Historic, Censored “Shell-Shock” Documentary Film Restored and Released for On-line Viewing

Director John Huston’s film Let There Be Light, a documentary about the psychological issues of soldiers returning from World War II, has recently been restored and released by the National Archives and Records Administration. Produced by the U.S. Army in 1945, this controversial film was censored for more than three decades. By the time it was finally given a public screening in 1980, the quality of the then-available print was so poor that it was very difficult to view and understand. In this new restoration, the technical problems have been resolved, and many of us will now see this important piece of history for the first time.

Let There Be Light deals with “shell-shock,” or in today’s terms, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), among returning soldiers. Huston, who is best known as the director of such classics as The Maltese Falcon (1941), Key Largo (1948), and The African Queen (1951), was serving as a major in the U.S. Army Signal Corps when he was given the assignment to create the documentary in June 1945. Its working title was The Returning Psychoneurotics. Although by current standards, the psychiatric methods and therapeutic “cures” are dated and perhaps unrealistic, the film captures some historically significant aspects of military psychiatric practice during the 1940s.

Huston later described the project:

I visited a number of Army hospitals during the research phase, and finally settled on Mason General Hospital on Long Island as the best place to make the picture. It was the biggest in the East, and the officers and doctors there were the most sympathetic and willing…. The hospital admitted two groups of 75 patients each week, and the goal was to restore these men physically, mentally and emotionally within six to eight weeks, to the point where they could be returned to civilian life in as good condition—or almost as good—as when they came into the Army…. I decided that the best way to make the film was to follow one group through from the day of their arrival until their discharge. (Source: National Film Preservation Foundation, Film Notes)

Let There Be Light was ground-breaking not only in its use of unscripted interview techniques, but also because of the mix of racial groups represented in the film. Although the U.S. military would remain largely segregated until President Truman’s executive order of 1948, a few Army hospitals had begun integrating in 1943. Huston’s film shows African American and white soldiers being treated side-by-side, an unusually progressive choice at that time.

To view this documentary now, visit the National Film Preservation Foundation and click on the link for Let There Be Light. And let us know what you think—leave a comment here to join the conversation!

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