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Let There Be Light
Remind Me

Let There Be Light

The working title of John Huston's documentary Let There Be Light was Returning Soldier – The Psychoneurotic, which accurately describes its content. Shot in 1945 at a psychiatric hospital run by the United States War Department during and after World War II, the film shows American soldiers receiving medical treatment and psychotherapy after returning from overseas combat with various psychological disorders. It was designed as a propaganda pitch, intended to persuade Americans in general and potential employers in particular that receiving a psychiatric discharge should carry no more shame or stigma "than if the man had been a physical casualty," as Huston said in an interview.

Once the picture was finished, however, the War Department banned it from release, claiming that public exhibition would violate the rights of the soldiers who appear in it. The soldiers had signed releases indicating assent to their footage being shown, but the question of how "informed consent" applies to psychiatric patients was as thorny in the 1940s as it was in 1967, when release of Frederick Wiseman's documentary Titicut Follies was barred for the same ostensible reason. At one point the government gave Huston permission to have a screening of Let There Be Light for an invited audience at the Museum of Modern Art, but a few minutes before the starting time two military policemen marched in and took away the print, prompting New York Post critic Archer Winston to suggest that the army, "having shrunk to its unleavened core of pre-war top executives, is re-embarking upon a do-nothing, say-nothing, think-nothing policy."

Huston ascribed the censorship to government fears about what the film depicted; as Lawrence Grobel wrote in his book The Hustons, it opened "a whole Pandora's box of the evils of war and the effects on not only the vanquished but also the victors." For those in power, Huston commented, "wounds that you can see – heroes without legs or arms – are acceptable, because it shows a love of country and patriotism and the right stuff; but with men who were emotionally injured, who'd been destroyed in their spirits, that's a different question." The filmmaker's frustration was shared by critic James Agee, who wrote in a 1946 issue of The Nation that "a fine, terrible, valuable non-fiction film about psychoneurotic soldiers has been forbidden civilian circulation....I don't know what is necessary to reverse this disgraceful decision, but if dynamite is required, then dynamite is indicated." Dynamite wasn't actually tried, however, and the movie remained unseen by all but a small number of specialized military personnel. When he was working on his psychoanalytical biopic Freud (1962) in the early 1960s, Huston managed to arrange a private showing for French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who was collaborating with him on the screenplay. (Although he was fascinated by the documentary, especially the hypnosis footage, Sartre soon left the Freud project, which turned out to be one of Huston's most disappointing movies.) But the ban on public screenings wasn't lifted until 1980, when Vice President Walter Mondale responded favorably to appeals by Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

Huston had directed other documentary shorts for the US Army, including Report from the Aleutians in 1943 and The Battle of San Pietro in 1945, and Let There Be Light was the last of his wartime projects. After agreeing to direct it he visited a number of army hospitals in search of the best place for filming, eventually settling on Mason General Hospital, a government facility within the enormous Pilgrim Psychiatric Center on Long Island, which had opened 15 years earlier as the largest mental hospital in the world. Huston knew a little about the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Alfred Adler, but he admitted later that his acquaintance with the field was very slight. Although he was skeptical about the first therapy sessions he observed, he became a believer when he saw how a good psychiatrist could deduce a patient's illness from details of expression, posture, and gesture. Mason General took in 150 troubled soldiers each week and sought to restore their equilibrium in two months or less. The emphasis was on repairing psychological damage so the men could function in civilian life; no one looked for complete or lasting cures, which (according to theory at the time) would have required long periods of deep analysis.

Armed with a passkey that let him into any part of the hospital, Huston decided to follow one group of 75 men as they passed through the program. Constantly running cameras were set up in so many places that the patients soon took them for granted and ignored them. Shooting continued for three months, capturing much valuable material as well as extremely harsh footage – displaying shock therapy, for instance – that Huston knew would be excluded from the film. Some of the patients "had tics; some were paralyzed; one in ten was psychotic," he wrote in An Open Book, his 1980 autobiography. While some appeared to recover astonishingly fast, Huston learned that such outcomes could be deceptive, since "a patient given back the use of his legs might...develop a new symptom more serious than the first," or even "go to a window and jump out." Electroshock, injections of sodium amytal, group therapy, and hypnosis (which Huston claimed he mastered during this time) were among the routine treatments, but he ultimately found that everything boiled down to restoring "the ability to give love and to receive it." Huston and screenwriter Charles Kaufman crafted the narration as the film was shot, and actor Walter Huston came in to record it – a natural choice, since besides being the director's father, he had narrated Frank Capra's government-sponsored documentary series Why We Fight (1942-1945).

Little of Huston's individual creativity is detectable in Let There be Light, which uses standard documentary practices of its day to put across the notions that prompted the government to commission it. The film begins with a printed statement declaring that none of the material was staged, but one can't help being suspicious when seemingly miraculous cures take place during a few minutes of hypnosis or drug therapy; and while Huston knew such results could vanish as quickly as they'd arrived, the insistently upbeat movie never acknowledges this. The last segment is the most simplistic of all, intercutting previously seen shots of disturbed patients with new footage of a softball game where they all seem entirely normal – the soldier who couldn't walk is running bases, the man who couldn't speak properly is an umpire calling a play, and so forth. Scenes like these have more to do with Hollywood message-mongering than with clear-eyed communication of complicated facts. Presented as advocacy for the mentally ill, the movie is also propaganda for the psychiatric profession, overlooking its inadequacies and uncertainties in favor of a one-dimensional portrait too cheery and tidy to be believed.

The film's shortcomings aside, however, the experience of making it profoundly changed Huston's approach to directing. "It gave me a sense of the reality of human behavior," he said, "as against the conventions that the Hollywood screen...had come to accept as behavior. It also inculcated in me a vast desire to work away from studios. I found a freedom and an inspiration from a location that the barren walls of the studio didn't give me." For awakening these feelings in one of the studio era's most prominent directors, Let There Be Light has an importance far beyond its dubious merits as a nonfiction study of mental illness and psychiatric treatment.

Director: John Huston
Screenplay: John Huston, Charles Kaufman
Cinematographers: Stanley Cortez, John Doran, Lloyd Fromm, Joseph Jackman, George Smith
Film Editing: William Reynolds, Gene Fowler, Jr.
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
With: Walter Huston (narrator)

by David Sterritt