Let There Be Light (1946) and Patton (1970)

Dir. John Huston.

Dir. Franklin J. Schaffner. Starring George C. Scott, Karl Malden, Paul Stevens

Patton does not ever get quite to “gentle” in Patton, but he comes uncharacteristically close in a tent for wounded soldiers in Italy. He pats shoulders and the feet of beds comfortingly, thanks men for their service, and for one man who looks pretty badly hurt behind his head bandages, whispers some words in his ears for that soldier alone. He finally comes to the end of the tent and sees a man with his uniform and helmet still on, sitting in an upright fetal position, essentially, on the edge of his bed. Patton is vocally (and thus rather audibly) confused about what this man’s problem is. It turns out that he has “battle fatigue.” Patton, whose first day on the job in North Africa included orders not to allow any man into hospital under those auspices, screams at the man for polluting the air in a place for heroes. He smacks the man twice, the second time sending his helmet flying, and orders that the man be returned to the front lines. It turns out to be the moment which blunts Patton’s career forever, though the longer we watch the movie it becomes clear that he was always going to find a way to self-immolate; if it were not the slapping, then doubtless he would do some other unforgivable political action which would keep him from highest command. General Eisenhower – who, like God, inevitably has his name shortened by his adherents (“Ike”), and, like God, is both omnipotent and unseen – forces Patton to apologize to just about everyone in the English-speaking world if he wants to keep his command. Very late in the film, Omar Bradley (Malden), by now having risen to command of all American troops in Europe, makes a good-natured crack about the soldier Patton slapped. He must have done more than any single private to win the war, Brad says. From a certain point of view, one that Patton doesn’t disagree with in the moment, Bradley makes a fair point. Without that incident, Patton would have been unavailable to personally break the deadlock of the Battle of the Bulge, and the war might have dragged on for years longer.

Patton and Let There Be Light are, at heart, case studies in soldiers. Patton, released near the height of the Vietnam War’s popularity, has perspective enough to admire a hero of World War II and to recognize that his bloody-minded glory-hound ways barely fit into that war. Let There Be Light, John Huston’s hour-long documentary about American soldiers with what he calls “neuro-psychosis” in his narration but which will be referred to succinctly and knowingly as “PTSD” in the generations to come is about people like that private Patton slapped for cowardice. Huston, who saw enough of the war in totally different theaters to recognize its stunning, unbelievable violence, has perspective enough to recognize that their breakdowns hardly signify faint hearts. Every man has a breaking point, Huston tells us early on. The servicemen entering Mason General Hospital have, for one reason or another, found theirs. For one man, the memory of the sounds of German machine guns makes it impossible for him to get /s/ out of his mouth. (Huston was a great writer and a pretty fair actor; his “sss” sound effect mimicking the sounds of the guns is the only part of his narration which is distinctively dramatic, and it works just as well as you think it does.) Another man has a case of amnesia so profound, based on his experience at Okinawa, that he does not know his own name. Whether young or less-young (for no patient looks even remotely old), black or white (for Mason General is integrated and the men there seem not to care a whit), lonely or haunted, the men of the hospital become known to us by sight. By being case studies in soldiers, Patton and Let There Be Light both signify their anti-war bona fides, although their anti-war qualities are fundamentally different.

