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Let There Be Light: John Huston's Wartime Documentaries

(1946) *** 1/2 Unrated
210 min. Olive Films. Director: John Huston. Cast: Walter Huston, John Huston, James Stewart.


One of the most interesting chapters in Hollywood history deals with the involvement of studios and talent in the war effort during the early 1940s. Some movie stars received deferrments or choice assignments; others served in combat. Director John Huston, coming off of his successful debut as director of The Maltese Falcon, found himself assigned to the Army Signal Corps, where—between 1942 and 1946—he made three films (and collaborated on a fourth) to document the work of the U.S. Army and support the war effort. These films and supplementary materials now find themselves gathered on Olive Films' Blu-ray release Let There Be Light: John Huston's Wartime Documentaries.

The first film in question, "Winning Your Wings" (18:19), was written and co-directed by Owen Crump, with Huston as co-director (though neither man receives credit on the film itself). Hosted by Lieutenant James Stewart of the Army Air Forces (and, by then, You Can't Take It with You and The Philadelphia Story), "Winning Your Wings" serves as a sterling example of classic propaganda. Stewart encourages men young and middle-aged to become pilots, work depicted as thrilling and glamorous and glorious. It's a straight-up recruitment film, with an emphasis put on its primary audience of male high schoolers and college students. The imagery of planes flying in formation and conquering the skies succeeds at being stirring and appealing, and Stewart's nonthreatening, avuncular presence also works its intended magic, but "Winning Your Wings" isn't distinguished by any conspicuous artfulness beyond its montage of pretty pictures and its light touch in winning the hearts and minds of young recruits.

Huston's own Report from the Aleutians (44:48) is a different story. The director spreads his wings with this 1942 film, shot on color 16mm film and with music by Dmitri Tiomkin (High Noon). Captain John Huston also wrote, edited, and narrated the film, enlisting his actor father Walter to provide the voices of officers. As promised by the title, the tack taken here is reportage, recording life at a remote Army post on Alaska's Adak Island during the Aleutian Islands Campaign. Though bombing missions are a part of daily life for the servicemen, the film focuses more on the mundane activities of life on the post, from meals to mail call. The honest depiction of the tedium of a soldier's life between engagements—and even during the flying mission that takes up nearly half of the film and provides a climax—proved a bit much for Army authorities not so interested in laying bare activities like smoke breaks and latrine digging, but after a bureaucratic delay of a couple of months, the film was passed intact. It also went on to collect an Oscar for Best Documentary Short.

"The Battle of San Pietro" (32:05) wasn't so lucky. Huston's documentary about an Italian battle that claimed 1,100 American lives was greeted by War Department officers as, in Huston's words, "rather too bitter medicine." Despite Huston's claims to the contrary, almost none of the battle-themed footage in the film is authentic, but the recreations are well-produced, and Huston's shooting strategies evince a kind of visual poetry. The overall impression is grim, especially in the unflinching inclusion of footage of dead soldiers being loaded into body bags. Those shots, in particular, and the focus on failure in general proved a bridge too far for some in the Army who tried to suppress the film on the grounds that it was anti-war. Hardly disagreeing, Huston remarked, "If I ever make a picture that's pro-war, I hope they take me out and shoot me."

Clearly, the breadth of Huston's Army Signal Corps films show a Blakian passage from innocence to experience, unquestioning jingoism to a recognition of war horrors. The last and most striking of those films—and the one that gives Olive's collection its title—is Let There Be Light (57:50), the highly regarded record of a batch of 75 U.S. servicemen entering into psychiatric treatment at Edgewood State Hospital, Deer Park, Long Island, New York, during the spring of 1945. As narrated by Walter Huston, "Twenty percent of our army casualties suffered psychoneurotic symptoms: a sense of impending disaster, hopelessness, fear, and isolation." Plain observation of the men's treatment yields disturbing imagery, of men plagued by tremors, amnesia, stuttering, babbling incoherently, or failing to walk, all resulting from conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder.

Not surprisingly, this film, too, came under fire from the Army, its release banned by the Army until 1981. But Huston's camera doesn't just capture damage; it also records articulate considerations by the men and kindly treatment by the doctors and staff, in the form of narcosynthesis, hypnosis, group therapy, music therapy, work therapy (not to mention climactic play in the form of a baseball game). The conclusion takes on an optimistic cast, with nearly all of the featured patients depicted as having their temporary conditions cured, at least enough to reenter public life and defend themselves from potential discrimination. Time has vindicated Huston's viewpoints: in addition to Let There Be Light serving as one inspiration for Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, both Let There Be Light and "San Pietro" were selected for the National Film Registry, for their importance to national history and cinema history.

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Aspect ratios: 1.32:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0

Street date: 1/19/2016

Distributor: Olive Films

John Huston's 1946 film Let There Be Light has appeared twice before on Blu-ray, once in a standard-def presentation on the disc for The Master and once in a hi-def presentation in the WWII in HD set. Olive Films' disc Let There Be Light: John Huston's Wartime Documentaries provides the best-yet presentation of the titular film, suggesting that all of these public domain films are presented here in the best...light. Obviously, video quality varies, and the films suffer from signs of age like dust, dirt, and print damage. "Winning Their Wings" looks not unlike how we're accustomed to seeing newsreels and short subjects of this vintage on HD: a bit soft but certainly filmlike; Report from the Aleutians has the weakest source, seemingly a color-faded, compromised print rather than anything like the original 16mm elements; "The Battle of San Pietro" looks more like "Winning Their Wings," though perhaps a bit more detailed; and Let There Be Light does nicely by its black-and-white image in sharpness of image and black-and-white calibration in contrast and black level.

The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtracks preserve as best they can the dated elements, which include scratchiness, pops (distractingly in Let There Be Light), and other aural artifacts. Given the muddiness of some of the documentary audio, it's a shame Olive continues not to support subtitles, especially when they're available (via the National Film Preservation Foundation) for Let There Be Light, if not the others.

The selection of bonus features can be regarded as definitive. The terrific "An Introduction" (26:14, HD), written and edited by film scholar Bret Wood, provides a thoughtful and well-researched overview of the four films and their production and reception. We also get the extant "San Pietro Raw Camera Footage" (33:01, HD) that proves through multiple takes how Huston staged scenes. And Olive also happily includes "Shades of Gray" (1:05:50, HD), the shameful but interesting alternate version of Let There Be Light, made up of awkward, unconvincing recreations of Huston's documentary footage.


Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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