San Pietro (1945)

21 - Battle of San Pietro.jpg

“The lives lost were precious lives- to their county, to their loved ones, and to the men themselves.”

Since the advent of the still camera, it has been easier than ever to demonstrate the horrors of war. In this film, San Pietro, John Huston documents real footage of a critical battle in the Italian campaign of World War II. The film is groundbreaking for its harsh depiction of the conflict and was immediately controversial upon release for assumptions that it criticized the war effort when it was originally commissioned by the US government. It’s a neat documentary that stands out among propaganda films for its strong visual direction and impressive cinematography.

The controversy is immediately clear upon watching this one. While Huston does glorify the Allied forces, he paints a very dismal picture of the battle. One of the film’s most famous shots is that of dead soldiers being loaded into body bags, which had never been shown onscreen before to the general public, resulting in the film being pulled from many screenings. His narration is often times morose, and behind the professional tone of narration you can hear the personal attachment to the conflict. It was clearly an important project for him to get right.

I think it’s definitely a bold decision by Huston to show such realism. I don’t think the film would have been deemed important otherwise. It’s often easier for the general population to be detached from the horrors of war without visuals such as these that make their way into the public eye. The film seems to assert that people really do need to know what goes on in these conflicts, the real struggle these men have to face. Huston clearly admires these soldiers very much and just wants to convey their story. The result is a passionate documentary.

The film has also gained some controversy for the actual footage. Huston claims that nearly all video was shot on the actual battlefront of the war and that some was recreated for the purposes of continuity. However, this claim was later challenged and it was just about proven that the footage of the battle was not genuine. This does discredit the art to a degree, but as I have stated before, I’m more concerned with the end product. It was still a dangerous job to go out and document this footage, and the final product is an impressive film, so I’ll give Huston a pass on this whole re-enactment thing.

One aspect I thought was a bit strange was the ending. I feel like Huston remembered that he was making a propaganda film and needed to slap in some patriotism, because a large chunk at the end of the movie is this total switch from gritty realism to star-spangled optimism. There are shots of women and children and narration about how their lives will be changed. There are people coming out of hiding now that the big strong Americans have saved them. It’s all a bit over-the-top and seems to take away from what the film is actually trying to accomplish.

Ultimately, this is the most interesting thing about the film. There is this dichotomy of the patriotic glamorizing for which Huston was commissioned and the dismal honesty it seems he wants to convey. The final product is a strange mashup. I wouldn’t say the film is pro-war, and Huston has been very opposed to this label himself. However, it really doesn’t come through strongly that the film is anti-war either. I’m not that into military conflicts, so the content itself didn’t interest me as much as the story behind this one. I saw it as John Huston’s film with the United States stamping in their restrictions and guidelines. For this contrast alone, I’d say San Pietro is worth a watch.

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Films Left to Watch: 980

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About Travis

I'm just some guy in college reviewing a bunch of movies. https://travisryanfilm.com/
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One Response to San Pietro (1945)

  1. I suppose if this had been pure propaganda it would not have been on the list. It is the subversiveness that makes it special. That and of course this is George Huston.

    Liked by 1 person

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