

December 26, 1943 With US Army 21st General Hospital, Mostra Fairgrounds, Bagnoli. Italy–Candidates for the Purple Heart in recognition of battlefield wounds in Italy will now pass in review under the eyes of no less famous a figure than Benito Mussolini. His face, substantially larger than life, is prominent in a mural at the Albanian pavilion of his 1940 Colonial Exposition, an extravaganza intended to modestly showcase his glorious achievements as Italy’s leader. The immodest number of bullet holes which mar his likeness manage to render the image pleasant enough for medical personnel to work in view of it in what is now the surgical area of an Army Hospital, and few of the soldiers they attend to take the time to look up at the man who still looks down on them.
Just three weeks ago, as the Third and Forty-fifth Infantry Divisions began crossing the Volturno River, the men and women of this hospital, more than four thousand of them, began crossing the Mediterranean, bringing with them more than three thousand crates of medical supplies and equipment, to set up shop in this new location, right outside of Naples, and only thirty miles from the front lines. This proximity relieves much of the pressure on field hospitals even closer to the front, and allows greater flexibility in determining the best treatment for urgent and critical cases.
This proximity also allows wounded men to be brought directly from the battlefield to what is literally the newest, most modern hospital in the world, And Il Duce allows these men to recover in good humor; the post-op room was originally a memorial to Italy’s brave soldiers, most of whom have now surrendered or simply discarded their uniforms and quietly gone home. No man, regardless of whether he is American, British, or any of the other nationalities now fighting with the allies in Italy, has failed to find this amusing.
Another thing every man has found amusing is discovering what knockouts some of these nurses can be. To free every available doctor for surgery, a number of nurses volunteered to learn how to administer anaesthesia. I found it reassuring to see a man wounded less than an hour earlier ask his anesthetist if she’d go out with him after he recovered. Her only reply was a smile; before she could have spoken a word, he was unconscious.

* * *

There were, of course, a number of things I couldn’t mention in this column without risk of undermining the war effort. I couldn’t say that this man, like many battlefield casualties, was in shock. Nor could I say that, like most battlefield casualties, he had not been told how badly he was wounded. If he’d been wounded before, he might have known how unusual it was for the anaesthesia to be injected into the neck, rather than an arm or a leg. But he no longer had arms and legs. That was something else I couldn’t mention.

And this is only one hospital, Erich Maria Remarque had written. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this… A hospital alone shows what war is.

I remembered that as I typed, but still sent my column.

* * *

Dusk was well upon us by the time I stepped outside. I was nominally billeted in a field hospital nurses tent a few miles away, and wondering if I should try to find a closer place to sleep for the night or hope for a ride when I noticed a jeepload of clean uniforms heading my way. Replacements going somewhere, I supposed, until they stopped in front of me. A Signal Corps Captain looked at my armband, then spoke up.

“We were in San Pietro before anybody,” he said, with the tone of a man in shell shock. “There’d been an attack and a counterattack in the night, and there were just hundreds and hundreds of dead.”

What had he expected to find after a battle, confetti? I didn’t ask, I just stood there listening to the motor of the jeep idling, and glanced at the newsreel cameras on the floor of the jeep.

“Battalion?” the driver asked, a trace of Yiddish to the question, somehow. I pointed and the jeep was moving again.

I don’t know when I finally realized I’d met John Huston that evening. Certainly not by May of 1945, when I saw the Army’s fiercely edited two-reel release of the battlefield documentary Frank Capra had sent him to film.

* * *

On the Road to San Pietro

US Tank destroyed attempting to enter San Pietro

How do you create the cinematic documentation of a battle when you weren’t there until the battle was over, and the first thing you find when you do arrive is hundreds and hundreds of dead? Of course, a critic, particularly if he’s never directed a movie or been anywhere near a battlefield littered with corpses, many of them fragmentary, will say you fabricate the whole thing. Yes, anyone can recognize that John Huston’s The Battle of San Pietro was a re-enactment, for the most part, with no particular effort made to capture realism in the scenes depicting the battles. Even the men shot in the five-reel original were staging their deaths. The only aspect of the film which was genuine and even in the least candid was the part Huston experienced personally on the first morning of filming. The corpses, even when repositioned for effect, or to keep the grotesquely distorted faces, if they were American, out of view, were absolutely real. They were not extras, they were the stars of the film, and Huston, editing either version, must have calculated how much carnage could be tolerated by the typical audience without blunting their sensitivity to what they were being shown, and how much of this brutal depiction of a brutal reality was necessary to validate his own statement, as the movie approaches its close, “These lives were valuable–valuable to their loved ones, to their country, and to the men themselves.”

