In the era preceding, during, and after World War Two, documentaries and real-life depictions about the war, veterans, patriotism, post-war trauma…etc., exploded on the home front. John Huston’s “Let There Be Light” and Frank Capra’s “Prelude To War” are both documentary films about World War Two, however filmed for very divergent purposes and in very different angles. This paper will attempt to explore and compare the differences of both wartime documentaries, and evaluate the effectiveness of their balance between artifice and authenticity.
Huston’s 1946 film “Let There Be Light” was filmed with the intent to document the treatment and rehabilitation of psychologically damaged World War Two veterans. However, due to the explicit images of stumbling, shell-shocked soldiers, the United States War Department forbade civilian circulation on grounds that the film was demoralizing and detrimental to military participants.
While Huston battled US officials for permission to release “Let There Be Light,” Capra’s film “Prelude To War” was paid for by the government. This 1942 documentary was a powerful propaganda piece which chronicled the events leading up to World War Two, including the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy, and the Japanese attack on China. The film was intended to stir up support for the war effort.
“Let There Be Light” conveys a range of viewpoints and purposes: 1) To create a sympathetic documentary on the recovery of the psycho-neurotic soldier which would educate civilians to accommodate and accept them into society. 2) To depict post-war conditions which were more horrific than the battlefield. 3) To demonstrate that neurotic problems could be successfully treated, but at the same time the audience is left to ponder the fate of those patients who did not recover.
Huston brought his cameras to Mason General mental hospital in Long Island, where the patients’ interactions with the psychiatrists were recorded and filmed. Huge 35 mm cameras and sound recording equipment were permanently set up accompanied by a large crew of technicians. Opening statements make clear of Huston’s intention of being a storyteller: “No scenes were staged. The only direction was tactical. Where do you put your cameras? Then how to tell the story? Or how to let the story tell itself? I didn’t impose anything. The stories were sufficient.”
A ship branded by a large Red Cross streams into the opening scene of the film. Narrating the film is Walter Huston, John’s father. Curious men glance out toward the hopes of the shores. Nurses and male attendants fill the decks, and as patients struggle to disembark, they watch their heavy shadows move across the side of the ship. The cameras track their anguished souls, their fearful hearts, and some lost faith in humanity. `Here are men who tremble; men who cannot sleep; men with pains that are nonetheless real because they are of a mental origin. Men who cannot remember; paralyzed men, whose paralysis is dictated by the mind. . . The psychiatrists listen to the stories of the men, who tell them as best they can. Through all the stories runs one thread – death, and the fear of death.’
These fears were evident in the men’s testimonies and in their eyes. One man was even paralyzed by fear, literally, which impaired his ability to walk. The treatment was an injection of sodium amytol to stimulate a state similar to hypnosis which allowed the patient to explore his fears on free terrains. In a captivating scene, the doctor told him to “walk over to the nurse, all by yourself. That’s a boy. You’re just a little woozy, but that’s the medicine. Now come back to me. Open your eyes. That’s a boy. Now isn’t that wonderful?” The young man, amazed and overjoyed, walked. Huston used flashbacks at the end of the film to bare a shark contrast between the weak, battered faces and the same men who looked happy and healthy. An extraordinary transformation took place and “they were put back on their legs again- which was a wonder and a miracle.”
In comparison to the sensitive filming production and the soft glow of peaceful sentiment from Huston’s “Let There Be Light,” Capra’s “Prelude to War” was distinctly more dynamic, aggressive, and propaganda-like, in which the purpose was noticeably clear: 1) To depict Japan, Germany, and Italy as nations taken over by evil political leadership. 2) To depict Americans as a people leading the world to justice and infuse a sense of patriotism. 3) To drum up war effort support.
Through stirring music, forceful editing, and scenes of the Japanese, Germans, Italians ignorantly cheering for their respective political and military leaders, the film left one feeling immense patriotic pride. The film featured some women sewing silently but voluntarily, and other women assisting in other areas of work. These scenes were empowering, and they make the statement that it is everybody’s war, not just the soldiers.
Benito Mussolini gesticulating on a balcony in Rome, Hitler hailing hate and racial divide, and the Japanese military taking over political power…these sequences were compelling because they were a foreign concept to the American people who abhor dictatorship, adore freedom, and enjoy peace. This film also allowed the concept of “fighting for world peace” to prevail, even though pacifism was a popular ideology at the time. The documentary also featured a street poll of whether Americans should enter war. The woman at the window who cold-heartedly screamed “no,” and shut her windows was juxtaposed against warm, patriotic people who explained the need to fight for justice.
Comparing both World War Two films and its balance between artifice and authenticity, “Let There Be Light” is conspicuously more authentic than artificial, while “Prelude To War” leave some skeptics doubtful with government war propaganda. To put them in distinctive categories, Huston’s film exudes a “feminine” glow which radiates post-war genuine realism, a soft sense of rehabilitation, and a maternal sense of nursing. Capra’s documentary is in contrast much more “masculine” with its strong messages and forceful sequences. It emits a warrior-like attitude that exhibits qualities of invincible strength, responsibility, and an unassailable fighting spirit.
Although “Prelude To War” features many authentic scenes, there is very little room for those to expand its impact due to its propaganda nature. “Let There Be Light” is in comparison very real as all angles–the battered, the recovered, the fear, and the brave–are all shown.