In 1945, John Huston filmed a documentary about returning World War II veterans suffering from what was then called shellshock, but which we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. The resulting film, Let There Be Light, was stunning in its blunt portrayal of soldiers displaying nervous tics or relentless stuttering or suffering from amnesia, loss of motor skills or other psychosomatic disorders.
Too stunning, perhaps, because the U.S. Army banned public showings for decades, going so far as to seize a copy from Huston moments before he was to show it at the Museum of Modern Art. Apparently, they were concerned that nobody, having seen what up-close combat could do to the minds of ordinary American citizens, would ever enlist in the armed forces. In 1947, the Army filmed a cleaned-up version of Huston’s documentary, using actors with scripted dialogue which downplayed the severity of the problem. It was also notable that the cast of the Army version was lily-white; the soldiers seen in Huston’s film were a racial mixture.
In 1980, the Army finally approved a showing for a Los Angeles retrospective of Huston’s films, and it has circulated in poor-quality prints ever since. In 2010, it was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry. A high-quality copy of the film is now available for streaming or download for three months at the National Film Preservation Society website.
On the weekend we honor those who gave their lives for their country, it is worthwhile to spend 58 minutes with Huston’s film. Although some of the onscreen recoveries seem too easy, try watching the GIs treated with hypnosis or sodium amytal for having forgotten their identity or losing the ability to speak clearly without being alarmed at what war can do to one’s lucidity. Try watching the African-American soldier suddenly breaking down in tears while discussing his sweetheart without feeling the normal human decency of all of the patients. Try watching the soldier whose brain had shut down his legs during combat later circling the bases during a softball game without realizing how much these men, once recovered, still had to offer to the country.
Try watching the film without thinking: May we never subject our youths to these horrors ever again.