Let There Be Light (1946 USA 58 mins)
Source: NLA/Cinemedia Prod Co: U.S. Army Signal Corp Pictorial Service Dir: John Huston Scr: John Huston, Charles Kaufman Photo: Stanley Cortez, John Huston, John Doran, Lloyd Fromm, Joseph Jackman, George Smith Music: Dimitri Tiomkin Narration: Walter Huston
Less established than John Ford and William Wyler – the other two of the three great American directors to enlist their skills as craftsmen and propagandists in the U.S. Signal Corp’s war effort – Let There Be Light was the last of three documentaries John Huston made as a Captain in the U.S. Army’s Signal Corp-based film unit. Huston’s enlistment in 1942 was a decision of both professional and physical courage: he was walking away from a directorial career at Warner Bros. flowering due to the box office of The Maltese Falcon (1941) and his success in finally figuring out what to do with the battered charisma of Humphrey Bogart. Nor was enlistment a celebrity sinecure. Report from the Aleutians (1943) and San Pietro (1944) were shot at the business end of war and at considerable personal risk. Indeed, if nothing else Let There Be Light is a transitional work that is borne out of knowing war, and marks the director’s own reintegration and emotional transition from war to post-war life. It also pre-figures his most creative run of feature production that would evolve from The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) to the film most often twinned with Let There Be Light, his biopic Freud (1962).
Huston and a team of cameramen lead by DOP Stanley Cortez (the master of black light carving responsible for The Magnificent Ambersons  and The Night the Hunter ) spent three months in 1946 at New York’s Mason Hospital, documenting an intensive eight week, mass production program of therapeutic treatment for what was then described as ‘psychoneurotic’ illness: a baggage of anxieties and psychosomatic symptoms emerging in soldiers in combat or through alienation from Home. All the scenes in the film are ‘found’. Undoubted, these social actors were in some of the Group Therapy sequences ‘rehearsed’ for the film. As such, and in keeping with the ethical protocols of Griersonian documentary in those pre-verite days, they were pre-interviewed and asked what they would say and then prompted to repeat their expression to camera – conduct which was more about giving dignity to the participant’s self-representation and economy to the shooting ratio than to any editorial immorality. Unquestionably, too, some behaviour is provoked by the presence of what clearly must have been an almost womb-like apparatus of Hollywood production values – the dolly tracks, the multiple camera positions for extensive coverage, Cortez’s manifestly aesthetic arc-lamp lighting set-ups. One especially thinks of the educated black soldier, first seen crying at the absence of his sweetheart; he is clearly using the performative opportunity almost as a form of self-initiated psychodrama. Indeed, the therapists in the film both reflexively indicate the presence of the cameras in an early sequence and later wrote – in what has to be a characteristically American success story of Movies-as-Therapy – of the therapeutic effect of their presence: the subject group improved far more rapidly than the norm. Whatever you might think today, the Pentagon was convinced in 1946: the first release cut – this version – was rejected by the Army and suppressed until 1980, when it was then only released, after a public campaign by Huston and the American screen community, at the insistence of the White House.
In a manner reminiscent of the endless litter of ‘lost film’ discoveries generated by recent Orson Welles scholarship, Let There Be Light has since became an overlooked morsel for the flock of Huston Cinema Studies scholars to maul over. Richard Jameson’s conviction that the film is “… nothing less than the discovery of the sources of neurotic complication in Huston’s worldview” is typical of a body of opinion which now takes this little film as Huston’s blinding light on the road to Freud. (1) Huston, ever helpfully a student of the duality of Himself, helped things along by remembering the film with increased fondness and age as something religious and transcendental (for example, in an early 80s interview with D. A. Pennebaker that was subsequently used by Midge MacKenzie in her recent documentary John Huston’s War Stories ).
However, those who view Let There Be Light as a life-changing, profound experience more than a Government job of work show some ignorance of what was already latent in the po-facedness of The Maltese Falcon: Huston the restless intellectual with gold-plated Hollywood connections, smart enough to play both sides of the cultural street. And, I should add, they show poor film scholarship in ignoring the capacity for supposedly propagandistic Griersonian Documentarists to make work of auteurist quality. At least one critic is ignorant enough of this latter point to single Huston’s work out as stylistically unique, rather than what it is – an exemplary example of the use of its then dominant codes. As was to also be the case for other demobbed directors, war, box office clout and the post-war crumbling of the Studio system would allow Huston to pursue a director-producer’s career where the themes and moral seriousness that the codes of documentary had permitted him could be personalised into an auteurist style. Let There Be Light, partly due to its controversy, can thus be seen as Huston’s last Studio film, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff as his last Warner Brothers. Its slick high-production values are not at odds with Griersonian practice but are a kind of ‘glacé‘ version of it; although they are curiously at odds with the way in which, by contrast, Ford’s and Wyler’s pre-War aesthetics were ripped off their camera mounts by the Signal Corps miniature 16mm cameras and the problem of capturing the trauma of conflict.
