The restoration “reveals the film’s full force,” said Scott Simmon, a film historian and English department chairman at the University of California, Davis.
Even after the Army approved its release in 1980, the poor quality of the prints and, in particular, the garbled soundtrack made it almost impossible to understand the whispers and mumbles of soldiers in some scenes.
The restored soundtrack “makes the film speak in a way it never could before,” Simmon said in an interview.
The film is striking for its potential relevance for a new generation of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, showing soldiers struggling to cope with what was then commonly called shell shock, and more formally labeled psychoneurosis, but is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We hope that by making ‘Let There Be Light’ freely available — and by drawing attention to it — that the courageous documentary will find the audience it was intended to serve,” said Annette Melville, director of the National Film Preservation Foundation, which funded the restoration.
The film, commissioned by the Army near the end of the war, was intended to prepare Americans for the realities of what combat had done to those sent to war but also to show that their psychological wounds could often be treated with therapy.
But when it came time to release the film, the Army balked, claiming it violated the privacy of the soldiers involved. Huston never bought that explanation.
“I think it boils down to the fact that they wanted to maintain the ‘warrior’ myth, which said that our Americans went to war and came back all the stronger for the experience, standing tall and proud for having served their country well,” Huston wrote years later in his autobiography.
Sympathetic portrayals of wartime post traumatic stress “were swept under the rug” until after the Vietnam era, Simmon said in an essay he wrote about the film’s restoration for the preservation foundation. “Let There Be Light” is considered groundbreaking in documentary film history for its almost unprecedented use of unscripted interviews, according to Simmon.
The film is also striking for showing the free and casual interaction of African American and white soldiers being treated at the integrated Army hospital. After the film was pulled, the Army commissioned a remake using actors to reenact the scenes filmed by Huston, giving all the speaking roles to whites.