Let There Be Light: John Huston’s 1946 Documentary on PTSD

John Huston is one of the great directors of American movies. Who hasn’t seen “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), “The African Queen” (1951) or “The Misfits” (1961)? And always with great sympathy for the underdog. Now, after 66 years of being hidden away because of the feared impact on soldier and civilian alike, his 1946 documentary about returning “psycho-neurotic” — now called PTSD– soldiers, is available.

It is so affecting, even on the computer screen I can scarcely imagine seeing it on a big screen in a dark theater. Here it is, 58 minutes long. Keep in mind, none of these men are acting. The camera is bringing them to us, in all their raw emotion.

John Huston’s World War II documentary Let There Be Light is so legendary for its censorship controversy that its sheer power as a film has been easy to miss. Produced by the U.S. Army in 1945, it pioneered unscripted interview techniques to take an unprecedented look into the psychological wounds of war. However, by the time the film was first allowed a public screening—in December 1980—its remarkable innovations in style and subject, which in the 1940s were at least a decade ahead of their time, could be taken as old hat, especially because of the poor quality of then-available prints. This new restoration finally reveals the film’s full force.

Let There Be Light

Some of the illness and treatments you will see are excellently described in Pat Barker‘s powerful WW I Regeneration trilogy, itself bringing into fiction the work on traumatized soldiers of W.H.R. Rivers.  The long scene on hypnosis may seem odd, even a bit of hocus pocus, but Rivers in 1914-1920, pioneered its use and  argued strongly for its utility and success, particularly as measured against the other recommended “cure,” electroshock therapy. [Just imagine a soldier with psychosomatic paralysis, or stuttering, being shocked repeatedly until he ‘improved.”  This was done to British soldiers traumatized by the never ending trench fighting of WW I, though not, as far as I know, to US soldiers in the period of Huston’s film.]