Friday, September 7, 2012

Let There Be Light (1946): A Review


A Light in the Dark Night of the Soul...

The agony of veterans returning from World War II was not something that made for feature films.  In fact, the first one that I can think of that touched on the post-war lives of WWII veterans was The Best Years of Our Lives.  Even in that film, there was a layer of romanticism that made its still jarring images of disabled veterans palatable. 

Let There Be Light, the third in director John Huston's trilogy of documentaries made for the United States government (after Report From the Aleutians and The Battle of San Pietro) was suppressed for many decades due to its unflinching imagery of psychologically troubled veterans and their recovery.   Let There Be Light still has a great impact in seeing how these men come into the hospital, extremely troubled, and after various treatments, are able to find a version of themselves that allows them a sense of normalcy as they reenter civilian life. 

Walter Huston's distinct voice narrates Let There Be Light, starting from when the soldiers and sailors return from the front.  In a prologue we learn that 20% of casualties are neuropsychiatric (read: mental), and that with hypnosis and narcosynthesis (a fancy way of saying 'using drugs to create a hypnotic state) there is a concerted efforts to cure those suffering from 'shell-shock' (what would now be termed 'post-traumatic stress disorder').  We begin by looking at the 'casualties of the spirit', seeing the various men interviewed by psychiatrists.

The interviews are sparse, with only the interviewer and subject (along with the cameras, which the men had been told on arrival to pay no mind to, as they were merely chronicling their experiences).  Even though the film was made in 1946 (curiously the same year The Best Years of Our Lives was released),  the sight of these young men is still at times agonizing.

They are all soft-spoken, almost hushed in how they speak.  They talk about the dreams they have, seeing others die, and one breaks down in tears, apologizing for it.  They are all troubled men, frightened even, by their experiences in conflict, which life did not prepare them for.

As we continue, we are introduced to some remarkably tough cases during the eight to ten weeks in treatment the narration tells they will go through.  While we never heard the doctors refer specifically to patients by their names (and neither did the elder Huston), I thought I heard the name 'Guirardi', and his case was shocking.

Even though, we are told, he is perfectly healthy physically, his psychiatric health has literally left him almost completely unable to walk.  With some treatment from the doctor speaking to him and using sodium amytal (the so-called 'truth serum) to get the patient to think he can walk, this patient does indeed walk normally, and the doctor leaves the patient with the post-hypnotic suggestion that he is perfectly able to walk.

As time progresses, the patients we are following continue other types of therapies: occupational (where they paint or create hobby-horses), play sports and conduct group therapy sessions where they are able to discuss things freely. 

The use of hypnosis is strong in Let There Be Light: one amnesiac from the battle of Okinawa who has forgotten not only the battle but his name is brought back to the present due to it.  As the film continues, we see the patients slowly coming back to a sense of themselves pre-war.  We are shown footage of how they were when they first came in intercut with the men playing a spirited game of baseball.  Let There Be Light ends with an optimistic note, as they are given their discharge papers and head on out, presumably to better lives.

As one looks on it perhaps the film's high endorsement of hypnosis and sodium amytal may no longer carry the same weight today than it did in 1946.  We also don't go into who these men were or might have been before they were forced into intense and difficult situations where death was only one mistake away. 

However, especially with so many veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, films like Let There Be Light show that the treatment of PTSD is nothing new and that war causes injuries that are not visible to the naked eye, things to ponder especially with a high rate of suicides among veterans today.  Films like Let There Be Light are time capsules to a time when these issues were treated seriously, if not by the general public (which understandably wanted to forget almost everything to do with the war), at least by the military (which understood that men damaged psychologically by war would make poor civilians).

One can see why the government kept Let There Be Light hidden from the general public: images of trembling as a result of war might make a nation pause about the effects of war on those hailed (correctly) as heroes. 

Our Heroes Don't Tremble or Break Down In Tears.

That would be the traditional narrative of men coming back from war, to just take it and move on.  Sometimes that isn't possible, not without great injury to themselves, and perhaps to others. 

Let There Be Light delves, briefly (at 58 minutes, it is a short film), into a subject people may not have wanted to know about (even today) but which necessitates exploring. Perhaps it might be a little simplistic to suggest that with some baseball, art classes, and hypnosis a soldier would or could be cured from PTSD.  Its optimistic ending might be something from a Hollywood film.  However, Let There Be Light is a searing look (or as much of a searing look the late 1940s would allow) into the hidden wounds of battle.                 


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