America, America, Burning Bright

Credit: Daniel Zender

Soldier’s Heart

A post-World War II documentary, banned by the military in 1946 but lately released online, is one of the earliest depictions of psychotherapy. But it says even more about contemporary Americans’ interest in the veterans they love to praise.

Filmmaker John Huston considered the 1946 documentary Let There Be Light to be one of his best movies, though for decades its title has been bitterly ironic. Light was banned from public screening by the U.S. military, which deemed it too damning for proper release. At the dawn of the Reagan administration it had a brief theatrical release, but the print was damaged and the movie quickly disappeared from circulation yet again.

That elusiveness means it was a legitimate event for film buffs when the National Film Preservation Foundation began streaming a refurbished version of Let There Be Light on its website this past Memorial Day. And since the film was also the first documentary to feature unscripted talking-head interviews, we can finally see the origin of a cinematic technique so widespread that even sitcoms now employ it.

But film history isn’t the only context in which to appreciate Huston’s hour-long effort, his third and final film for the Army Signal Corps. Let There Be Light is also one of the earliest commercial depictions of psychotherapy, in this case the military’s use of it to treat what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a topic that’s only become more pressing: By the end of last year, the VA had served almost 212,000 PTSD victims back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and doctors agree that an equal number may never bother to seek treatment. Approximately 48 percent of Iraq-Afghanistan soldiers who sought VA care between 2002 and 2009 were diagnosed with some form of mental health issue.

The U.S. military has adapted accordingly, and now offers an array of pre- and post-battle therapies to help soldiers stave off and recover from traumatic experiences. Contemporary enlisted men and women get their brains scanned, their blood studied, and their “meta-cognition” measured. Let There Be Light’s gruff doctors—who inject sodium amytal and lead religious group therapy sessions—look prehistoric by comparison. Huston’s film is finally getting a proper release after its technical innovations have become commonplace and its medical insight has come to look quaint at best.

But Let There Be Light, like its routinely under-appreciated fictional counterpart, The Best Years of Our Lives, remains essential viewing. They convey a mixture of compassion and pity toward soldiers—an attitude that has no place in our current black-and-white arguments about “heroism.” The soldiers in these films don’t ask to be called heroes, they only want normalcy. Today’s returning soldiers surely feel the same, and yet their experiences on the battlefield are increasingly abnormal, even unknown, to most people they encounter upon returning.


Griffith is a serious-looking man, with a wide, sad face and watery eyes. He’s also a military man to his core; every movement is deliberate, every “sir” habitual. The doctor—who, like every one of his colleagues, smokes a cigarette during the interview—asks how he’s doing and Griffith says, “Fairly well, sir,” like he’s not in a mental hospital for treatment so novel that Hollywood is documenting it.

The soldiers in these films don’t ask to be called heroes, they only want normalcy. Today’s returning soldiers surely feel the same, and yet their experiences on the battlefield are increasingly abnormal, even unknown, to most people they encounter.

It takes only a minute for Griffith to crack, though who knows how long it really took before Huston and his editors whittled it down; the cigarette smoke disappears and reappears from shot to shot. He recalls his regiment and his deployments with a total lack of emotion: “I was with Headquarters Detachment, 50th Quartermaster Battalion, Mobile.” “You had to go in the hospital,” the doctor says. “Twice, sir,” says Griffith. The doctor reads aloud that Griffith had headaches and crying spells. “I believe in your profession it’s called nostalgia,” Griffith responds, pronouncing it no-stal-gee-yuh. (During the Civil War it had a more lyrical name: soldier’s heart.) He sounds genteelly southern. “In other words, homesickness,” the doctor agrees. “Yes, sir.”

“Shortly before the war,” Griffith explains, “I received a picture of my sweetheart.” And then he loses it—removes his glasses and pushes his eyes back into his head. “I’m sorry, I can’t continue,” he sobs. His “sirs” evaporate with his composure. He loses his military bearing, which in effect means he sheds his entire character. It’s uncomfortable to watch; the scene is shot so classically and yet conveys truly raw emotion, beyond any Hollywood product of the time.

Griffith stands up to leave, and the doctor calls him back, unfazed. Then the soldier delivers a soliloquy so strange and underwritten it couldn’t possibly be scripted. After apologizing and expressing shame, Griffith says he received the photograph right before leaving for Europe, and, “Well, sir, to be perfectly honest with you, I’m very much in love with my sweetheart. She has been the one person that gave me a sense of importance in that, through her cooperation with me, we were able to surmount so many obstacles.”

This description is so thoroughly un-dramatized, so mundane yet so impassioned, that it could only come from real life. However glossy Huston’s camera gets at times, Let There Be Light never loses a sense of emotional urgency. It has none of the vérité touches that we now associate with “serious” documentaries. Instead, it’s a perfectly manipulative Hollywood product, even a tearjerker of sorts.

The film follows the progress of a group of emotionally scarred soldiers, and we see Griffith throughout. He improves as well as anybody, regaining his composure and even exhibiting outward signs of happiness. He listens dutifully at group therapy, especially when the doctor leading it digs into some elemental psychotherapy: “I know I used to be in constant fear that my parents would find out my feelings,” one man admits. The doctor agrees, saying about the soldier’s mother, “She didn’t tell her troubles, and you didn’t tell yours. You took your troubles to God, and she probably did the same thing. Probably didn’t even confide in your father.”

