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James J  Cremin Written by James J Cremin
Apr. 16, 2008 | 10:54 AM

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John Huston’s Suppressed World War II Documentaries

Last night, April 15, 2008, screenings of “The Battle of San Pietro” (1945) and “Let There Be Light” (1946) and discussions were held at the Academy Theatre at Fountain and Vine.  The John Huston Lecture on Documentary Film has been in existence for five years and last night was the first time the spotlight was put the late director-writer-actor, who actually introduced the discussions via filmed interviews he made in the last decade of his life.  He passed away in 1987.

His son Tony Huston joined the discussion with Richard Robbins, director of “American Homecoming” (2007),an Oscar nominated documentary of Iraq War veterans, Dr. Charles Wolfe, professor of film and media studies at UC Santa Barbara and biographer of Frank Capra, and moderator Dr. Betsy McLane, published author of two well received books on film.  She actually opened and closed the discussion with readings from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, who wrote sad poetry inspired by Whitman’s tour of duty during the Civil War.

Director Frank Capra was in charge of the “Why We Fight” series made in cooperation with the U.S. armed forces during World War Two.  Among the directors under him in this venture were good friends William Wyler and John Huston.  John Ford directed Oscar winning documentaries that were based in the Pacific.  Huston previously made “Report from the Aleutians”, itself an Oscar nominated documentary of 1943.

Huston’s “San Pietro” starts off with the aftermath of one of the most bloodiest battles of the war.  Corpses, maimed children, even the wreckage of the church of the city’s patron saint, Saint Peter, were unflinchingly shown.  Battle weary American soldiers are shown struggling dealing with their own wounded and digging graves.  Two of Huston’s crew were killed during the making of this.  When completed, it got negative response from the miliatry until it went to one of the top guys, George Marshall, who adored it and thought it essential for every soldier to see.  Captain Huston became Major Huston as a result.  Tony said his father would cry anytime it was shown.  At the time it was given limited release.  Today it’s considered one of best war documentaries ever made.  John Huston narrated as well as directed.

It still got more exposure than “Let There Be Light.”  What’s today referred to post-traumatic stress disorders, this film focused on veterans being hospitalized for different types of mental illnesses.  There’s one who constantly mumbles, one who only thinks he’s paralyzed, one shakes uncontrollably, about ten of of three thousand were focused on.  Segregation still existed during World World Two but this documentary shows a racial mix.  Blacks and whites are shown together.  At the end they’re even playing baseball together.  I really found this one quite enlightening.  There’s no easy fix for mental illness but one can get better if given the motivation to try.  Hypnosis is shown as a tool psychiatrists used and the panelists firmly stated nothing was written for the veterans to act or speak.  Narrated by Walter Huston, this documentary was not given a release at all until 1980.  Why it’s considered unpatriotic to show veterans in pain is still a controversial topic today as our current administration will even disallow flag covered coffins to be shown.

Primarily Huston directed, wrote and acted in fiction narratives.  That his name would be honored for the academy’s lecture series speaks of the high regard his wartime documentaries are viewed.  They are actually quite timeless and are as relevant today as when they were made sixty years ago.  Dare I say, they are works of genius.

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