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The Battle of San Pietro
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The Battle of San Pietro

During World War II, such influential American directors as Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, William Wyler, and George Stevens put themselves in harm's way to film battlefield documentaries for the U.S. government. Though all of these men did exemplary work, many critics believe that the most powerful picture they produced was Huston's The Battle of San Pietro (1945), a stark piece of anti-propaganda that managed to make the War Department very nervous.

This was a down-and-dirty expose on the rigors of warfare, something on the order of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), but with real men dying in the mud. The Battle of San Pietro wouldn't be released until near the end of the war, after Huston was forced to submit it to a round of official censorship that somewhat blunted, but certainly didn't eliminate, its impact. Even with the extra cuts, Huston's weary narration accentuates the despair, even though the grim footage speaks for itself.

The film opens with a short speech by General Mark Clark, who explains that San Pietro is a 700-year-old town in Italy's Liri River Valley. The valley is a wide, flat pass that's surrounded by high mountains. The fighting took place in late 1943, as U.S. forces tried to wrench control of the area from the Germans. Unfortunately, the enemy had the advantage, with machine guns and mortars situated in the mountains. Flooding rivers also made movement exceedingly difficult for American troops.

Huston doesn't scrimp on the grinding horror of war: Groups of men are constantly being sent on patrol, and they sometimes don't return...when exhausted troops are finally ready to move again, a bombardment of shells and gunfire cuts many of them down...sixteen tanks head into the mountains searching for the enemy, but only three make it to the outskirts of town; two are then destroyed. There's no particular political stance, just brutality and survival, with great sympathy shown toward the men who are trapped in the skirmish.

Major John Huston was among those men. He and his camera crew would often enter enemy territory ahead of the troops, then wait under cover for the battle to begin. They were the first Americans to enter San Pietro. During the battle, Huston ran between camera positions, shouting directions while shells rained down and planes dive-bombed. Some crew members lost up to 30 pounds negotiating the terrain.

Huston didn't sugarcoat it. His superiors were most disturbed by a sequence at the end of the film in which dead soldiers were placed in body bags while, on the soundtrack, the same men could be heard from earlier interviews, telling jokes and relaying anecdotes. After viewing Huston's original cut of the film - during which, Huston recalled, irate viewers walked out according to rank -- one general told the director, "This picture is pacifistic. It's against war. Against the war." Huston replied, "Well, sir, whenever I make a film that's for war, you can take me out and shoot me."

The film has lost none of its impact in the ensuing years. The groundbreaking documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker once said, "San Pietro I looked at a lot because it has a lot of vitality to it, a lot of excitement, and (Huston) throws away a lot of form -- and that passes for excitement too....That's as up-to-date a film as is being shot now. There's nothing around now that's as well done as that." Written, Directed and Narrated by: John Huston
Prologue appearance: Gen. Mark Clark
Producer: Army Pictorial Services, Signal Corps, U.S. War Department
Production Supervisor: Frank Capra
Cameramen: Robert Swink and Edward Biery, Jr.
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
BW-33m.

by Paul Tatara

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