THE POST published an article last week about a John Huston movie you probably haven’t seen, although it was made more than 65 years ago and its director is among the legendary names of Hollywood. It’s a documentary that deals with the treatment of American service members suffering from what used to be called “shell shock” and is now generally known as post-traumatic stress disorder.
As Steve Vogel told it in The Post, the story of how the film was commissioned by the Army late in World War II, and then withheld from wide distribution for many years, is a tale of murky motivations, bureaucratic obfuscation and sometimes heavy-handed censorship (military police even confiscated a copy of the film that was to be shown at a New York art house). Huston thought it was all an effort to protect the “ ‘warrior’ myth.” Perhaps; the fog of war often extends far beyond the battlefield. In any event, the film, “Let There Be Light,” has just been made available in a restored version with a much-improved soundtrack and can now be seen for what it is: not a tribute to film-making or freedom of expression but a memorial.
“These are the casualties of the spirit, the troubled in mind, men who are damaged emotionally,” says the narrator (the director’s father, Walter Huston), men who “in the fulfillment of their duties as soldiers were forced beyond the limits of human endurance.”
Some no doubt recovered fully, others not at all. The truth is, as we are being reminded every day by this century’s conflicts, that the mental anguish of war can be as murderous as flying steel and high explosives. Its victims are personally memorialized in faces on film long after they are gone (as most of them are by now). Not just the the faces in this film — somber, confused, hopeful or hardened — but the bearded, helmeted unshaven faces staring vacantly past the camera into some far distance. How many of them made it all the way back?
Memorial Day was, in its beginnings, a popular observance that developed spontaneously after the Civil War, when families began the custom of decorating the graves of their Union and Confederate dead on one particular day or another in springtime. These were people who could have had no illusions about the glories of war or the greatness of any Cause — not after approximately 620,000 dead and who knows how many more physically maimed, disabled or “casualties of the spirit.”
Memorial Day was not then, and is not today, about victories won, national glory or the greatness of the armed forces. It is essentially the fulfillment of a personal obligation to remember — to say of someone we knew, or loved or whose name we read on a plaque or whose troubled face we see in a long-ago documentary film: You lost all, or nearly all, before your time had come, but you shall not be forgotten.