Controversial World War II Documentary Rereleased Audie Cornish speaks with film historian Scott Simmon about John Huston's controversial World War II documentary, Let There Be Light. A newly-restored version of the film debuted online Thursday.
NPR logo

Controversial World War II Documentary Rereleased

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/153634907/153642258" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Controversial World War II Documentary Rereleased

Controversial World War II Documentary Rereleased

Controversial World War II Documentary Rereleased

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/153634907/153642258" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Audie Cornish speaks with film historian Scott Simmon about John Huston's controversial World War II documentary, Let There Be Light. A newly-restored version of the film debuted online Thursday.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In the world of film, John Huston is best known for such classics as "The Maltese Falcon" and "The African Queen." But starting today, another Huston work is back in the spotlight: "Let There Be Light." That's a controversial World War II documentary by Huston that was produced by the U.S. Army in 1945. And it was an unprecedented look at soldiers suffering from the psychological wounds of war.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY "LET THERE BE LIGHT")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Here are men who tremble, men who cannot sleep, men with pains that are nonetheless real because they are of mental origin, paralyzed men whose paralysis is dictated by the mind.

CORNISH: Here's the twist: The Army refused to release the documentary back in the 1940s. Today, you can watch "Let There Be Light" online, newly restored by the National Film Preservation Foundation. Scott Simmon is a film historian at the University of California, Davis, and he works with the foundation. Welcome, Scott.

SCOTT SIMMON: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So to start, tell us a little bit more about the film itself. I mean, it follows soldiers at a Long Island military hospital.

SIMMON: Right. This is a film that follows their treatment at Mason General Hospital from the date of their entry to the date of eight weeks later of their discharge. So there are interviews with them when they arrived, and then we see their treatment with some kind of extraordinary recoveries from paralysis and other symptoms.

CORNISH: And it's interesting because you get a slice of life from the period. You see them and their therapists sitting down together. You see them in the cafeteria, walking the grounds, even later in the film talking with their family and friends.

SIMMON: Exactly. In some ways, it's a simplified version. And it's, of course, very much the psychological methods of the 1940s. And the film skips showing things which were happening offscreen, like electroshock treatments.

CORNISH: Now, we try to reach the Army today to talk about what the concerns were back in the '40s, why they didn't release this film. Specifically, what are the reasons people have speculated over the years that they didn't release the film?

SIMMON: Yeah, right. The Army's statement at the time was that not all of the soldiers had signed releases. That's what they told John Huston. He knew that they had signed releases because he saw them sign releases. But I think his impression was that the film did not live up to the Army's view at the time of what a heroic soldier would be like coming back from the war. It sort of violated, as he put it, the warrior myth.

CORNISH: Now, I know this film was part of a trilogy for Huston, but it's also being described as sort of groundbreaking for the period. What about the filmmaking style is remarkable?

SIMMON: The most extraordinary thing about it is that the interviews between the psychiatrists and the returning soldiers are not planned or scripted. Instead, John Huston just set up two cameras - one on the psychiatrist and one on the soldier - and let them run and got some extraordinary unplanned moments. At the time, this idea of just letting the camera run and finding what you could was unprecedented, almost.

CORNISH: And I was struck by, as you said, seeing people who were unguarded - they weren't actors - and also seeing black soldiers in this film as well.

SIMMON: That's the other really quite extraordinary thing about it. You know, the Army was not integrated. It was segregated units until President Truman's order of a couple of years later, 1948. But some hospitals, including this one, was integrated. But to put this on film was quite unusual for the time.

CORNISH: Well, Scott Simmon, thank you so much for talking with us.

SIMMON: Thanks, Audie. It's nice to be here.

CORNISH: Film historian Scott Simmon wrote an essay to go along with the release of John Huston's 1946 documentary "Let There Be Light." The movie has been restored by the National Film Preservation Foundation.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.