Documentary: LET THERE BE LIGHT Reopens Dark History
John Huston’s long suppressed portrait of shell-shocked WWII soldiers still poses difficult existential questions.
It’s fitting that James Agee was one of Let There Be Light’s (1946) early champions. His great opus Let Us Now Praise Famous Men also borrowed from scripture for its title and strove for an exacting picture of a broader social problem: rural poverty in Agee’s case and shell-shocked soldiers returning from World War II in Huston’s. Both auteurs experienced problems with their respective sponsors. Agee’s work began as an assignment for Henry Luce’s Fortune magazine before wrapping itself around the author’s life for several years. Huston finished his third film for the U.S. Army in a more timely fashion, but it was suppressed until 1980.
A deeper affinity between the two works lies in the complex positions they take with regard to their documentary subjects: a volatile mix of trepidation and awe, respect and doubt. Agee famously twists his beautiful prose into all kind of knots to convey his tortured conscience at the thought of ever “truly” representing his emblematic but all too particular subjects. Huston couldn’t be so essayistic in his film, and yet the nub of epistemological doubt is right there from the beginning. The introductory text asserts of the ensuing chronicle of the treatment of “psychoneurotic” veterans that “The camera merely recorded what took place in an Army Hospital.” And yet moments later the authoritative voiceover, read by Huston’s father Walter, tells us that these soldiers suffer “invisible wounds” and that the war brings “casualties of spirit.” So on the one hand everything is self-evident; and on the other hand nothing is.
Psychoanalysis was in dramaturgical vogue around the time of ‘Let There Be Light’—Hitchcock’s ‘Spellbound’ came out the year before and the Actors Studio was founded the year after—but Huston’s interest hewed closer to the ordeal than the cure.
Though Let There Be Light anticipated observational landmarks like Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies (1967), it also looked back on the fluid montage style and problem-solution structures of classic New Deal documentaries like The River (1938)—the existential approach to characterization is essentially in tune with Huston’s own fictions of the era. Psychoanalysis was in dramaturgical vogue around the time of Let There Be Light (Hitchcock’s Spellbound came out the year before and the Actors Studio was founded the year after), but Huston’s interest hewed closer to the ordeal than the cure.
Part of what makes both Let There Be Light and Huston’s previous effort, The Battle of San Pietro (1945), striking for military productions is the absence of patriotic rhetoric to paper over individual accounts of war (this in marked contrast to army films by other Hollywood auteurs like Frank Capra and John Ford). One suspects that the brass would have had a much easier time with Let There Be Light’s depiction of psychological trauma if only there had been some more stars and stripes. Instead, war is simply a fact; the film refuses to abstract the soldiers’ sacrifices. All it says about the fighting is that it happened and did terrible things to those who participated.
The film does, however, present a positive picture of the military’s psychiatric care. One of the many historical ironies here is that today’s military would be happy for this kind of outreach after Walter Reade scandals and disturbing revelations about the suicide rates of U.S. soldiers serving in Afghanistan. And yet even as Let There Be Light celebrates the doctors’ effectiveness, the images of temporary paralyses are not as easily dispelled. This is a film that does not entirely believe its own sunny conclusions, and that’s certainly consistent with later Huston film fictions from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) all the way up to Fat City (1972). Perhaps inadvertently, the film reveals the psychiatrists as harboring their own anxieties. Their overeager approach to steer the patients back to a narrow definition of mental health seems painfully clear now, though we might pause before commenting on their readiness to dispense drugs as part of their treatment. In an especially pointed scene, one patient speaks to the way economic pressures contributed to his anxieties growing up. The doctor quickly deflects towards a standard psychological account, but the film is careful to admit the man’s original point of view.
This is a film that does not entirely believe its own sunny conclusions, and that’s certainly consistent with later Huston film fictions from ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ (1948) all the way up to ‘Fat City’ (1972). Perhaps inadvertently, the film reveals the psychiatrists as harboring their own anxieties.
This combination of economic stress and psychological trauma is the spiritual crossroads of film noir. Take away the psychiatrists from Let There Be Light, and you have a noir (Stanley Cortez’s dreamy chiaroscuro makes it a cinch). There’s even a surprising flourish of music as one of the doctors instructs a young soldier who looks a bit like Farley Granger to recount his time in Guadalcanal under hypnosis. You can feel Huston gesturing towards the flashback, one of noir’s key stylistic tropes, even as he respects the documentary conventions for reportage. Make a few minor adjustments, and the group of soldiers we meet in the film could easily be refigured as a cornered heist gang—perhaps like the one in Huston’s own classic of the genre, The Asphalt Jungle (1950).
The film’s demographic choices—a small enough group that we come to know individual cases, but large enough that they appear typical—also suggests that essential organism of the World War II combat film: the platoon. Movies like Bataan (1943) depicted the combat unit as an idealized mirror of egalitarian democracy: white and black soldiers share cigarettes, newly bonded by battle. As historian Richard Slotkin has pointed out, the movie platoons were integrated before the real ones were. Huston’s unit is notably integrated as well. One of the primary interviewees is an eloquent African American veteran who breaks down when discussing his wife. During a group therapy session, another black patient explains that he didn’t talk until he was seven and only then out of anger. Racism is never specifically broached—certainly not by the psychiatrists—and yet it’s the elephant in the room as the men discuss their worries about being treated unfairly in the postwar environment. They’re talking about the stigma of mental illness, and yet the black men know they won’t be treated fairly coming home.If Let There Be Light seems more alive to the shadow of racism than most films of the era, that’s because Huston was a great study of all kinds of pain. The film provides a compelling pivot point between the combat film and film, to be sure, but its modest scale of heroism and underlying disquiet are doubly remarkable given its production history. Those are rare qualities for any war movie, after all, documentary or fiction.
Editor’s note: The National Film Preservation Foundation has preserved John Huston’s long suppressed documentary Let There Be Light (selected for the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2010). Fandor is proud to help the NFPF to stream this remarkable, long-suppressed work from now through August.