Striking a blow for film preservation, and widespread access to films once they are properly restored, the National Film Preservation Foundation is now streaming John Huston’s long-suppressed 1946 documentary Let There Be Light on its website. If you think you’ve seen the film before, think again. People who don’t make a distinction between washed-out prints with muddy soundtracks and first-generation copies need to learn the difference. In this case, both seeing (and hearing) is believing.
As Scott Simmon writes in his informative program notes on the NFPF site HERE, “John Huston’s World War II documentary Let There Be Light is so legendary for its censorship controversy that its sheer power as a film has been easy to miss. Produced by the U.S. Army in 1945, it pioneered unscripted interview techniques to take an unprecedented look into the psychological wounds of war. However, by the time the film was first allowed a public screening—in December 1980—its remarkable innovations in style and subject, which in the 1940s were at least a decade ahead of their time, could be taken as old hat, especially because of the poor quality of then-available prints. This new restoration finally reveals the film’s full force.”
If you’ve never seen the hour-long film, you owe it to yourself to do so. I revisited it this week and found it deeply moving—all the more so as its moving narration is read by Walter Huston, the director’s father. The documentary dared to acknowledge what is commonly known today as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and set out to educate its audience. It was also groundbreaking in its dignified treatment of black soldiers and its matter-of-fact integration of black and white servicemen in group therapy sessions.
Huston shot some 70 hours of footage of Army psychiatrists conducting interviews and treatments of soldiers with a variety of mental problems. “The cameras ran continually, one on the patient, one on the doctor,” he later explained. “We shot thousands of feet of film—most of which couldn’t be used in the picture—just to be sure of getting the extraordinary and completely unpredictable exchanges that sometimes occurred.”
His cinematographer, movie veteran Stanley Cortez, tried to avoid a slick Hollywood look, although he did light key scenes with an eye toward drama and used dolly tracks for some set-ups. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin also suppressed any inclination to score the film in the way he would a traditional studio picture.
Let There Be Light was summarily shelved after its first screening in Washington, D.C. Huston was told that the Army brass quashed his film because it was invasive of the soldiers’ privacy, but he never believed it. (Simmon’s research reveals many fascinating details.) Whatever the reason, or combination of reasons, it languished on the proverbial shelf until 1980. Even then, it was dismissed by many critics.
One reason may have been the inferior quality of the prints originally supplied by the National Archives. Even today, the version one can find on YouTube is a travesty. With funding from the NFPF, the National Archives and Records Administration (as the agency is now known) went back to the original 35mm fine-grain master, put it through a “wet-gate” printer, and scanned a high-definition copy. The version you can watch online HERE is presented at lower resolution in order to facilitate the process. NARA plans to refine its restoration even further to make high-definition
The wizards at Chace Audio donated their services to create a new, much improved soundtrack, removing pops and hisses and equalizing the overall sound. You can read further details about the entire restoration process at the end of Simmon’s exhaustive essay.
Because the National Film Preservation Foundation wants to enlighten its audience, it is also streaming two related films (with full program notes), John Huston’s memorable combat documentary The Battle of San Pietro and a rather remarkable 10-minute silent film about the rehabilitation of soldiers returning from World War I, The Reawakening, which originally appeared as part of the Ford Educational Weekly series in 1919. Both of these fine, fully restored films have been released as part of the NFPF’s ongoing
As a member of the NFPF’s Board of Directors, I hope this headline-making effort attracts more people to the Foundation’s website, where newly-discovered films are showcased on a regular basis. If you don’t know about the NFPF’s good works, helping to save films held by libraries, schools, and archives in all fifty states, you should. I encourage you to make www.filmpreservation.org a regular stop when you browse the ‘net.