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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Let There Be Light: John Huston's Wartime Documentaries (Blu-ray)
Let There Be Light: John Huston's Wartime Documentaries (Blu-ray)
Olive Films // Unrated // January 19, 2016 // Region A
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted February 12, 2016 | E-mail the Author
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First, a word of caution: Let There Be Light: John Huston's Wartime Documentaries is listed as region-free on the packaging but, my copy at least, was Region A encoded.

During the Second World War producers like Hal Roach and directors like John Ford, William Wyler, and John Huston aided the Allied war effort creating propaganda films for the First Motion Picture Unit and other divisions of the Armed Forces. Huston's final two wartime films, San Pietro (also known as The Battle of San Pietro, 1945), and the 1946 Let There Be Light are particularly famous, as they respectively revealed aspects of combat and "psychoneurotics" (post-traumatic stress disorder) that the military brass wasn't particularly keen to highlight. It took the intervention of Gen. George Marshall for San Pietro to be shown, which he regarded as an honest tool in preparing training soldiers for combat.

Let There Be Light was shelved and banned entirely, replaced with a homogenized remake using actors, Shades of Gray. A late-1960s screening with Huston in attendance at the Museum of Modern Art was halted at the last minute when military police confiscated the film, ludicrously claiming it violated the privacy of its on-camera subjects. It remained suppressed until at least 1977, when the ban was finally lifted.

There is a tendency to under- or overrate these films. Let There Be Light is superb, revelatory for its time and place, and the others have value unique to each production. Taken as a whole, the four films - the other two are Winning Your Wings (1942) and Report from the Aleutians (1943) - serve as a microcosm of changing attitudes toward the wartime experience and that arc is itself pretty fascinating.

Olive Films' Blu-ray, presented in cooperation with The National Archives and The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, offers the quartet of titles in the best available condition along with several essential extra features.

The 18-minute Winning Your Wings, essentially a recruiting film for the Army Air Corps (the Air Force's predecessor) and produced at Warner Bros., lacks Huston's auteurism but does an amazingly persuasive job selling every aspect of the enlistment process and the various positions needing able-bodied young men. By the end you'd be crazy not to sign up! Reportedly, 150,000 men did just that, and the picture includes exit music, suggesting the house lights probably came up to allow young men to enlist there and then.

Lieutenant James Stewart is an ideal on-camera host. A bona fide hero by war's end, he piloted 20 credited sorties and flew in many more anonymously, so he brings real weight to the proceedings. Slickly produced, of the four it most resembles a big studio Hollywood production with many Warner contractees masquerading as potential recruits, including Don DeFore, Charles Drake, and Bill Kennedy.

What it never once even hints at is the risk of life-changing injury or death, or capture as a P.O.W. Rather, Winning Your Wings makes even being a tail-gunner seem like the most glamorous, important job the world has ever known, and that wings on a uniform are a sure-fire chick-magnet.

Huston's next film, Report to the Aleutians completely demolishes the notion of a high adventure, the 45-minute film instead focusing on the tense but boring daily life of a soldier stationed in such godforsaken but strategically vital locales as treeless Adak Island. According to the accompanying introduction (best viewed after watching all four films) the army wanted to cut the film in half, to just two-reels, but Huston had it screened for the trades, who in applauding its verisimilitude of army life, ensured Huston's cut would remain untouched.

San Pietro is notable for its gritty, front-lines battle footage, often using hand-cameras - almost all of which was recreated by Huston after the battle had been decided. Nevertheless, the footage is so well done that the real and the unreal blur unperceptively. More intriguingly, the 32-minute San Pietro may be the only officially sanctioned film to unflinchingly show dead soldiers, lifeless corpses gingerly repositioned into white body bags. Magazines like LIFE occasionally photographed fallen soldiers, and of course footage taken by the Armed Forces later turned up in documentaries like Thames Television's epic The World at War, but for 1945 audiences, soldiers and civilians alike, this most have been gut-wrenching.

Let There Be Light is Huston's documentary masterpiece. Though it follows certain wartime/early-postwar propaganda tropes, mostly it's an honest plea for understanding and compassion for post-traumatic stress and related combat mental illnesses. The film follows 75 servicemen, focusing on a half-dozen or so, through a six-to-eight week course of psychiatric treatment. Some suffer from severe stammering, others paralysis and, in the 56-minute film's most dramatic moment, a soldier unable to speak is overwhelmed with emotion when a sodium pentothal-like I.V. allows him to talk once again.

(Ironically, the straight-shooting, heroic psychiatrist at the center of the picture, Dr. Benjamin Simon, is best remembered today as the man who hypnotized and examined alleged UFO abductees Barney and Betty Hill.)

Video & Audio

As might be expected, the four films are in varying shape, with Let There Be Light happily looking best, in almost perfect condition. San Pietro and Winning Your Wings are acceptable, while Report from the Aleutians, unlike the 35mm black-white of the other three was filmed in 16mm color reversal stock, blown-up to 35mm, and reduced again to 16mm for this master. No subtitles or alternate audio, and as noted above, though listed as region-free, would not play on my player until I reset it for Region A.

Extra Features

Supplements consist of a 26-minute introduction that hits all the salient points but should only be viewed after watching the four films. That featurette includes raw camera footage from San Pietro that definitively proves the battle action staged, while the nearly laughable Shades of Gray (the reworked Let There Be Light) is included in its entirety.

Final Thoughts

Essential viewing, Let There Be Light: John Huston's Wartime Documentaries is a DVD Talk Collector Series title.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His new documentary and latest audio commentary, for the British Film Institute's Blu-ray of Rashomon, is now available.

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