Novelist, reporter, screenwriter, and critic James Agee spent much of the ’40s picking through the output of Hollywood studios, seizing on anything clever or mature, and championing any writer or director who seemed willing to sneak some art into the mass media. Agee was especially taken with the work done by Hollywood filmmakers on behalf of the U.S. government during World War II, seeing these clear-eyed, straightforward, passionate documentaries as an example of “what men of talent, skill, and courage can do if even one hand is untied from behind their backs.” But the government wasn’t always as impressed as Agee. They censored some of the films Agee praised in his columns for Time and The Nation, and completely shelved John Huston’s Let There Be Light, which Agee aptly described as “a fine, terrible, valuable non-fiction film about psychoneurotic soldiers.” Whenever he found an opportunity, Agee reminded his readers about the fate of Let There Be Light, telling them that a movie paid for with tax dollars was gathering dust. Though he also said he understood why the government kept it from being released, because “any sane human being who saw the film would join the armed services, if at all, with a straight face and a painfully maturing mind.” Agee advocated for the guardians of the media and the public interest to behave like adults, but he never really expected them to.
In 2010, Let There Be Light was added to the Library Of Congress’ National Film Registry, and slated for preservation, in a process that has improved the documentary’s audio, making its interviews easier to understand. And that matters, because roughly three-fourths of the hourlong Let There Be Light consists of therapy sessions between military doctors (who speak clearly and even a little stiltedly, as if reading from a script) and soldiers who’ve been psychologically damaged by their time in combat, and can only meekly articulate what’s bothering them. If anything, the patients seem embarrassed by their situations. One hides his medals, because he’s ashamed of where he is; another breaks down crying while trying to describe a photograph that made him homesick, then stresses to his therapist that he’s “trying not to be this way.” There’s something depressingly rote about the way the doctors process these men through an obviously well-practiced system, using drugs, hypnosis, and the positive reinforcement of group therapy to rush them to a point where they can be released. But the men themselves often exhibit the limits of the system, shaking uncontrollably during a session, or becoming so elated by the effects of the drugs they’re on that they can barely pay attention to the questions they’re being asked.
Let There Be Light isn’t always as hard-hitting as Agee’s praise implies. The documentary was designed to highlight the good work of the army’s psych team, so it has a tidy redemptive arc, with soldiers arriving at the hospital unable to walk or speak, then spending their days playing baseball, doing crafts, and learning how to readjust to life as civilians, until they’re able to plaster on grins and collect their discharge papers. But hindsight lends a weight to Let There Be Light that likely wasn’t there in Agee’s day. When these soldiers say they’re going to be honest with future employers about their post-war institutionalization, they seem confident that there’ll be no stigma, while modern viewers may wonder just how smooth a road to recovery the patients actually had. Then again, Huston may have wondered, too. He opens the documentary by calling the men “human salvage,” and at one point during a group-therapy session, he asks, “What is the secret ingredient that gives joy and meaning to living?” It’s a moment of healthy skepticism, hinting at the kind of questions that the better Hollywood movies—like Huston’s first post-war feature, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre—soon tried to raise.
Let There Be Light will be streaming free on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website from Memorial Day weekend through the end of August. Also available: Huston’s 1945 combat documentary The Battle Of San Pietro (another Agee favorite), and the 1919 “plight of the veteran” doc The Reawakening.