* * *

The officers for whom Huston screened his original edit all walked out in quick succession, but George Marshall, who had to concern himself not only with morale, but also with the more difficult issues of desertion and combat fatigue, decided that a shorter edit of Huston’s stark depiction of battle would be an appropriate training film. Marshall was pleased by this version of the film, with a brief introduction by General Mark Clark, and Huston was promoted to Major.

* * *

The wind and snow on Christmas Eve were answers to prayer. Everyone’s prayer. The Germans–those still alive–were glad of something to cover their retreat. And those Americans still alive were glad of the excuse to let them slip away. The battle per se of San Pietro had been over for a week, and the 3rd Infantry was taking up forward positions in relief of what remained of the 36th. There had been a flood of T-patchers in the field hospital, and from those able and willing to talk, I’d pieced together a story that still needed a lot of window dressing and white washing before it could be typed up and cabled home.

Essentially, the Germans had built their own little Maginot Line from Lincoln Logs. A series of fortified foxholes with nearly perfect defilade and concealment, protected by alternating layers of barbed wire and land mines. Further, each of these could only be approached by a single man scraping his short hairs in the mud. Covering fire could be provided, but only carefully; more of his boots and buttocks were exposed to that fire than the whole of the German position. As I said, there were a vast series of these strung along the mountainside, interlocking in a pattern something like the teeth of a circular ripsaw. The flank had to be turned, and the 143rd Regiment had begun doing that in early December, scaling a mountainside in the face of mortar and machine gun fire which could excoriate the landscape without being aimed. The Germans knew the Americans were there. When that mountainside had been secured, and this in a relative sense, the assault itself began, one American at a time, approaching each in this series of small fortifications, until somebody was lucky enough to get a grenade in before another man had to pull him back, wounded or killed. You can imagine that casualties were high, but even I had not imagined how high.

* * *

I’d been to Mass that morning with the 100th Battalion; Japanese Americans from Hawaii, attached to the 36th. From the small number there, I’d assumed that only a few of them were Catholic.

Technically, the 36th was still at the front, but through the good offices of the 3rd Division and cooperation of the momentarily defeated Germans, the front was moving away, allowing the T-patchers to enjoy their Christmas dinner of C-rations on the hood of a jeep, or to gather around an impromptu Christmas tree chosen from among the myriad fragments of trees scattered by two weeks of uninterrupted combat. Their trees were decorated with strips of their C-ration’s foil packaging, usually discarded, but now kept and carefully torn to form tinsel garland.

In the early evening, as darkness became definite, I noticed four candles at the opening of several tents knotted together at the grommets, forming a shelter large enough for half a dozen men to gather. I went to it.

“Are you Jewish, Ma’am?” one of the Texans asked.

“My mother was.”

“Then I guess you are.” He tapped a wooden board, covered by a surprisingly clean white cloth. As I sat where he had indicated, each of the boys pushed a few of their piled M&Ms toward me. Then the one who had greeted me handed me the dreidel.

* * *

“Are you the reporter, Ma’am?” a voice behind me asked. The Jewish soldiers and I had been pushing M&Ms back forth for about an hour.

“Yes,” I said, turning around to see an NCO from Divisional HQ.

“You’ve had clerical experience?”

“Yes,” I said, now getting up. The two of us left, and he led me toward a jeep cleaner than most I’d seen that day. We sat in it.

“A battalion clerk has a problem,” he said. “You might be able to help, if you’re willing.”

“Yes, of course.”

We drove further from the front. Perhaps ten minutes, arriving at a farm building labeled as Bn HQ. He led me inside, where I saw a clerk, his head resting on a typewriter, weeping profusely. I wouldn’t have believed a clerk this far from the front could have combat fatigue, but that’s exactly what it looked like. There were packages piled up, filling nearly three-quarters of the office.

“You need help delivering these?” I asked.

“No Ma’am,” the driver said. “We need you to draw a line through the address of each one, and mark it KIA.”

I was on the floor, sitting, wondering if I’d fainted. Amid the fog, slowly dispersing it, I heard President Roosevelt, his voice crackling on the radio.

“We ask that God receive and cherish those who have given their lives, and that He keep them in honor and in the grateful memory of their countrymen forever. God bless all of you who fight our battles on this Christmas Eve.”

I reached up. The driver handed me a pen.

“Thank you, Ma’am.”

I nodded. He left as I grabbed the first package. The clerk was still weeping over his typewriter when I finished, just past dawn, my hand stiff and fingers numb.

* * *

When the 36th Infantry Division returned to the front line in January, 1944, 80% of its men had been in the Division less than two weeks.

 

 

 

*This is actually an excerpt from Stacy Danielle Stephens amazing WW2 magnum opus, very intimately linked to this post.

Advertisements

When Bad Propaganda is Good

John Huston

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.

The Battle of San Pietro Still

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.