The Battle Of San Pietro

  • 1944
  • Movie
  • NR
  • Documentary

John Huston's THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO, an account of the bloody fight between American and German forces for control of a small Italian village, is one of the most extraordinary and impressive historical documents of WWII. Strategical charts and maps are masterfully integrated with harrowingly authentic combat footage, and a rueful commentary written and...read more

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John Huston's THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO, an account of the bloody fight between American and German forces for control of a small Italian village, is one of the most extraordinary and impressive historical documents of WWII. Strategical charts and maps are masterfully integrated with

harrowingly authentic combat footage, and a rueful commentary written and spoken by Huston himself, to create a powerful antiwar statement. Because of an Army snafu, which inadvertently sent Huston and his crew into German-occupied territory right before US troops had arrived, the film has a

"you-are-there" immediacy and contains graphic combat footage taken from the foot soldier's point of view. The result was so potent that Pentagon officials originally balked at releasing it, feeling its impact was too strong. But Gen. George C. Marshall saw the film and decided that every American

soldier going into combat should see it because it would prepare them for the shock of actual warfare.

In the fall of 1943, Huston was sent to Italy by the War Department to film the liberation of Rome, but at the time, American troops were still fighting German troops far away, so Huston instead was asked to make a film detailing the reasons that the US drive had stalled. US Intelligence officers

informed Huston that German troops had been defeated at San Pietro, a small village in the Liri Valley leading into Rome, and sent Huston and his crew to film the triumphant Americans. Unfortunately, the Germans were still there, and in fact, Huston and his crew were the first Americans to arrive,

putting them in a rather precarious position, to say the least. They were fired at by German troops, and when the Fifth Army finally did arrive, Huston and his crew were in the front lines with the soldiers, closely following them as they embarked on a bitter and bloody assault. The casualties

were so heavy that when the battle was over, the 143rd infantry regiment needed over 1,100 replacements, and nine Signal Corps photographers were killed.

Unlike most war documentaries, which concentrate on shots of planes and ships, or shoot combat from a high vantage point, THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO gets right down into the foxholes with the average grunt and wallows in the mud and blood to show that war truly is hell. It begins ordinarily enough,

with a dry introduction by an Army officer explaining the strategic plan to draw German forces away from the Russian front and French coastal areas in order to contain them in the Italian peninsula, followed by quiet, pastoral scenes of the Liri Valley as Huston describes the tiny farming town of

San Pietro. But then the US troops arrive, and the serene countryside is blown apart by artillery fire, filling the night sky with frightening flashes of light, and the camera starts to shake--not as a stylistic device--but because the photographers are right beside the foot soldiers as they shoot

and are being shot at. The camera captures a soldier being shot and killed, and the way his body jerks and hits the ground is shocking in its sudden finality, unlike anything ever depicted in Hollywood movies, or many documentaries, for that matter. As the casualties pile up, mutilated corpses are

loaded onto stretchers and the feeling of pain and human suffering is palpable. When the Germans are finally defeated, the US troops enter the town, but there is no celebration, rather, the men dig graves for their fallen comrades and nail dogtags to their coffins. Even as the camera lingers on

the smiling survivors, Huston's narration sadly notes that many of these men have joined their brothers-in-arms who were killed. There is a truly heartwrenching moment at the end when the townspeople come out of hiding and a man breaks down after discovering the dead body of his wife; but life

goes on, and the children begin to laugh and play again, while mothers breast-feed their babies and the men go back to farming their land. With its searing images of death and destruction, and Huston's poetic narration, THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO shows the human cost of war in the most vivid and

unforgettable terms imaginable. It's no wonder that Army brass wanted to suppress the film. Huston's next war documentary, LET THERE BE LIGHT, was even more controversial, depicting shell-shocked soldiers at a military hospital, and was shelved by the War Department until 1981. (Violence.)

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  • Review: John Huston's THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO, an account of the bloody fight between American and German forces for control of a small Italian village, is one of the most extraordinary and impressive historical documents of WWII. Strategical charts and maps are… (more)
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