In the final months of WWII, John Huston made a film documenting the psychiatric rehabilitation of shell-shocked American GIs, who were returning to the states by the thousands. Produced under the auspices of the US government and immediately banned by its sponsor, LET THERE BE LIGHT had
to wait 35 years for a public screening. The film's history raises an interesting constitutional question: Can the state forbid taxpayers to see a movie made with their money?
After noting that 20 percent of WWII's US Army casualties were neuropsychiatric in nature, LET THERE BE LIGHT begins with footage of soldiers returning from the war. Next we see a racially integrated group of GIs--unwounded but for the fear and unhappiness in their faces--receiving an orientation
lecture at the hospital to which they have been assigned. Excerpts from a dozen preliminary psychiatric interviews show patients weeping, stammering severely, deeply mired in their private miseries. We then see the men sleeping restively, standing morning inspection, undergoing physical and
Rorschach testing. Later they are shown participating in various forms of occupational, sports, and group therapy.
A patient suffering from psychosomatic paralysis is given an injection of truth serum and put in a state of hypnosis. After being questioned about his anxieties, the young man finds that he can walk again. With the help of miracle drugs and hypnosis, an amnesia victim and a severely tongue-tied
patient are shown being almost instantly cured, at least for the moment.
On the road to recovery, the men enjoy visits from loved ones and are instructed in how to adjust to postwar civilian life. "Knowledge alone is not enough," they are warned, and are encouraged to find lifelong helpmates who will afford them "safety and confidence" and, most importantly, love. The
film closes with the patients, now laughing and happy, playing softball, receiving their discharge papers, and returning on buses to civilian life.
Lit, photographed, and edited with unusual taste and professionalism for a state-sponsored film, LET THERE BE LIGHT was shot over a period of three months in Mason General Hospital on Long Island, New York. Its goal, in Huston's words, was "to show how men who suffered mental damage in the service
should not be written off but could be helped by psychiatric treatment. . . The original idea was that the film be shown to those who would be able to give employment in industry...." The treatment of psychotic patients was not included in the film. Huston reported that the patients he
photographed generally made more rapid progress than the others. "Making that film was like a religious experience," recalled the director, who pronounced it "the most joyous, hopeful thing I ever had a hand in.
Completed in 1945 the movie was immediately barred from public exhibition by the War Department, which would not allow it to be shown to even the civilian employers who constituted its intended target audience. The official rationale was respect for the privacy of the GIs captured on screen, but
Huston disputed that explanation, maintaining that all the soldiers had signed releases (which at one point mysteriously disappeared) and were deeply proud of their rehabilitations. Many believed that the real reason for the film's suppression was its failure to reinforce the myth of the happy,
fearless American fighting man who could take anything the enemy dished out. In 1981, following pressure from MPAA president Jack Valenti and others, the federal government lifted its ban and LET THERE BE LIGHT finally saw the light of day.
The irony is that rarely have the US government or its representatives been exhibited more favorably in a documentary than they were in this one. The military psychiatrists depicted seem like angels of healing and the bureaucracy that employs them seems remarkably conscientious and compassionate.
Indeed the principal criticism the film has received since 1981 has been aimed at its unalloyed positivism--its disinclination to include any instances of therapeutic failure or to adequately stress the danger of relapse. Additionally, any hint of the role of racial victimization or repressed
homosexuality in combat neurosis is (unsurprisingly) absent.
Given the built-in limitations of its propagandistic objectives and the conformist era in which it was produced, LET THERE BE LIGHT is an extraordinarily sensitive and moving work, an uplifting relic of a pre-Vietnam period in which it was still possible to believe in benign governmental
authority. Those who see it are unlikely to ever forget the exclamation of the young GI who realizes his stammer is gone: "I can talk! Oh God, listen, I can talk!" (Adult situations.)
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- Released: 1981
- Rating: NR
- Review: In the final months of WWII, John Huston made a film documenting the psychiatric rehabilitation of shell-shocked American GIs, who were returning to the states by the thousands. Produced under the auspices of the US government and immediately banned by its… (more)