Eventually, Griffith’s sweetheart visits, and she is ripe-cheeked and smiling, in a flower-patterned dress with her hair wrapped up in a big church hat. She’s out of central casting: “1940s Wholesome Black Army Wife.” And every single case study gets this same treatment in Let There Be Light. We see a half-dozen men go from soul-crushing heartache to 100 percent recovery in just under an hour. Many of them have physical symptoms as well, from a stutter to immobile legs. But by the end, they’re playing baseball together and getting ready to discharge. It’s disorienting.

Even Huston’s biographer Jeffrey Meyers calls “the Lourdes-like cures” of Let There Be Light “too facile and too rapid to be convincing,” and yes, the whole thing is edited, scored, and narrated (by Huston’s legendary father, Walter) like the propaganda piece that it nominally is. Yet it is also undeniably haunting and grim. The plain-clothes interviewees appear one by one, puttering into nondescript doctors’ offices to speak about their severe despair, and their affliction is photographed with sympathy and conviction. The scenes are long and harrowing even though they’re clearly condensed from hours of footage.

Let There Be Light makes the U.S. military look brilliant as an institution and sadistic as an employer, but then again, so did the news at the time. As early as 1943, according to Thomas Childers’s Soldier from the War Returning: The Greatest Generation’s Troubled Homecoming from World War II:

The Army was discharging ten thousand men each month for psychiatric reasons, and the numbers increased as the war dragged on. During the Battle of Okinawa, fought between late March and the end of June 1945, the Marines suffered twenty thousand psychiatric casualties. Woefully understaffed Veterans Administration (now the Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA) hospitals were swamped with “psychoneurotic” cases, and two years after the war’s end, half the patients in VA medical facilities were men suffering from “invisible wounds.”

So we see another way in which Let There Be Light shields us: Its interiors are clean and orderly and positively overstaffed. At one point, a sleeping soldier awakes in terror, and a nurse is already waiting by his bed, full-bosomed and gracefully comforting.

Nevertheless, the men and their stories are unforgettable. You finish the film drained, mostly grateful that they won’t have to fight again. Defending his earlier military documentary, San Pietro, from the charge that it was too anti-war, Huston told his Army superiors, “If I ever made a picture that was pro-war, I hope someone would take me out and shoot me.” They released that film after cutting a montage of dead American soldiers, but Let There Be Light’s less violent scenes were deemed an even greater potential scandal.


It’s tempting to assume that the military’s reticence to face up to the psychological damages of war overlapped with that of civilian society at the time. A greater percentage of Americans went to the movies in 1946 than in any year before or since, and the most popular films included instant time capsules like The Yearling, The Bells of St. Mary’s, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Disney’s Song of the South, a lineup that doesn’t exactly point to a popular hunger for psychological fallout from the recently won war. But by early 1947, the entire nation would be in thrall to a movie that offered just that, on an epic scale.

Seven months after the War Department forcibly prevented Let There Be Light from premiering at the Museum of Modern Art, a disabled Army vet named Harold Russell became the only man to win two Oscars for the same performance. He received best supporting actor and an honorary award for nonprofessional acting for his role as a returned soldier in The Best Years of Our Lives.

William Wyler’s 168-minute drama concerns the homecomings of three soldiers, and it was festooned with awards throughout the winter and spring of 1947, including a best picture Oscar and multiple Golden Globes and New York Film Critics Circle citations. Reviewers all but declared the film a public service. And Russell, who clutched his statues with the retracting hooks that had replaced his hands, was the symbol for Best Years’ progressive humanism.

Wyler also made films for the Army Signal Corps during the war, and first saw Harold Russell in a Corps training movie, Diary of a Sergeant. Best Years is a somber melodrama packed with Hollywood stars—what we’d now condemn as Oscar bait—but Russell’s very presence was groundbreaking for its time; no previous commercial movie had ever shown a war wound so matter-of-factly, and most similar characters in later movies, from Coming Home to Forrest Gump, have been played by non-disabled professional actors. In their 2006 book We’ll Always Have the Movies: American Cinema During World War II, Robert L. McLaughlin and Sally E. Parry state plainly that Best Years is “the best homecoming movie—indeed, one of the best movies of all time.”

Thankfully, that appraisal is gaining momentum once again, but for decades after its initial splash, The Best Years of Our Lives’ fate was like an inverse of the outcome for Let There Be Light; whereas the documentary acquired a significant reputation parallel to its unavailability, the drama hid in plain view on Turner Classic Movies while its humorless middlebrow aesthetic fell out of style. As early as 1957, Manny Farber called it “a horse-drawn truckload of liberal schmaltz.” “The film is very proud of itself,” wrote Chicago Reader critic Dave Kehr in the early ‘80s, “exuding a stifling piety at times, but it works as well as this sort of thing can.”

