Through the end of August 2012, this film, fully restored, is available for free viewing on the National Film Preservation Foundation website.
John Huston, who hated war and made the single greatest American film about it, the documentary San Pietro (1945), followed up that masterpiece with another, even more overwhelmingly moving documentary, Let There Be Light, about the difficult rehabilitation of “boys” whose minds and souls Second World War combat had shattered. The U.S. Army Signal Corps had commissioned the 1946 film, but the U.S. government suppressed it; it did not reappear until 1969, during the Vietnam War, and had to wait another eleven years before its commercial release. What is so incendiary about this absolutely essential film? It proves, by the patients at Long Island’s Mason General Hospital it searingly documents, that contrary to the official U.S. position—that soldiers who succumbed to “battle psychosis” must have been neurotic or psychotic to begin with—such men had started off stable and whole. As psychiatrists delve into their pasts, one after another of these patients are revealed to have been quite ordinary and, in psychiatric parlance, “normal.” War, not their “weakness,” undid them.
Let There Be Light is a “pure” documentary insofar as none of it has been staged; we even hear the not-quite-true explanation for the camera’s presence that is delivered to the assembly of patients. Early on, an interior tracking shot shows patient after patient, each in an adjacent room, during his admittance interview. Subsequently there are individual sessions, where fear of death and dying becomes a common refrain, and psychoanalysis is employed, as is sodium amytal to induce narcohypnosis, under which patients reveal experiences and feelings that their conscious minds have blocked. “Miraculous” breakthroughs in the treatment of heartbreakingly fragile individuals, such as one patient who is convinced he can no longer walk, are irresistible. There are also group therapy and group activity, such as baseball. Remarkably, these men are skillfully brought to a point where they are ready to re-enter the wider society.
But Huston, of course, is not through with us. What we have witnessed has unfolded in a bubble. We are elated, but nagged by irony. We recall the discussion trying to prepare these men for hostile or unsympathetic potential employers; we note the racial integration of the group and reflect on how different—and not for the better—“normal” society may be on the outside. Huston has enrobed an uncharacteristically bright vision in an implicitly darker one of loss and losing that we instantly recognize as Hustonian.
John’s father, Walter Huston, narrates.
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