Placed in chronological order, John Huston’s documentaries for the Army Signal Corps tell a story of America’s ferocious emergence from isolationism during World War II and the nation’s mounting horror of facing the reality of modern warfare. At the most nationalistic end of the spectrum is Winning Your Wings, a recruitment film for the Army Air Forces. Host Jimmy Stewart opens the proceedings at a high school where he engages in a loaded Socratic dialogue with stiff young actors asking how they can hope to become pilots. As the men come up with ever more desperate laments that they’re too stupid or tied down to enlist, Stewart’s repeated assurances that the army will take pretty much anybody start to come off as unintentional comedy. Set against montages of fighter planes being rolled off assembly lines like candy bars, the upbeat tenor of Stewart’s narration produces cognitive dissonance, especially when the desire to hype every single aspect of military life results in such odd enticements as “Eat with a few hundred guys just as hungry as you are!”
The other three films in this collection, however, show a far more mature confrontation with the realities of war, each approaching the cost of battle from a different front. Report from the Aleutians is striking for its banality, for its longueurs of rota work on a Pacific island base. Not many documentaries bother to show the immense downtime that comprises most of any given day in the military, much less foreground it to the near-total exclusion of actual combat.
Shot on 16mm, Report from Aleutians has a rough, observational edge missing from the polished tripe of Winning Your Wings. The primitive, two-strip Technicolor renders the soldiers’ routines of digging latrine trenches and refueling bombers in pulses of green and red that capture something of the tension and anticipation of the bored soldiers who hunger for action amid the tranquil nature of their surroundings. Though the images still call attention to virtues of camaraderie and duty, there are times where Huston imposes his will as a director, composing shots of planes on surveillance runs with a grace that belies the nervousness and risk of every scouting mission. Huston’s interest in day-to-day tedium and the peaceful beauty of the environment, and the way that a late skirmish with Japanese forces in Kiska despoils the idyll, suggests a subtle, ironic resistance to the cheerleading of destruction that categorizes most propaganda films.
That subtlety is lost on San Pietro, an account on the costly taking of a small Italian town. Nothing about the film is valorous, and though it never disrespects the soldiers who fight in the battle, the documentary resolutely avoids simple celebration. Huston took his perfectionism to new heights by storyboarding and shooting his own recreations of the battle, yet this falsification isn’t sanitizing. Instead, the staged combat, when synchronized with real footage of dead soldiers and the gradual demolition of San Pietro, stands as one of the few instances of a war film being unambiguously anti-war.
Huston never highlights individuals to create a sense of audience identification, instead using long shots of groups in coordinated and chaotic motion to impart a sense of the terror of battle and the madness that infuses even the most composed and strategic unit. The slow advancement of troops makes the fight as much of a slog as the menial tasks around the Aleutian base, though suddenly the boredom of base life seems wholly preferable to action.
The most notable of the films assembled for this set is the one that gives it its title. Produced after the end of the war, Let There Be Light marks a logical endpoint from its predecessors’ examination of dull routine and terrifying combat by charting the after effects of that experience. Shot in a military psychiatric facility, the documentary reveals the numerous methods Army doctors attempted to address the large numbers of residual trauma documented among veterans.
This is the least stylized of Huston’s war films, including the basic nationalism of Winning Your Wings. Yet the simple shot/reverse-shot structure of the patients’ consultations permits the viewer to study the subtle physiological tics of the men, all their twitching limbs and stifled sobs, and the way that some are so ashamed by their condition that they cannot look anyone in the eye. This is a vital study of the cost of war beyond body counts, but it’s equally revealing for showing the first mass adoption of psychotherapy, with all the pitfalls that entails. The doctors project calm and understanding, but the myriad trials and experiments employed as treatment belie their fumbling attempts to fully develop a still-young field of medicine into something that can treat the thousands of men afflicted by war.
San Pietro got Huston tagged as an anti-war filmmaker by some grousing officers, to which he fearlessly proclaimed that if he ever made a pro-war film he’d deserve to be shot. Winning Your Wings has the brash naïveté of a nation riled up but as-yet undeployed, but the documentaries made after Huston entered the war theater bear out the conviction of his statement. It’s not surprising that the army suppressed these films for years; it’s a miracle that the negatives weren’t burned at the first screening. Nonetheless, if the documentaries fail as propaganda for the masses, they provide invaluable insight into various elements of military life. (George Marshall himself defended San Pietro as a necessary demonstration of the consequences of war and as a means of imparting the seriousness of combat to troops who might be too eagerly spoiling for a fight.) Despite Huston’s reality-bending aestheticization, these may be the most honest films ever made of the most documented conflict in human history.
Olive Films’s hands-off approach means that a great many blemishes and lines have been left in each of the four films collected here; the general condition comes down to how well the separate prints were preserved. Winning Your Wings and Let There Be Light, made under the most controlled circumstances, naturally look the best, sporting healthy contrast and decent black levels. San Pietro shows the wear of location shooting, while Report from the Aleutians fares worst, its Technicolor faded and whites washed-out in some areas. Grain is so thick that even the best-looking of the shots are distorted and dimmed, and at times the short is nearly unwatchable.
Sound is less consistent, veering from the crisp narration of San Pietro to the muffled, nearly unlistenable shallow field of Report from the Aleutians. The dominance of voiceover narration and music in the first three films helps smooth out the wide variability of the gathered sound, and the relative cleanliness of San Pietro’s mixing of artillery fire and rifle discharge makes it even easier to pick out the battle scenes as professionally crafted. Short of a full restoration, the sound on these films is never likely to get a good scrub, but apart from a few murky-sounding passages from Report from the Aleutians, everything is clear enough.
A 26-minute introduction to the films is perhaps best appreciated as a postscript, given the surprisingly thorough job it does at explaining the unique virtues and style of each documentary, as well as the reaction from the military to the increasingly defiant and blatantly critical work that John Huston submitted. There’s also raw footage of the San Pietro recreations that offers a chance to see how the filmmaker planned every moment of battle while retaining a sense of realism, as well as the eerily omissive Shades of Gray, the army’s heavily recut version of Let There Be Light that reworks Huston’s material to less unappealing ends.
John Huston’s war documentaries are an essential document of World War II’s harsh reality, and despite the poor quality of the A/V transfers, Olive Films is doing a public service by collecting them on home video.