But of course Let There Be Light is about the post-traumatic, the frigid chamber of horror that contains the memories that come after the white-hot horrors of battle or – worse – in expectation of battle. The blue Kodachrome camera-shake of Wyler’s The Memphis Belle (1944) or Ford’s The Battle of Midway (1943) is here replaced by the monotone, stuffed herds of the demobbed; ghosts straight out Randall Jarrett’s war poems or the endless, tourless ‘Heavy Duty’ war of cultural theorist Paul Fuselli’s 1990 study of Grunt culture Wartime, rather than those energetically denouncing ones conjured up by Abel Gance at the end of his 1919 pacifist epic J’accuse. These are men empty of moral reasoning with which they went to war, alive but (as we note in the scene of their orientation lecture), tagged as though they might well have been shipped home in body bags. It is appropriate that Huston instead adopts for most of the film the neurotic Mannerist qualities of Chamber Drama. Even in its antechamber-like opening scenes, the demarcation from troop-ship and arrival at the Hospital, the use of a typical Chamber Drama motif of the mirroring and doppelgängering of forms is apparent in the dream-like shadows reflected on the hulls of white hospital-ships or the endlessly arriving, receding, identical ambulances.
It is the over-manifestation of the technical apparatus of Hollywood – and, in both Tiomkin’s heavy musical cues and the film’s up-beat ending, something of its narrative apparatus – which most causes discomfort for contemporary students of documentary. I speak from personal experience: some members of a Cinema Studies class I took recently seemed convinced that I was either lying or stupid in my insisting that these scenes were actualities. One student said “you can see that there is more than one camera”. Hollywood illusionism can be a two-way street, equally able to make the Real unlikely as the absurdly generic conventional. That Huston was capable of a documentarian’s true grit was shown in San Pietro; although it and Let There Be Light also show both how much an artistic savant Huston was, absorbing the pictorialism of Flaherty, Jennings and Walker Evans with an almost photographic memory. But John Huston was also a boy of the company town, not able to make anything else but a Hollywood film. Pick up the phone and Stanley Cortez could light your consulting rooms like he would the American Gothic decrepitude of Welles’ and Laughton’s interiors. Or Dimitri will re-jig a few old musical motifs to make a score. Or Huston peré can do your voiceover (granted that Old Grizzly-voice’s intonation of the sibilance of a German high-explosive gets as much inside your head as it did the young boy who stuttered over his S’s).
Let There Be Light is a classical work, un-Griersonian in being in keeping rather than in any opposition to Hollywood. It couldn’t have been any other way if made by John Huston. It also, like many of the American WWII documentaries, needs to be thought of more as a factoid seed for post-war Hollywood’s concerns; for noir brooding, of course, but also in siring – out of Neo-Realism – its own feature generic: the Combat Movies cycle which rises up whenever America’s taste for war grows sour. If you want proof of this, screen Let There Be Light back-to-back with any heavy-duty, war-is-hell product (on the day I showed Huston’s film, I paired it with Anthony Mann’s Men in War ). There, almost uncannily, you will see again Let There Be Light‘s gallery of unshaven neurotics, waiting to be shipped straight to the interview rooms of Mason Hospital; there also are the savage beasts waiting to be soothed by the voices of its clinical hypno-therapists; there even – as generic convention now – is Let There Be Light‘s historically anachronistic, yet culturally soothing, denial of the lack of racial integration in the U.S. Army until after the War’s end. But there also is always a little of what Huston gave to the genre through his brief War Cabinet with the Documentary movement. An incubus of Griersonian socialism, yes; but especially in his own use of the best of Jennings or Flaherty, stripped of Griersonite corporatism back to the divine but troubled Humanist soul.
Lesley Brill, John Huston’s Filmmaking, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997.
Keith Cohen, “John Huston and Film Noir”, Perspectives on John Huston, ed. Stephen Hall, G.K. Hall and Co., New York, 1994.
Paul Fuselli, Wartime, Hutchinson, London, 1990.
Richard T. Jameson, “John Huston”, Perspectives on John Huston, ed. Stephen Hall, G.K. Hall and Co., New York, 1994.
John Huston – War Stories (1999, dir: Midge MacKenzie)
Bill Nichols, Representing Reality, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1991.
Bill Nichols, “Performing Documentary”, Blurred Boundaries: Questions of Meaning and Culture, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1994, p.92-106.