In Patton, that signification belongs primarily to George C. Scott. Scott won Best Actor (and became the first person not to accept the statuette) for the role, and it’s because he’s totally superlative in it. It’s a performance which, in the annals of performances in American classics, is every bit the equal of Bogart in Casablanca, Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, De Niro in Raging Bull, though Patton is not very much like any of the characters from those movies. Patton should be totally unlikable regardless of his winning ways in war, for he has no qualities which could translate to civilian life. His only interest is war (especially the wars of the past), and the morality he ascribes to war is his religion. Scott manages to find little things to make us find Patton relatable, beginning with his self-knowledge. No one knows better than Patton that he is liable to talk too loud, do things which are uncouth or impolitic, and even make far-ranging decisions with international implications which will only serve to glorify him. Patton’s rivalry with Bernard Montgomery (Michael Bates) is a fairly frequent topic throughout, and much of Patton’s Italian success is read as a response to the threat of being overshadowed by Britain’s leading tank commander, the hero of El Alamein. Yet Patton admits it freely, and when Bradley is promoted over his head to the position that Patton wants badly, Patton does not break the chain of command. He follows Bradley’s orders (though fouls up in some comments towards the very end of the conflict) and does not contradict his chief. Part of being the perfect soldier, as Patton aspires to be, is of course to be able to follow orders from superiors, even if you’re mad it’s not you at the top. Though Patton has a history of punching up and down alike, his criticism and harshness does not carry over to his staff. In that gruff, crunchy voice that Scott has that makes him so perfect for this role, he says more than once that his men don’t love him and he doesn’t expect them to love him. But his staff does. His first right-hand man, Jensen (Morgan Paull), is killed in action; Patton walks behind the cart carrying Jensen’s coffin while, in voiceover, we hear the generous words he writes to Jensen’s parents. Jensen’s replacement, Codman (Stevens), is sycophantic and refined and becomes increasingly essential to his boss, who realizes it and gives Codman significant freedom to speak his mind. Patton also proves to have something of a sense of humor; when his new bull terrier, William (Abraxas Aaran, who is billed higher in this movie than a couple dozen human beings), is cowed by a Englishwoman’s fluffy, smush-faced lapdog, Patton changes his name on the spot. “Your name isn’t William!” he says to the dog, who was named for, who else, William the Conqueror. “It’s ‘Willie.'”

Using Scott’s demeanor and noisy chatter, which is the sound of asphalt getting crunched up on an interstate, the film could turn Patton into a rah-rah experience. But it stops well short of that. There are few actual battle scenes in the film. Only one, the battle of El Guettar, takes five minutes or longer to sort out, done mostly to show the viewers that Patton knows what he’s doing. There are an awful lot of shots of tanks just going places, but not many of tanks actually blowing stuff up. Battles tend to be shown after the fact, with the burned-out bodies of tanks and bloody corpses of men strewn all about. Patton is awfully good at getting the tanks moving. Either he cajoles the Almighty with his chaplain’s prayer to stop the snow from falling, or he shoots a farmer’s two donkeys, who refuse to be budged from where they are and are blocking troop movement, or he plays traffic cop in a particularly muddy stretch of road. Much of war is boredom, the film argues, and some of it is luck, and some of it is brutality, and very little of it, perhaps none of it, is glamorous. Generals have leeway to have personalities. Patton can be irascible, Smith (Edward Binns) can be shrill, and Bradley can be affable and self-effacing almost to a fault. Pinned down by enemy fire next to a GI in one scene while wearing an ordinary soldier’s helmet, the young man openly wonders what moron is in charge of this battle. Brad, who is that moron, responds with an anxious, “I don’t know who, but they ought to hang him.”

Patton, in other words, can glorify its historical benchmarks while simultaneously recognizing something human about them. Patton believes that war used to be better, more moral, more telling about character; while riding a horse, he expresses his disgust with the German V2 program because it takes the face-to-face element out of warfare. (One can just imagine what he’d have to say about drones.) Patton is not anti-war, but he is certainly alt-war. His purpose in fighting is strangely apolitical but based in his vision of righteousness; all war should be a crusade, and the crusade should be limited to the most faithful alone. Great armies are a boon, but one-on-one combat is the dream. The men of Let There Be Light would have benefited from a David and Goliath style war; it would have left them at home.

