The man behind such classic Hollywood films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, and The Misfits, also directed a documentary about the emotional and psychological traumas of war. During World War II, John Huston served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. During that time he was commissioned by the Army to direct three films. One of which was called Let There Be Light. The documentary follows soldiers suffering from – what we now know as – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Let There Be Light was very much ahead of its time. When ‘shell shock’ was still the term quickly used for PTSD and, just as quickly, swept under the rug, Let There Be Light shed light on the seriousness of it. As the narrator, in his clear, commanding voice, explains that the man in the film all have “a sense of impending disaster, hopelessness, fear, and isolation.” Huston used unscripted interviews – something that would not standard for another ten years in documentaries. Additionally, he used real soldiers with different racial backgrounds – showing that it does not matter the background, upbringing or social standing of an individual, PTSD is non-discriminating. Their exact life experiences varied. Their common denominator was “death and the fear of death.”
Huston captured 375,000 feet of film or 70 continuous hours in all at Edgewood State Hospital in Deer Park, Long Island. After editing, he turned over a film that was only a little under an hour in length. However, all of Huston’s hard work and the groundbreaking insight into PTSD did not get the release it thought it would. Let There Be Light was suppose to premiere at the Museum of Modern Art but it never did. The government, after viewing the documentary, censored and refused to air it. In the end, they created a replacement documentary that consisted of all white actors with scripted roles in which PTSD was not caused by the war but, instead, by the soldiers’ upbringings.
Why did the government censor Let There Be Light? Huston later talked about the censorship and what the film meant to the soldiers involved.
The reason given was that it violated the privacy of the patients involved. I don’t think that was the real reason. The men who were in the picture—the patients whose recoveries we had witnessed—were proud of what they saw of themselves on the screen. As a matter of form, we had asked them to sign releases, and they were happy to do so. We pointed this out to the War Department, but when asked to produce these releases, we discovered that they had mysteriously disappeared. One day they were in the files at Astoria, and the next day they were gone. We then pointed out that, though the film indeed represented a deeply personal investigation into the innermost lives of these men, nothing was disclosed which might cause them to be ashamed. We proposed asking them individually to write letters of clearance, but the War Department said no. The authorities had made up their minds.
Some speculated that the main reason behind the censorship was that, by shedding light on war trauma, it would have negative impacts on recruitment. Regardless of the actual reason(s), the government locked the film away. In 1980, some notable people called for the film’s release. Among those supporters were producer Ray Stark, Vice President Walter Mondale and President of the Motion Picture Association of America, Jack Valenti, who stated that “I flew 51 combat missions and I know something about fear. This film is something I would want my son to see.” Their efforts played off. In December 1980, Let There Be Light was publicly seen for the first time.
The documentary’s message was clear and concise. The effects of war can ravish a person. It can leave them psychologically, emotionally and physically scarred but, with effective treatment and therapy, they can regain their life. That, in essence, there can be light again.
This post was included in the History Carnival 138: September Roundup hosted by The History Press Blog
Canby, Vincent. “‘Let There Be Light,’ John Huston vs. The Army.” New York Times, January 16, 1981.
Simmon, Scott. “Let There Be Light (1946) and Its Restoration,” Film Preservation, 2012.
Vogel, Steve. “John Huston film about WW II soldiers that Army suppressed is restored,” The Washington Post, May 24, 2012