“Let There Be Light”: John Huston’s Journey into Psychic Darkness

John Huston in the mid 40s.

ONE

The Book of Genesis 1:3 command, “Let There Be Light,” that serves as the title of the last of John Huston’s trilogy of World War II documentaries, may have promised psychic illumination for battle damaged soldiers, but the film itself leaves emotional scars on viewers today—nearly 65 years after it was made.

When completed in 1946, Huston scheduled the film’s premiere at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The US Army’s Signal Corps, the commissioning agency, confiscated the print before the screening could take place. Let There Be Light remained unseen until a coalition of Hollywood filmmakers and studio executives persuaded the Army to release it in 1981, where it was finally shown at the Cannes Film Festival and New York’s legendary repertory cinema, the Thalia. The reason for the 35-year ban according to official reports is because the Army insisted that the privacy of interviewed soldiers must be protected. Huston equally insisted that all the men and their families had signed releases. When he tried to secure the documented papers—they had all mysteriously disappeared; the Army refused to obtain new releases.

Of the major Hollywood feature film directors who served in the military and who made propaganda films during the war (John Ford, George Stevens, Frank Capra, William Wyler), John Huston was the most junior in experience. His 1941 proto-noir film, The Maltese Falcon, his first directing job, promised a quick-rise career on the home front. The following year, however, he enlisted in the Army and after a brief stint at a desk job in Washington he began to make films for the Signal Corps, films that later would be understood as an interlocked trilogy: documentary films that in many ways paralleled the importance of Rossellini’s war trilogy, seminal films of Italian Neo-realism:

John’s Bailiwick: “Roberto Rossellini and World War II: Part One” link

The first of the Huston triad, Report from the Aleutians, (the only one in color) documents the strategic importance of the Aleutian Islands—especially the airstrip on Adak, with its proximity to Japan—in establishing a barrier against Tokyo’s drive to control the Pacific.

The Signal Corps initially resisted Huston’s intimately rendered portrait of American servicemen serving in a far-flung outpost. But the director’s fight to graft a human face onto war was acknowledged by AMPAS by nominating it as best documentary of 1944. Its close-up look at American airmen has the dramatic dimension of a feature film.

The second film, Battle of San Pietro, follows the fight to liberate the small Italian town of San Pietro Infine, situated between Naples and Rome. Its battle scenes, with one of the cameras said to have been operated by Huston himself, graph the inch-by-inch horrors of war fought within civilian enclaves.

General Mark Clark introduces the film in a pre-emptive effort to assure the audience that the human cost of the battle was worth it. The ironic narration is established early on—a panning shot of the bombed out dome of the Church of Saint Peter features the line, “Note interesting treatment of the chancel.”

The third film, Let There Be Light, follows a group of 75 soldiers over a several months period as they undergo psychiatric treatment at the huge Long Island Mason Hospital. Huston’s cameras are present at interviews and during drug and electro-shock sessions. The scenes using this latter technique, still new at the time, were dropped from the final cut. The film unfolds in a near classic Hollywood three act structure, with the final scenes showing “cured” soldiers playing baseball, intercut with flashback cuts of them seen when severely traumatized. Clearly, the intention of the Army was for this film to be accepted by Americans as an assurance that broken mens’ bodies and spirits can and will be restored, that they will be successfully re-integrated into civilian society. The reality of their treatment was, however, often only a palliative, the underlying trauma embedded in their psyches, lingering for years or even for life.

TWO

Decades later, seen from the perspective of a society all too familiar with what is now called PTSD, it is facile to criticize the film and its seeming belief in hard-core Freudianism. Much of the film’s criticism that I have read while researching this piece seems to me to be from the lofty perspective of contemporary insight. Movies, especially documentaries, are a reflection of their time. The technical and stylistic tropes that came out of direct cinema and cinema verite in the 60s make the traditional style of Let There Be Light seem hopelessly contrived. An invisible presence of motion picture cameras was impossible to create in 1946. Huston was filming with the equipment and in the style of mainstream Hollywood films. Two of the five cinematographers were studio stalwarts: Joe Jackman and Stanley Cortez. Cortez was noted for his dramatic camera angles and lighting (having photographed Welles’s Magnificent Ambersons and later, Night of the Hunter). Cortez placed multiple cameras in group scenes as well as in the more intimate one on one interviews conducted by staff psychiatrists. Some critics have suggested that this multi-camera coverage was proof that the scenes were manipulated, especially the five individual interviews featured early in the film.

Interview #3.

I have looked at these scenes carefully from the perspective of a cinematographer. I believe that they were photographed in real time, possibly with three cameras, or only two, if the camera covering the patient had a quick rotation turret with preset- focus and F-stops for close-up coverage. The principal set-ups were two simultaneous complementary over the shoulder shots; the size and angles seemed to be similar throughout all the interviews. A separate session showing a soldier who had been injected with sodium amathol could easily have been made with multiple cameras as well.

One of the things that may be disconcerting to a contemporary viewer is the degree of visual control the film exhibits: controlled compositions, dramatic lighting (by Cortez, using hard-light studio units) and even lateral and z-axis dolly shots. This menu of classical cinema techniques and the skepticism of many contemporary critics as to its “honesty” cause me to consider what may have happened to our sense of film grammar. Not only are documentary techniques more spontaneous and rough edged today, but a certain revisionist aesthetic has infected the very nature of film grammar. Shaky camera, out of focus shots, snap zooms, mis-framing, bad exposures, all have become elements of a new glossary of filmmaking “integrity.” It doesn’t apply just to documentaries but has been adopted with enthusiasm by some feature film directors and cinematographers. A look at this year’s Oscar contender (as an arbitrary example), Fair Game, frames an intense domestic drama by two great actors with a camera style that seems well beyond iPhone video in its quest for “reality.” So, one of the questions for me in considering how to approach watching Let There Be Light is: does the camera style itself obviate your consideration of the film as a valid historical document? Does Dmitri Tiomkin’s musical score exacerbate credibility, especially its faux-Elgar march as the soldiers receive their discharge papers, or its cheery “Bears in the Park” tag as they drive away from the hospital in a bus?