The documentary, as a documentary about war almost can’t help but be, is deeply anti-war. (I watched John Ford’s The Battle of Midway a little while after watching Let There Be Light, and although Ford tries as hard as he can to fill us with patriotic pride and bring us the feeling of victory, he doth protest too much. Midway uses the sounds of the battlefield, the somber voiceover of its narrator, a strange dialogue between the narrator and a woman back Home, and, most frequently, patriotic tunes. Those last are so pervasive and so frequent that by the end of the eighteen minute documentary, they are almost a self-parody. Through repetition they lose their meaning, becoming as much jarring sound as the roar of an airplane’s engine. Ford may make Midway a nearly bloodless victory for the Yanks, but that bloodlessness is also a mark of having looked away, like it was more than we could stand from our seats.) And yet the fact that Let There Be Light was hidden – barred, really – from release until the 1980s is totally amazing. On the whole, while the film suggests that war has made otherwise very normal men into mental wrecks, it also suggests that it can be fixed. Time and again throughout the hour, doctors use hypnosis or medication or group therapy to plumb the reaches of the soldiers’ minds. And miraculously, they walk away. The scene of the men getting their discharge papers from the army after having successfully completed not only their tours of duty but their rehabilitation is so optimistic and so hopeful that it’s hard not to see that as a most incredible form of propaganda. Indeed, in a time when the thought of letting slip that one was seeing a psychologist would be a reason for shame, these men are pragmatic about their treatment, especially towards the end. During treatment most of the men are polite but a little distant from the doctors and therapists. Towards the end of their treatment, all of the men agree that they’d be perfectly willing to let an employer know that they’d been to Mason post-war to receive treatment for their mental health. They can do what many people today are still unable to manage; they can have mental illness in their lives and live without shame.

Before leaving, the men are told that the postwar years will essentially be theirs for the taking. In retrospect, one is a little horrified by these men’s role in perpetuating the culture of the Cold War, but from the point of view of people in 1945 and 1946 – wow. These men, when they arrived, were inarticulate and shaking, fearful and broken. Huston makes a point of emphasizing their isolation, their feelings of inadequacy. Over the course of a couple months, the men go from speaking softly and staring down at their laps to finding some solace in activities from ping pong to baseball (in an integrated game, no less!) to woodworking to model-making. Their youth is an asset; many of them are young and energetic enough that merely to be given a chance to take up some activity which focuses them is a serious help. While Let There Be Light is sanguine about the fixable nature of this neuro-psychosis, it never forgets its central thesis either: the illness came from somewhere else, from a preventable cause that none of them wanted any part in. As Huston says, they were raised to hate war and then trained to perform it excellently.

By now I can’t imagine that any of the people in Let There Be Light are still living. One wonders, though, how they held up once they were out of the safe confines of the hospital, away from the caring treatment of doctors and nurses, far from the specialized routines which gave them both reprieve and leisure. How many relapsed? How many found it much harder to shake once they settled into their lives and had free moments to reminisce about the war or worse, to be asked to tell about it by over-curious civilians? How many of them found a way to define themselves primarily as fathers or brothers or sons or husbands, or as some kind of professional worker, or as some kind of thinker or believer, rather than as a soldier for a few years back there in the ’40s? The War Department covered up Let There Be Light for so long; maybe they recognized that the most dangerous questions were ones not answered by the film, but which linger in the minds of viewers seventy years out, hoping against reason that something really good happened to those men once they came home.

Patton’s own end – which the George C. Scott version, at least, would have found unfitting in the extreme – came in such a way that he probably did not have much time after the war to think about next steps. In December 1945, Patton was killed by a car wreck without having ever come home; paralyzed from the neck down, he lingered a little short of two weeks. The movie doesn’t show us that, although it does show us an incident where Brad manages to push George out of the way of a runaway oxcart. (Can you imagine, Patton exults after the moment of danger, how shameful that would be? Fight and win against the Germans and then get killed by an ox cart?) It ends with a tonally consistent but less effective scene where Patton walks Willie into the countryside further and further from our sight, thinking on how after a Roman general would win a victory, a slave would whisper in his ear that glory fades. What Patton never shows us is that for the vast majority of soldiers involved in the conflict, the glory already vanished.

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