1981 review of ‘Let There Be Light’: War Casualty

May 24, 2012

Editor’s Note: This review originally appeared Feb. 12, 1981, in the Style section of The Post. The original headline read: “War Casualty.”

The famous John Huston documentary film "Let There Be Light," banned from public viewing for 35 years, is available at last for sale or rental at the U.S. Archives.

What's more, the 1945 film about emotionally damaged American veterans of World War II may be eligible for the Academy Awards of 1980. A decision is expected Tuesday in Hollywood.

Narrated by Huston's father, the late actor Walter Huston, the 59-minute film presents a quietly devastating view of the effects of war on the human mind and shows the psychiatric techniques that produced spectacular cures of these psychoneurotic conditions.

Pirated copies of the movie have been circulated for years, though army police once confiscated a print that Huston was about to show friends at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Last month it ran two days at New York's Thalia Theater, an art house, and in November it had its first public screening in Los Angeles.

The Army, which had commissioned the film, one of three made ofHuston on the war, said it invaded the privacy of the patients shown. The permission releases Huston had obtained were lost, the War Department said, and it refused to get new ones.

Huston has written, "I think it boils down to the fact that they wanted to maintain the 'warrior myth, which said that our American soldiers went to war and came back all the stronger for the experience, standing tall and proud for having served their country. Only a few weaklings fell by the wayside . . ." 

Twenty percent of our army casualties in that war, the narrator says, suffered psychoneurotic symptoms: a sense of impending disaster, hopelessness, fear and isolation. The camera show a series of interviews -- not staged, but real. A soldier breaks down and sobs; another has covered his Purple Heart and combat medals with a shirt pocket; one stutters helplessly; one is paralyzed from the waist down; one has total amnesia; one shakes from head to foot.

Perhaps the film is a bit naive about psychiatry, just then being discovered by Hollywood, but the fact remains that some techniques can bring amazing results in dealing with trauma. The paralyzed man is given sodium amytol and recovers instantly, though he still faces weeks of therapy to examine why his legs froze on him. The amnesiac is hypnotized, relives his experiences on Okinawa, shakes in fear but emerges finally with full command of his memory.

The stutter, baffled and thwarted by a condition he never had before the war, is given a drug.

"I can talk! I can talk! I can talk! Oh God, listen! I can talk!" he shouts. Later he recalls that the first sign was when he couldn't say "s," and eventually he traces that to the fluttery "s-s-s-s" made by a German 88 shell rushing overhead.

The men are shown in group therapy and, at the end, they appear happy and ready to go home. The once-paralyzed GI beats out a hit for a home run in a softball game. It may all be a little simple to us today, two wars later, but the film rises above its limitations to show us in its intensely moving, laconic way just how delicate and yet how resilient the human mind can be. It is more than a documentary; it is a human document.

It is being sold at the National Audio Visual Center of the U.S. Archives at $225 in 16 mm and $95 in video cassette. It can also berented.

Actual release of the picture by Army Secretary Clifford L. Alexander Jr. was engineered by his friend Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, who has worked for some time to get the ban lifted.

"I was in World War II," Valenti said recently. "I flew 51 combat missions, and I know something about fear. This film is something I would want my son to see . . ."

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