Review: John Huston’s Let There Be Light

This review is provided by guest contributor Nat Almirall. You can read more of Nat’s writing at Frothygirlz and The Flickcast.

Perhaps the darkest of Huston’s war documentaries, Let There Be Light is a stark and frank look into the lives of war veterans suffering from mental illness. Filmed at Mason General Hospital in Long Island, it chronicles a wide spectrum of psychologically disturbed patients, their psychiatric treatments, and eventual recovery. Huston chose that location because it was then the largest such center in the East, and its officers, doctors, and even patients were willing to let themselves be filmed.

Students of psychiatry may be interested in it as an expose of outdated psychiatric techniques (Huston makes a point of mentioning in his autobiography that he and his crew shot a patient undergoing shock therapy, which “was then much more severe than it is now. The patient used to arch his body so violently that five people were needed to hold him so he wouldn’t break his back,” knowing full well that he couldn’t use it in the final cut of the film), but Huston’s much more interested in the personal than the scientific.

Although he received full consent to film from all the patients (or their guardians), none of the patients is ever named. It’s probably for the best, because they’re so far gone from the people their friends and family knew that it’d be useless to identify them with a name. Instead, we recognize them for their suffering, such as the young soldier who, despite being in perfect physical health, has convinced himself that he cannot walk. Or the 30-something man who cannot bring himself to pronounce certain sounds; we learn later, when the man is placed under hypnosis, that the reason is because he associates those sounds with gunfire. There’s a chilling moment when one repressed patient screams out during treatment that he can speak—his voice conveys so much pain it’s difficult to watch and listen.

Their anonymity also serves the purpose of making each patient a representative, of sorts, for others suffering from similar neuroses. Give a name, and you isolate that illness with that man alone; leave him anonymous and it could be anyone—and, indeed, more than just that one.

Huston says he found Mason General “unsettling”, among other things, noting that one in ten of the patients were psychotics, and the film ends on a very unconvincingly happy note as all of the cured patients play ball while the scene flashes back to each of their maladies—including the man who couldn’t walk, now stealing third base. I don’t know if Huston added this to get the film passed by the censors (which refused to release the film for 30 years), but it’s out of sync with the rest of the film. Directors have to make sacrifices, and I suspect this was one of them. (Not to say that Huston didn’t respect the doctors of Mason General, because he did, but the pages in his autobiography mention little about the patients being cured.)

For the most part, though, Let There Be Light is a deeply moving documentary on the psychological trauma of war. None of the footage was rehearsed or reenacted–everyone on screen is saying what they really said and doing what they really did, which is good to keep in mind while watching because you’ll often find yourself skeptical that this is really happening. Personally, the most unsettling moment comes early in the film, when a black soldier comes in for an interview. He addresses the doctor with such confidence that he seems completely out of place among his peers. But as he tells his story of getting a photograph of his sweetheart, the confidence is gradually stripped away, tears begin to glaze his cheeks and his voice wavers—he apologizes, but the doctor tells him to continue. He does, but gets only a sentence or two further and then this man, who moments before had the poise of a granite statue, collapses, wailing. — Nat