Director: John Huston
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This past October, I started my 2011 Chicago International Film Festival coverage with a review of a harrowing documentary called On the Bridge, in which director Olivier Morel documented the sufferings of Iraq War veterans afflicted with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is the invisible wound that scars witnesses to war, and some individuals so afflicted die physically or psychologically from this traumatic wound through suicide, homicide, or incurable psychosis. In 2012, this disorder is recognized and understood in ways it never was before, which is making it possible for more traumatized men and women like those documented in On the Bridge to get the help they need. War-related PTSD, however, certainly is not new, and when the 20th century and its technological might ushered in massively brutal, worldwide conflicts that buried forever the “gentleman’s war,” it also upped the psychological pressures on combat troops.
Motion pictures, a beneficial technological marvel of the 20th century, have been used almost since their beginning to document the many aspects of war. The United States government, a major producer of documentaries, commissioned a number of films that look at soldiers returning from theaters of war to reintegrate into the society they left behind. Such films include The Reawakening (1919), which shows doughboys of World War I, many of them amputees, getting medical treatment, prosthetic limbs, and occupational therapy as they reacquaint themselves with life free of the discipline and danger of armed conflict. Perhaps the most famous documentary about returning soldiers is Let There Be Light, but its fame derives mainly from being kept in the dark for 35 years after it was made by a War Department uncomfortable with the notion that there is any lasting downside to war for the returning veteran. So uncomfortable was the War Department with this documentary that it had it remade as Shades of Gray, a propaganda docudrama based on Let There Be Light that not only eliminated African-American soldiers from the cast, but also suggested that only soldiers who were soft in the head before they went to war cracked up upon their return.
Now, thanks to a National Film Preservation Foundation grant for the donated services of Chace Audio by Deluxe, the National Archives and Records Administration has restored the badly damaged soundtrack to an improved print of Let There Be Light. To commemorate Memorial Day this year, the NFPF premiered the film on its website May 24, and will run the film through the end of August through a generous donation of web hosting by Fandor. For those who took an interest in our recently completed blogathon to stream the Cutts/Hitchcock film The White Shadow, the online presentation of Let There Be Light is a preview of the high-quality streaming, expert research, and copious film notes we can expect when that silent film makes its debut. For Let There Be Light is an amazingly powerful experience, even on my laptop, and one that left me in tears by its conclusion.
The first line of the opening title card must have gotten this film into hot water with the Army brass right off the bat: “About 20% of all battle casualties in the American Army during World War II were of a neuropsychiatric nature.” Along the side of a ship bringing the troops home, Huston shoots a deep shadow of men carrying a stretcher, a graphic depiction of the darkness attending the wounded in spirit in postwar America, as his father Walter Huston offers a sober narration to match. Ambulances back up to the admission department of Mason General Hospital on Long Island, New York, as the “psychoneurotic” soldiers step out one by one and pass through intake. A group of 75 new arrivals will be the subjects of Huston’s film, taking them from the start of their treatment in a common room where they are told not to feel self-conscious about the cameras, to the hearings eight weeks later in which doctors will determine whether they can be discharged to home.
We see individual sessions in which a psychiatrist tries to get to know the soldiers and find out the circumstances that triggered the uncontrollable shakes, stuttering, leg paralysis, and amnesia of the more physically manifesting patients, as well as the severe anxiety of others who jump at loud noises or dart their eyes nervously, as though reliving some horror. Hollow-eyed men who can’t sleep or whose sleep is interrupted by terrifying dreams that replay some scene of war haunt the screen in between these sessions. We hear the men testify that they have lost the ability to feel happy and that they feel useless. One man in particular, the only survivor of the original group he went into the service with, wished to go back into battle to do something for someone, feeling not only survivor guilt, but also a lack of purpose. One African-American soldier breaks down into tears when he tries to tell the psychiatrist how much his sweetheart means to him because of the sense of self-worth she gave him. I’m only playing armchair shrink here, but it seems to me that these men understand that their hopes and dreams, lives and achievements mean absolutely nothing to the men sent to kill them, and perhaps even to those who sent them to face the enemy. Cannon fodder, in other words, less than human in a dehumanizing enterprise.
Then, however, are the apparent miracles. Hypnosis and sodium amytal, aka truth serum, is used on several patients to free psychological material in the unconscious and help the psychiatrist effect a talking cure. One solider with hysterical paralysis gets up on his feet and walks after one such session once his paralyzing impotence to help his ailing mother and financially strapped father is released. Another solider with a severe stutter repeats over and over again in relief and amazement “I can talk. Oh god, I can talk” when the moment his stutter started—men in his unit teased him for mispronouncing a word with the letter “s” in it—is connected with his fear of the “s” sound made by a German weapon. The film cautions that it takes more than one dose of amytal to cure these soldiers, and that they have only been freed to benefit from follow-up therapy.
Slowly, the men begin through occupational therapy and recreational sports to regain a sense of usefulness, a respite from their psychotic episodes, and a reengagement with the people and world around them. Family visits are fragile moments, and family members must be carefully prepped so as not to undo all the hard-won gains made so far. It feels good to see one patient play catch with his young son as his wife looks on, or the African-American soldier smiling with his sweetheart under the sun.
The last meeting of the men in group therapy focuses on what they want when they get out in the world. Most simply want employers and the people in their communities to give them a chance to show that they can be productive and good to be around. They don’t want to be different from everyone else, an understandable desire. In time, they may be treated the same as everyone else, but it’s certain they will never feel the same as others—they don’t even feel the same as the people they used to be before the war. No amount of therapy will erase the scar of war. The chance to understand the costs of war that live on long after the conflict is an encyclopedia entry is the value of this finely crafted, compassionate documentary from one of our most gifted directors. On this Memorial Day, reflect on these mangled souls, the miracle of therapeutic understanding, and the obscenity of the endlessly recurring war chants of those who will never see a day of combat in their life.