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The Best World War II Documentary Was Faked

But that doesn't make it any worse

War Activities Committee of the Motion Pictures Industry

An exceptional movie book has just been published. It is called Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, by Mark Harris. It is a history of American documentary films made during World War II as told through five feature-film directors who felt compelled to serve a just war, endangering their lives, their family stability, their bank balances, and their artistic souls. The five are John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler, and Frank Capra. I recommend the book for its narrative sweep, its revelation of character, and for the many ironies that attend the idea of “documentary.”

It is a book about idealism and muddling through—and about how awkwardly the ideals and the muddles co-existed. Harris does a fine job recounting the competition between American and British interests, and he does not stint on the vanity of some film-makers, the stupidities in military command, or the often craven efforts to believe that all our guys were brave. Time and again, the book returns to the question of how one can film combat, especially when there is a conflict of interests between journalism and propaganda, or truth and morale-building.

One of the films that Harris examines is the thirty-two-minute The Battle of San Pietro, which was released in May 1945 (though it had been shown to troops earlier). There are no names credited on the film itself. It is a product of the War Department, and that is how it was funded. But the guiding force on the picture, and the narrator’s voice, was John Huston. In Time, James Agee called it “as good a war film as any that has been made,” and writing in this magazine, Manny Farber recognized the daring innovation of war being “confused, terrifying, surprising and tragic.” The film was added to the National Film Registry in 1991, and that unreliable arbiter Wikipedia says of it: “Unlike many other military documentaries, Huston’s cameramen filmed alongside the infantrymen as they fought their way up the hills to reach San Pietro. These cameramen were in just as much danger as the soldiers on the ground, often within a few feet of mortars and shells exploding and bullets ricocheting nearby.” 

Illustration by Clay Rodery

Mark Harris says such claims are a pack of lies about a film that is largely composed of “reenactments.” I think he is correct, and I suspect any soldier or cameraman would know it from just a few shots. Can this reporting be reconciled with Wikipedia’s error? Suppose I offer another response: that The Battle of San Pietro has a case for being the most powerful film made by the American documentary effort during World War II. It might be stronger still if the War Department had not cut out many of the scenes of the dead.

One truth of war, maybe the most important one, is that nobody wants to be there. That includes cameramen as well as infantrymen, and it underlines how hard it is to film gunfire and its results. In Dealey Plaza in Dallas on November 22, 1963, Abraham Zapruder filmed aspects of the killing of John Kennedy only because he was there to get souvenir footage of the president driving past. Even if he had been in the plaza, with the camera at his side, it is unlikely that he could have covered the unexpected event without being aimed and focused already. This argument has nothing to do with courage. It comes from the speed of bullets.

Since the publication of Richard Whelan’s biography of the photographer Robert Capa, in 1985, I have questioned the reliability of Capa’s famous picture, from 1936, of a Republican militiaman on the Cordoba front in the instant of his being shot. I was not the first to raise such doubts, and the skepticism has continued to grow. It seemed fanciful that Capa happened to be ready for the split-second demands of such an event. He had seen men shot down and killed, and was moved by the sight. So he staged such a death and made an emblematic image, the Falling Soldier, which served as propaganda in the Spanish Civil War and remains a symbol of resistant courage under fire. Of course, it could as easily have been a picture of a soldier on the Franco side. It’s not that the shot is artfully composed, though it does have a fully visible, movie-like angle—it could not be improved. But Capa made it feel instantaneous as well as epic. Try as you might, you will not catch such an event on a camera unless you are setting it up and cueing it. And this doesn’t matter, unless you believe that photography has to be the Word of God.

San Pietro was a small town in the path of the Allied campaign to clear Italy of Germans. A nasty battle was fought there in December 1943, after which the Germans withdrew. The town was leveled by artillery fire and later rebuilt. It was a battle in which allied infantry assaults with tank support overcame embedded German positions. Captain John Huston was told to film the battle by Colonel Frank Capra (born in Sicily and anxious to show war as experienced by the Italian population). As part of his crew, Huston had Jules Buck (“my one-man army throughout the war,” said Huston) and Eric Ambler, the English novelist and screenwriter. Why Ambler? He, too, had been assigned by Capra, but he was a friend of Huston’s and they had been talking about possible movie projects after the war. It’s almost as if Ambler went along to keep talking.

