As World War Two was ending in the mid 1940s, John Huston began to make a film for the US Army on veterans who’d been psychologically damaged in battle. As WNYC’s Sara Fishko tells us, the film “Let There Be Light” was filled with gripping footage of ailing veterans. But the film never saw the light of day until thirty-five years later. Here is the next Fishko Files…
Let There Be Light
Let There Be Light was controversial in its time and for many decades after. Even though it was commissioned by the U.S. Army, they shelved it for reasons that are still not completely clear. The details are dramatic: Minutes before a screening of the film at the Museum of Modern Art military police marched into MoMA to seize the print. They claimed Huston had not received the proper release forms from the soldiers.
Here are two reviews of the film:
James Agee, 1946
“John Huston’s Let There Be Light, a fine, terrible, valuable non-fiction film about psychoneurotic soldiers, has been forbidden civilian circulation by the War Department. I don’t know what is necessary to reverse this disgraceful decision, but if dynamite is required, then dynamite is indicated.”
Andrew Sarris, 1981
(The film first saw the light of day in 1981 after organizers of a John Huston film festival pushed for its release. They succeeded in organizing a screening.)
“Nothing in Agee’s elegantly-lean critiques had prepared me for the sheer conventionality and unoriginality of the work. Why on earth would the top brass object to a film which attributed to an army psychiatrist the combined talents and powers of Mandrake the Magician and Bernadette of Lourdes? Indeed, Let There Be Light could be subtitled The Song of Sigmund as it depicts a series of Freudian-faith-healing sessions as so many clinical epiphanies crossing over from the medical to the miraculous.”
In Huston’s film Let There Be Light, the phrase to describe what we know as PTSD was “psychoneurotic soldiers.” The comedian George Carlin, in one of his legendary routines, traced the language surrounding psychologically battle-scarred Veterans, starting with World War I and moving toward modern times.
By the way…
Had Let There Be Light been available at the time, it would’ve shown viewers a side of the war they’d never seen. Other films of the era provided info and insight into the war before the world of 24-hour news.
Why We Fight, Directed by Frank Capra – A series that ran from 1942 to 1945
A morale-building propaganda series featuring never before seen on-the-ground combat footage.
The Negro Soldier – 1944, Directed by Stuart Heisler, Produced by Frank Capra
View the film here.
This film was meant to encourage African American soldiers to join the army. It helped pave the way for military desegregation.
For more from the speakers in this edition of Fishko Files…
- Daniel Eagan is a writer and film critic. He writes the Smithsonian Magazine blog “Reel Culture.” You can read the blog, here. Eagan also wrote about Let There Be Light in his book, America’s Film Legacy, 2009-2010, Continuum Press.
- David Van Taylor is a documentary filmmaker, who is co-producing/directing six, hour-long documentaries as part of To Tell the Truth, “the ultimate documentary – on documentaries.” To read more about “To Tell the Truth,” click here.
WNYC Production Credits...
Executive Producer: Sara Fishko
Assistant Producer: Laura Mayer
Mix Engineer: Wayne Shulmister
Managing Editor, WNYC News: Karen Frillmann