Film Review the Battle of San Pietro by John Huston Film Review

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¶ … Battle of San Pietro by John Huston

To the eyes of a modern viewer, the Battle of San Pietro, a documentary crafted by John Huston, seems a very rare thing: a film intended to be a propagandistic war film that is also a work of art. "John Huston was one of the Hollywood directors enlisted by the U.S. Army during World War II to make films to explain aspects of the war to soldiers and civilians. While Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, and John Ford trumpeted the dangerous but heroic fight, Huston (unsurprisingly) turned out to be the merciless realist. The Battle of San Pietro was completed over the objections of Huston's superiors and rarely shown until long after the war ended: considering that these films were designed to build morale, a documentary about a battle lost at a terrible cost in manpower and material was not what anyone was hoping to see" (Deming 2010). Another facet of the film, perhaps the most controversially anti-war of all is the ending sequence when the ordinary Italian villagers are revealed, picking through the rubble. They are not fearsome enemies, but ordinary men and women caught in the grip of history. It is perhaps this aspect of the film that was most disturbing to the military men who viewed Huston's creation -- the notion that despite the film's use of the phrases 'we' and 'them,' the distinction between them and us, enemy and the American viewer is not so great after all.Buy full Download Microsoft Word File paper
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The real-life battle of San Pietro was a bloody battle that resulted in many American casualties, although without it the Allied forces could never have penetrated deep into Continental Europe and broken the Axis front lines. "The Germans, making full use of the town's natural fortifications, dug in and began defending their position by slaughtering hundreds of Allied troops. The 143rd infantry regiment lost 12 of its 16 tanks in the bloody battle" (Erickson 2010). Director Huston and script writer Eric Ambler decided to personalize the experience by concentrating on the men of the 143rd, "sparing the audience nothing in showing the bodies of the victims, intercut with shots of those same unfortunates, grinning and gabbing in the hours before their deaths. The filmmakers fully intended the Battle of San Pietro as an anti-war film, but the military brass, concerned that the relatives of the dead soldiers would be subject to undue agony by so uncompromising a film, demanded that the picture be recut, toning down the stench of death and emphasizing the resilience of those who survived. Even in its truncated form, the Battle of San Pietro was strong stuff for a home-front audience weaned on the optimistic propaganda dispensed by newsreels and fictional Hollywood war pictures" (Erickson 2010). At the time, it was not as popular as Capra and Ford's less complicated views of the war amongst the public, but Huston's brief epic has stood the test of time, and inspired many filmmakers since, in creating even more harshly anti-war or highly ambivalent war films.

The subtitles of Huston as a filmmaker are evident in his choice of this specific conflict -- by selecting a battle that was both necessary yet brutal, Huston does not come down squarely in the anti-or pro-war 'camp' although he identified himself as anti-war in all subsequent interviews about the film. The viewer must confront his or her own views about the necessity of World War II and its brutality for both Americans and Italians. The film used "35mm hand-held Eyemo newsreel cameras in the midst of gunfire, its camera angles are low and from the ground. Shots are grabbed, immediate, unexpected. It is a vivid, complete record" of the battle and even while it seems to supports the efforts of the U.S. military it is shocking to see the contrast of living soldiers and dead soldiers over the course of the film -- there are no romantic death scenes, only scenes of soldiers carried out on stretchers (Schoenherr 2005).

In its day, the film's gritty realism, despite its voice-over support of the American cause, brought forth the censure of the American army. Only General George Marshall came to its defense. Even Marshall could only praise its value as a training film, rather than an actual work of persuasive propaganda that would draw support for the American cause. Marshall felt that the film was not suitable for release to the general public and could inflame public anger and alarm, because of its portrayal of dead Americans. While throughout the documentary, Huston's stentorian voice apparently tells the viewer what to think and feel about the American cause, even Huston's patriotic voice-overs are often a stark contrast between the images of death, the unheroic portraits of young men enjoying themselves or pawing through the rubble or finally of the old and young Italian people -- men with canes, girls in braids, walking around the now burnt-out city they call home.

Huston deliberately tried to make his work of art seem artless, although he was not above using crafty cinematography to clarify the viewer's impressions: "The battle sequences have a handheld, cinema-verite look, but careful viewers will notice, for instance, the oddly large number of apparently left-handed soldiers. Evidently Huston flipped some shots to make the soldiers' screen movements correspond to the east-to-west attack on the maps: 'we' always attack from right-to-left, 'the enemy' from left-to-right" to avoid confusion (Schoenherr 2005).

Huston's use of the term 'we' is both particularly effective: it apparently allies the viewer with the Allied powers, and assumes that the viewer is sympathetic with the American fighters. When Huston tells the viewer that 'we' must assault the enemy and emerge victorious, it seems there is no rhetorical or intellectual 'space' for the viewer to disagree -- how can one disagree about siding with 'we?' But the images in the film question this notion of 'we.' After all, do not 'we' have people near and dear to us who are old and young, like the ordinary Italians in the film? The wide-eyed children dressed in misshapen rags seem to demand the viewer's sympathy with their wide-eyed optimism and charm, as a children's chorus plays in the background. "Living was resumed in San Pietro," says Huston, implying that war is contrary to life, youth, and health. "The people in their military innocence look on us solely as our military deliverers," says Huston.

This is the true nature of war: children smile in delight, even though they wear the clothes of the elderly. The green land of San Pietro yields a "good harvest" and the people do not care what army liberates them, so long as they can continue their ordinary, humble lives. Life is what matters, not glory and death, suggests Huston. Huston's decision to end with images, not of soldier's glory, but of common, agricultural farming people entirely disconnected from the machinations of the Great Powers is a powerful anti-war statement, more powerful, to some degree, than the images of bodies.

Huston's directorial hand is thus always evident, even while he strives to create an impression of truthful reporting from the frontlines reporting with every jerk of the camera. Huston's narration, his 'voice of God' of unquestioned authority, may seem to put a positive spin on virtually every image that flits before the camera, in deference to the fact that his documentary was commissioned by the army, yet the pictures speak far more poignantly than his words. At best (from the point-of-view of the military) Huston's images are more visceral than his narration, at worst, there is an ironic tension between his voice-over, and the humility of the civilian Italian enemies who does not care who wins or loses, so long as they can live to see the next day.

Huston is always… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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