John Huston’s banned film on war stress: Let There Be Light

Among his many Hollywood films, John Huston directed The African Queen, The Misfits, and The Treasure of Sierra Madre. In WWII Huston served in the Army Signal Corps where he directed and produced three highly acclaimed films: Report from the Aleutians (1943), about soldiers readying for combat; The Battle of San Pietro (1945), the story (censored by the Army) about poor intel and heavy casualties, and Let There Be Light. Where the military felt Huston’s war films were demoralizing, it found the documentary Let There Be Light to be completely unacceptable. His portraits of severely traumatized men was banned and buried for thirty-five years.

Upon home coming, for the next two to three months these emotionally scarred men are to receive intensive therapy before being discharged back to their neighborhoods. The case studies include: “the Man Who Could Not Walk”, “the Man Who Could Not Remember” and “the Man Who Could Not Talk”.  Hypnotized, a man recalls that he first stuttered the letter S because the sound brought on memories of the hiss of incoming artillery shells. The therapy frees him. “Oh listen, I can talk!” he cries repeatedly, lying on the floor, and near to weeping, on the psychiatrist’s couch.

Where Huston intended the films to encourage prospective employers about the emotional state of battle tested GI’s, the military thought the film too upsetting for the public, burying until 1981. Huston interpreted the army’s reaction to what he called “the warrior myth,”  the imperative that men who fought in war are much the better for it. Let There Be Light revealed the warrior myth to be an illusion at best.

By today’s standards the 1940s treatments for the profound psychological effects of combat were raw, simplistic, unrefined, a blend of pop psychology and drug-induced recall. The film ends on the dissatisfying image of a bare-chested baseball game on the hospital grounds – suggesting that all are now healed and well and life goes on as before.

Still, Let There Be Light is a remarkable film, more so because the production of it led Huston to realize that “the primary ingredient in psychological health is love. The ability to give love and to receive it.”


The Guardian