Let there be light, finally

A documentary on the trauma of war, banned by the US government for more than 30 years, has found its way onto YouTube as a freely viewable video.

During World War Two, legendary director John Huston, then a fresh face in Hollywood, was commissioned to make three propaganda films for the US Army.

The third film, Let There Be Light, was made in 1946 – just as the war ended – and focussed on the psychiatric treatment of soldiers traumatised in combat.

This is a description from the fantastic book The Empire of Trauma:

With no political agenda, and anxious to keep scrupulously to the task he had been given, Huston applied to the letter the principle of objectivity he had followed in the two previous documentaries. For more than three months, he filmed the daily life of former combatants hospitalized at Mason General, a military hospital on Long Island. The courage and sense of sacrifice of these men was clearly portrayed, as the Pentagon had clearly requested. But equally apparent was the fact that some of them were utterly destroyed: their fear, their shame, and their tears showed clearly, as did their contempt for military authorities. The film also documented the arrogance and harshness of the psychiatrists and brutality of some of their therapeutic methods. Remarkably, when the film received its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 1981, the emotional response of the viewers and critics was muted, for the film did not meet the expectations of an audience seeking revelations about the military and medical practices of the time.

What made the film so controversial in 1946, made it commonplace in 1981. But this was nothing to do with film-making, and instead concerned the way it portrayed the effects of trauma.

Let There Be Light portrays the “emotionally damaged” soldier as an everyday person “forced beyond the limit of human endurance”. “Every man”, it says, “has his breaking point”.

This is the modern view of trauma, widely accepted in psychiatry and in today’s media narratives, and is itself somewhat of a simplification of what we actually know about how people react to extreme events.

But in 1946, and especially in military psychiatry, the most widely accepted view was that soldiers who became mentally ill were psychologically weak or malingering.

The fact that film showed US Soldiers, not as the glorified heroes the public wanted, but as disabled veterans, meant that the film would be a huge propaganda disaster – likely compounded by the fact that most people saw these conditions as character flaws or shameful faking.

The idea that these were ordinary men who had been through extraordinary circumstances was just too far ahead of its time to seem realistic.

And this is why it was censored, for 35 years, until it had its first public showing in 1981, when it seemed nothing more than a passé propaganda film that just reflected what we all assumed was always the case, but actually, never was.

Link to film on YouTube
Link to downloadable version on Internet Archive.

10 thoughts on “Let there be light, finally”

  1. So your telling me that the release of this “baned video” online after 30 years coincided with the executive order from President Obama which states: (http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/08/31/executive-order-improving-access-mental-health-services-veterans-service)

    ” this order directs the Secretaries of Defense, Health and Human Services, Education, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security to expand suicide prevention strategies and take steps to meet the current and future demand for mental health and substance abuse treatment services for veterans, service members, and their families.

    So, why all the interest suddenly in the mental health of veterans. From one perspective this could help alot of people. From another, it could be a means to detain and indefinatly medicate or incarcerate these supposedly dangerous people.

    If you believed that the USA was heading into an economic downturn of serius consequence which perspective seems accurate?

    Seems to me there might be a propaghanda effort in play to shape Americans perceptions of our post 9/11 veterans, to raise doubt or discredit what they have to say.

    What do you think mind hacks? Is this crazy or sound logic?

    1. o_O dude. Do you have ANY idea how hard it is to help people with post-war trauma?! There is never enough help given to people coming out of war.

      You’re reading conspiracy into something that is a dire matter, and in doing so, beig very insulting to the plight of these people. This is a very real problem, that needs as much help as possible, not fuel for your paranoid delusions and desire for conspiracy theories.

      Here’s a conspiracy for you, if you so need such entertainment: America sent these people into a horrible war, for nothing but muscle flexing and who knows what else, and now they are coming back into a country that puts such a miserable effort into helping them survive life post-war, that even their fellow citizens disregard their need for help.

      1. Thank you to everyone who responded. It was a genuine question I asked and I appreciate the answers. I do have a propensity towards far out views, and part of why I ask a question at the end is for genuine feedback.

        That said, my intention is in no way to “disregard their need for help” I am well aware of the effects of war on soldiers. I have talked to many veterans in mt time. You yourself said “America sent these people into a horrible war, for nothing but muscle flexing” If a government would send it’s people to war for no good reason, why wouldn’t they continue some form of manipulation of those same people after they return. My statements are out of concern FOR the veterans.

        Finally, this may have been the wrong place to bring this up. If I wanted entertainment I would go and enjoy nature or spend time with my family. I brought it up here, because I wanted to see how that theory would play with people who are not into conspiracy theories.

  2. Well there’s another topic, brain science across eras in contrast to post-80s (did they even call it brain science in the 1940s?)

    I have to wonder if patients like this ever get better on their own with no treatment, even marginally.

  3. @ftcannonball Unless Obama issued his executive order in 1981, I have to assume you either didn’t read the post or didn’t understand a word you read.

  4. This film shows how dreadfully inept the military psychiatrists were at interviewing these traumatized soldiers! I hope they are better in today’s army. Perhaps they need to use properly trained clinical psychologists and clinical social workers….

  5. I just heard that there are almost 250,000 soldiers returning from our latest war with traumatic brain injury, a combination of the increased use of improvised explosive devises and better field medicine which saves more lives.

    There is also a record number of spousal abuse cases, divorce and suicide.

    This film couldn’t be more relevent.

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