The Best Years of Our Lives isn’t cynical or judgmental of American society, as is now de rigueur for almost any serious war film, but like Let There Be Light, it’s quietly brave and emotionally devastating. Its three protagonists, played Russell, Dana Andrews, and Frederic March, are all returning soldiers who struggle to reacquaint themselves with the country they spent years defending. Russell’s character, Homer Parrish, is concerned that his teenage girlfriend will be frightened by his hooks. Andrews plays Fred Derry, an Air Force bombardier who finds that his skill set doesn’t transfer to the small-town work force as smoothly as he’d hoped. And March, who won Best Years’ other acting Oscar, plays Al Stephenson, husband and father of three who returns to his prewar career as a banker. But he can’t quite reconcile the shifting demands that his country has placed on him. “Last year it was kill Japs,” he tells his boss at the Cornbelt Trust Co. “This year it’s make money.”

We see a half-dozen men go from soul-crushing heartache to 100 percent recovery in just under an hour. By the end, they’re playing baseball together and getting ready to discharge.

The men collectively enact a full spectrum of emasculation after the heights of wartime glory. Homer can’t hold hands with his girl, and in fact needs her help getting in and out of his clothes. Fred ends up as the local soda jerk, after his only professional qualification—“I just dropped bombs”—fails to impress other employers. And Al is simultaneously heartened and dismayed that his family carried on perfectly well without him. In all cases, there’s a fatal disconnect between the military’s clear and unchanging expectations, and the muddier realm of civilian and romantic compromise. That the movie ends happily, with all three men making some form of peace with their understanding families, obscures the deep sadness and uncertainty that Wyler wrings from his essentially patriotic material. He obviously had great respect and compassion for servicemen, embodied by his casting of Russell in a major role, and the film’s central tragedy is its implication that fighting deprives soldiers of the domestic normalcy they all risk their lives to preserve.

Finding domestic normalcy is one of the biggest struggles for the patients in Let There Be Light, as well. They’re told that outsiders will not appreciate their experience, or that they “may run into employers that aren’t broad-minded or intelligent” enough to comprehend this strange, invisible injury that they’ve suffered. There isn’t yet a public language to describe the Army’s brain-oriented medicine or the afflictions that it treats, just as Homer Parrish worries that his girlfriend has “never seen anything like these hooks.”

It’s not simply the pain or PTSD that stymies these veterans; it’s the thought that no one will understand them. Despite their apparent corniness or obviousness regarding their subjects, both Let There Be Light and The Best Years of Our Lives are profound attempts at understanding. They proceed from a fundamental desire to honor American soldiers’ experience and dignity, and they appear simple only because they were made at a time when filmmakers could unreservedly praise the military without wading into a political argument.


The only contemporary movie I’ve seen that comes close to approximating the compassion and moral weight of the 1946 films is 2011’s Hell and Back Again. Director Danfung Dennis, a photojournalist who was embedded with the Marines in Afghanistan, switches back and forth between battle footage and present-day scenes at the Wal-Mart or at home with his subject, 25-year-old Sgt. Nathan Harris. In the field, Harris is a competent and successful leader caught up in a mission that hasn’t been adequately explained to him. At home, he’s couch-ridden from a horrific battle wound and caught in a perpetual painkiller fog. He dreams only of getting back to Afghanistan, where at least his days are directed and his purpose never in question.

We hear a similar sentiment from Dutch, the young interviewee in Let There Be Light who saw a friend, “Little Norman,” die in combat. “I just didn’t care what happened to me... I wanted to stay there. I wanted to keep on for him and all the other guys.” Their sense of duty is staggering, though it’s impossible to hear these testimonies and not imagine that, on some level, these men yearn to die.

No movie about the Iraq or Afghanistan wars could ever be legitimately apolitical, though Hell and Back Again comes close. Harris is given ample time to discuss his feelings on the war, and he’s forthright and skeptical in a way that elides any traditional left/right attachments. Dennis isn’t interested in making claims about the war’s legitimacy, only about the experience of veterans when they return. His conclusions are as damning as they are predictable: No proper community, military or otherwise, exists to help Harris heal from his psychological and physical wounds. He can’t find a foothold in the typical daily civilian experience—a reality echoed by the film’s paltry $40,000 box office takings despite an Oscar nomination for best documentary. It’s only the most recent movie about Iraq or Afghanistan to encounter widespread disinterest from critics, the public, or both.

Might the current wars be a greater box office draw if more than one percent of Americans were forced to fight them? Or if those of us at home could claim unequivocal victory? With those caveats, might we also take greater interest in the plight of returning soldiers or the noble, if insufficient, military efforts to help them prepare and recover?

Let There Be Light and The Best Years of Our Lives have endured tortuous paths in and out of public acceptance, despite the fact that their initial audiences had largely shared the sacrifices and celebrated the triumphs of their characters. Hell and Back Again shares the earlier films’ compassion and weariness about war itself, and is their technical equal. There’s no military order to keep it from public viewing, nor any risk (at least for now) that it might come to seem “schmaltzy.” If it falls prey to the same obscurity that swallowed its forebears, American civilian disinterest will be solely to blame. 

John Lingan has written for the American Prospect, the Quarterly Conversation, Slate, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other places. More by John Lingan