By the time they reached the San Pietro area, the battle was nearly over. Even so, according to Ambler’s full account, there were moments of their arrival when they came under artillery fire—not that they were in any state to film such things, for being fired upon alters one’s view-finding calm. Moreover, it is not possible to film the arc of artillery fire, just the explosion, and documentary film-makers had learned that one explosion looked like another. Today we know all too well that a kid movie-maker can do explosions in any shape or color that we desire. It’s all wow and no wounding. But what Huston did have were corpses on the battlefield, the need for bagging them up, the destruction of trees and buildings that needed no art direction—and the experience. 

Harris is fascinated by Huston, but wary, too. After a difficult early period in Hollywood (there had been an actress killed in a car crash with him driving), he had broken through with several good scripts and made an impressive directorial debut with The Maltese Falcon. But Huston was high-strung and unreliable, a great romantic yarner (you can hear that in his narration of the movie) but tortured by issues to do with his own courage. Many military people thought he was self-centered and reckless with women. There is no question but that, when they first arrived near San Pietro, Huston, Buck, and Ambler were in uncertain terrain; there was still enough artillery shelling to alarm them and to have killed them.

But the filming came after the battle. The titles to The Battle of San Pietro admit that it used some reenactment. I think there was far more than that suggests. Harris has seen the outtake footage in the National Archives, and he describes moments where soldiers suddenly act dead on cue, and generally behave like actors. Still, the place was the real place, the body-bagging was actual, and the scenes of stricken Italians returning to their shattered town were as they happened. 

Huston was a romancer and his own hero. He could be an irresponsible rascal, an egotist, and worse—there are plenty of bad Huston stories. With Buck’s camerawork (and one day Buck would be Peter O’Toole’s producer on several films), they shot magnificent images filled with the beauty of ruin. They filmed young GIs talking and laughing, and some of those guys would be dead soon as the campaign went on. With narration and music (none of which is ever part of battles), Huston composed the movie that moved Agee and Farber. It’s easy to find the film on YouTube, and you may share the view of John Horne Burns, the novelist who was also in uniform in Italy, that it was “almost more than any heart can stand.”

But is it a documentary? Harris makes it clear that often enough far grosser sins against integrity occurred, such as using Californian deserts for North African stories. I think he is too tough on Huston—he seems to have Wyler and Stevens as his personal heroes, and that’s understandable. But there is a moment where Huston and his guys got stuck in a jeep on a bridge, with fear of shelling. Harris has Huston crying out at Buck, his driver: “Filthy little shit! Dirty Jew bastard!” In the thorough notes to his book, Harris says that all quotes come from Ambler’s memoir, Here Lies, where Ambler actually says this: “John leaned over to Jules and said softly, more or less in these words: ‘Now then, you filthy little shit, keep absolutely calm. Just back off, you bastard son-of-a-bitch, and keep calm.’ A stream of abuse followed. It touched on Jules’ religion, his parents and his personal habits.”

The difference is small, and in both versions it is easy to understand Harris’s feeling that after San Pietro Huston was suffering from post-traumatic stress. In fact, that would be the subject of his next documentary, Let There Be Light, which was suppressed for more than thirty years. So perhaps Harris heightened the dialogue and made it more taut. I do not reproach him for that. It is natural that storytellers—on the page or on the screen—can be so stirred by their material that it takes flight. It doesn’t matter. Huston had been there and felt the battle; his film stands the test of time. It is that rare work, made by the military but regarding war with horror. As Huston would say later, if he ever made a pro-war film, he deserved to be shot.

David Thomson is the film critic for The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Moments That Made the Movies (Thames & Hudson).