THREE

I first saw Let There Be Light in 1965 at USC film school in a badly duped, pirated print. We ran it in the dead of night after class hours, when faculty oversight was already home in bed. The shadow of the still nascent Vietnam War was looming over my generation as WWII had over Huston’s—but for us there was none of that Greatest generation’s conviction of a fight to save civilization. The Foster Dulles/McNamara political myth of the “domino theory” and the epithet “Colossus of Communism” had few believers among us. The psychic damage that was about to be inflicted on our generation’s draft era soldiers lay yet in the future. One can’t help but wonder if the continuing censorship of the Huston film during the 60s may have been deemed crucial to the military leaders and Congressional hawks trying to foist off the Vietnam war on a generation more interested in free love and cheap dope. For those of us who saw the film back then, it was not just another film to study, an aesthetic abstraction to be critiqued for its formal merits and demerits and stylistic tics; it was a real life cautionary tale of what would happen to us.

The opening scrolling legend reads, “About 20% of all battle casualties in the American Army during World War II were of a neuropsychiatric nature.” In fact, the working title of the film was The Returning Psychoneurotics. The Book of Genesis title must have seemed more uplifting to the Army elite.

As if to answer future critics questioning the veracity of the film, the legend continues, “No scenes were staged. The cameras merely recorded what took place in an Army hospital.” The officer who conducts the orientation for the assembled soldiers informs them, “There is no need to be alarmed at the presence of these cameras, as they are making a photographic record of your progress at this hospital from the date of admission to the date of discharge.”

Huston wrote in his autobiography An Open Book that:

“the cameras ran continuously, one on the patient and one on the doctor. We shot thousands of feet of film... just to be sure of getting the extraordinary and completely unpredictable exchanges that sometimes occurred... As the men began to recover, they accepted the cameras as an integral part of their treatment.”

Amazon.com—Open Book link

Healing Hands.

The oft-cited accusation that miracles seem to happen awfully quickly in the film’s drug sessions belies the reality of how much footage was actually shot by Huston and how much editorial compression of time was necessary. Huston is, after all, a director of drama. On a personal level for Huston, there is compelling evidence that his experience of emotional engagement with so many traumatized men did mark his Hollywood filmmaking themes from then on. Before the war, there had been a perception of Huston as an overconfident Hollywood brat, a brashly glib screenwriter, the privileged son of a famous character actor. All of that changed after his war films. Many of his subsequent films center on flawed, psychically and physically damaged anti-heroes who embody traits of existential ennui, paranoia and betrayal. Consider The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, The Asphalt Jungle and The Red Badge of Courage—the principal films he made in the years immediately following the war. Moulin Rouge and Moby Dick are stories of physically damaged men who are also exemplars of paranoia. And his later film Reflections in a Golden Eye is a disturbing portrait of the mentally damaged Maj. Penderton, an Army officer well down the path of psychic disintegration.

Then there is Freud: The Secret Passion, the film that Huston made in 1961. It contains scenes that are near re-creations of interviews in Let There Be Light. In George Steven Jr.’s book of conversations with filmmakers he quotes Huston speaking of his abiding interest in Freud:

I first got into that through an experience in a hospital during the war, where I made a documentary about patients suffering from battle neuroses. I was in the army and made the picture Let There Be Light. That experience started my interest in psychotherapy, and to this day Freud looms as the single huge figure in that field.

FOUR

The opening montage of Let There Be Light shows soldiers leaving a hospital ship. The narration by Huston’s father, Walter, who also narrated the WWII Why We Fight propaganda films, intones:

Here is the human salvage, the final result of all that metal and fire can do to violate mortal flesh. Some wear the badges of their pain: the crutches, the bandages, the splints. Others show no outward signs, yet they, too, are wounded.

Leaving the hospital ship.

It is these internally wounded that are the subject of his film. While there may be much to find fault with here, including the literary-poetic narration itself, it is important that the film not be considered merely from a cinematic perspective. Its purpose was to give Americans an understanding of and hope for these spiritually traumatized men returning to civilian life. It is not the faux-optimistic conclusion of the film that is most convincing, but the interviews and therapy scenes of breakdown that are left rooted in the mind of the viewer. From the Army’s perspective, this dark legacy was not “on message.” The true message of the film was learned well by the military top brass. Film portraits of psychic trauma were conspicuously absent from military propaganda during the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. It has been left to intrepid filmmakers, many under the documentary banner of HBO’s Shelia Nevins, to give fellow Americans insight to the true human cost of our present military ventures.

HBO.com: Documentaries—Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq link

Interviewee who can't walk.

Asking you to watch an hour-long documentary done in a technically outdated style, one that deals with the lives of a generation now mostly passed into history—may seem like a too demanding request. But it will be an hour well worth your time and it will reveal more about the human condition than most of the drivel offered currently at the Cineplexes.

Postscript: A recent email from Stephen Leggett of the National Film Preservation Board listed the 25 films that had been chosen this year to join the National Film Registry. Studio fare such as "Airplane" and "Saturday Night Fever" were chosen, as well as important historical films such as "A Trip down Market Street (1906). I was especially gratified that "Let There Be Light" was one of them.

Next week: a look at the dance world of a woman who is the subject of a new Wim Wenders film in 3-D.

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