"Let There Be Light" portrays World War II troops just back from the battlefields — trembling, stuttering, hollow-eyed and crying — and follows them through weeks of often-successful treatment.
WASHINGTON — More than 65 years after it was suppressed by the Army, a powerful and controversial John Huston documentary about soldiers suffering from the psychological wounds of war has been restored by the National Archives and debuted Thursday on the Web.
“Let There Be Light” portrays GIs just back from the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific — trembling, stuttering, hollow-eyed and crying. Using a noir style, Huston filmed dozens of soldiers in unscripted scenes at an Army psychiatric hospital through weeks of often-successful treatment, culminating in their release to go home.
Even after the Army approved the film’s 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,” said Scott Simmon, a film historian and English Department chairman at the University of California, Davis.
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The film shows soldiers struggling to cope with what commonly was called shell shock, and more formally labeled psychoneurosis, but now is known as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Commissioned by the Army, the film was intended to prepare Americans for the realities of what combat had done to those sent to war but also to show their psychological wounds often could be treated with therapy.
But the Army balked when it came time to release the film, 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.
Sympathetic portrayals of wartime post-traumatic stress “were swept under the rug” until after the Vietnam era, Simmon wrote in an essay about the film’s restoration. “Let There Be Light” is considered groundbreaking in documentary film history for its almost unprecedented use of unscripted interviews, according to Simmon.
The film also is striking for showing the free and casual interaction of African-American and white soldiers. After the film was pulled, the Army commissioned a remake using actors to re-enact scenes filmed by Huston, giving all speaking roles to whites.
“Let There Be Light” was the last in a World War II trilogy commissioned by the U.S. Army Signal Corps from Huston, who already had achieved some renown as director of “The Maltese Falcon” when he joined the Army after Pearl Harbor.
His first Army film, “Report from the Aleutians,” caused relatively little controversy, but the second, “The Battle of San Pietro,” was nearly shelved for its harrowing combat footage in Italy before Gen. George Marshall, the Army chief of staff, intervened.
For his third production, Huston shot close to 70 hours of film, using multiple cameras running continuously on doctors and patients. His father, actor Walter Huston, narrated.
John Huston considered the film “the most hopeful and optimistic and even joyous thing I ever had a hand in.”
But the Army, to his dismay, restricted screenings to a few military venues. All soldiers shown in the film signed releases, but Huston was told those signatures had “mysteriously disappeared.”
The Museum of Modern Art in New York arranged for a public premiere in June 1946, but two military policemen confiscated the print minutes before the show.
Over the years, there were calls from Hollywood for the Army to release “Let There Be Light,” an effort that succeeded in 1980 with backing from Vice President Walter Mondale and Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America.
It received mixed reviews, in part because the once-innovative documentary techniques seemed badly dated, Simmon said. Moreover, the editing of the film, compressing hours of therapy into a few minutes, makes some cures appear “strangely easy,” as Simmon noted.
In 2010, “Let There Be Light” was placed in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry to be preserved because of its historic significance.