resented in cooperation with the National Archives and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, this collection features four documentaries directed by John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen) as part of his service as an officer in the Army Signal Corps. The documentaries are not simple propaganda, but reflect Huston’s own changing attitudes toward war. Winning Your Wings (18:19 min) is a recruitment film for the U.S. Army Air Forces, hosted by Jimmy Stewart. Report from the Aleutians (44:48 min) reveals the tedium of being stationed at a remote Army post in the islands of Alaska. With San Pietro (32:05 min), however, the tone of Huston’s documentaries begin to take a dark turn, documenting an Italian military battle that cost an estimated 1,100 American lives, revealing, in unflinching detail, the retrieval and burial of casualties. The Army chose not to publicly screen the film. The final installment, the emotionally devastating Let There Be Light (57:50 min) narrated by Walter Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), is considered to be one of the most important wartime documentaries ever made, depicting the treatment of “psychoneurotics” (now known as post-traumatic stress disorder), through hypnosis, drugs, and psychotherapy.
Like many notable figures in Hollywood, director John Huston joined the war effort in 1942. He was a captain in the United States Army and his skills were used to make films for the Army Signal Corps. In conjunction with the National Archives and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Olive Films has released four documentaries shot during his time in the service. Although they are not connected, when seen together they present an interesting story of a soldier's experience with war.
The disc begins with 'John Huston’s Wartime Documentaries: An Introduction' (HD, 26 min), which may be considered an extra, but it serves as a great starting point for those who don't know the material. The narrator gives an overview of Huston’s work and the reactions it garnered from his superiors. Archival audio of Huston allows him to give his perspective about what was going on at the time.
Dedicated to the Youth of America, 'Winning Your Wings' (HD, 18 min) stars Lieutenant Jimmy Stewart, who is on hand to sell them on the idea of choosing the U.S. Army Air Forces before getting drafted and ending up who knows where. The film helps with the sales job, showing off the impressive planes and playing the majestic music of what is now known as "Air Force Song." Actors ask questions that college and high school students would have and Stewart calms their concerns. Naturally, there's never a mention of anything negative.
'Report from the Aleutians' (HD, 45 min) tells of the men stationed on Adak Island and their battle with the Japanese who have control of the island Kiska. Narrated by Huston, the film has a much more accurate picture of military life than the previous one. After honoring the pilots who recently died in combat, the film shows the men working mundane tasks and struggling with the boredom, subpar food, and lack of information. Huston does too good of a job capturing the boredom as the film drags a bit. In addition to men getting killed it also reveals that some also end up “sorely crippled.” The jacket states it won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short but the Academy's website states it was only nominated.
'San Pietro' (HD, 32 min) also known as 'The Battle of San Pietro' is about U.S. and British military fighting against Axis forces in Italy. Artillery fires day and night as the Allies march. Men are killed during one assault and turned back, but other groups attack from different positions. The enemy is shown dead, as is U.S. soldiers, and as prisoners but never during combat. Turns out some of the scenes were shot before and after the actual battle. The most troubling footage shows the women, children, and elderly of San Pietro who suffered through the bombing.
Censored for 35 years, 'Let There Be Light' (HD, 58 min) looks at those who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. On-screen graphics reveal that “about 20% of all battle casualties in the American Army during World War II were of a neuropsychiatric nature,” and considering what stigma there is even now regarding mental illness, there was likely many more who suffered from it in silence. The film shows soldiers receiving treatment in the form of hypnosis and narcosynthesis. It's sad to these men suffering; one even needlessly apologizes for breaking into tears. Unfortunately, there's no explanation of what they experienced in the field, and one of therapy session reveals some had childhood issues, which seems to be trying to pass the buck.
The films in 'Let There Be Light' offer an intriguing look back, which WWII history buffs should enjoy. However, the films aren't the most engaging documentaries, so if the subject matter isn't of interest on its own, they might not make for compelling viewing.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Olive Films presents ‘Let There Be Light’ on a 50 GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a standard keepcase. The disc boots up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements and the films can be viewed indivdiually or all together with the "Play All" feature. p>
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.33:1. These films are over 60 years old and they certainly have the wear and tear to show for it. They all have black and white specks in varying degrees and obvious film grain.
'Report from the Aleutians' was shot in color. The three other films have rich blacks and strong contrast. The segments with actors in 'Winning Your Wings' have the sharper image than the other material in the film. 'San Pietro' has frame-long vertical scratches and some white ones as well. There's a bit of jitter and flicker as the film starts. A tiny bit of hair pops up in one scene of 'Let There Be Light' at the bottom of the frame.
'Report from the Aleutians' was filmed on 16mm Kodachrome stock, and begins with a statement that reads “this HD master was created from a 16mm reduction print. The quality of the master is below Olive Films’ usual technical standard." What color there is skews towards red, as seen in things like the pinkish-brown vegetation. The blacks frequently crush and shadow delineation is nil. Objects are soft, depth is limited, and the grain is extreme. In addition to the specks are vertical scratches of both black and white and even at one point light bled into the negative.
The audio is available in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. The worst again is 'Report from the Aleutians'. A warble effect during the opening credits never goes away. Huston's narration is distorted and the music sounds muffled. The best sound comes from the loud rumble of bombers taking off. The interviews during 'Let There Be Light' also sound a slight bit distorted.
However, the actors in 'Winning Your Wings' are very clear when giving speaking their dialogue. The music in this short also sounds better. Better care was obviously taken in what was essentially a sales pitch.
Although 'Report from the Aleutians' brings down the A/V scores for this set, I don't think many of those interested in these films will be concerned, as the historical significance will trump any technical deficiencies. Those interested in the use of propaganda will not only enjoy 'Winning Your Wings' but also appreciate seeing how the Army tried to soften the story of 'Let There Be Light' with 'Shades of Gray'.