John Huston’s The Battle of San Pietro is one of the great war documentaries of all time. Like other major American directors, Huston joined the war effort and used his talents to promote the cause. But unlike many of the other directors, Huston did not remotely compromise his artistic vision in doing so. Thus he chose to direct a film about the Battle of San Pietro, a relatively minor engagement as part of the Italian campaign. Relatively minor meant very high casualties to gain about 3 miles before doing it all over again. Huston doesn’t sugarcoat the hell of war. Lots of people die. A town is basically destroyed. The film begins like a tourist film, with Huston talking of the town’s sites and showing them after Nazi occupation and Allied bombing. It’s devastating. Then he gets into the military maneuvers that allowed the victory. The infantry had to go up some brutal mountains to win that battle. Many soldiers did not come back. And what was it for? Did it put Americans over the top? Did it turn the tide of the war? Nope. Just one of many similar battles. Moreover, Huston openly says that many of the survivors of the battle die in future battles. And he shows their faces, smoking, talking, smiling. Did that one survive? That one? Probably none of them. It’s incredibly powerful.
This was too much for the military who did not want this shown. When it finally was approved after the war, the military tacked on a very cranky general to introduce it, talking up the importance of the battle so that audiences wouldn’t think the boys were dying in vain. It’s hogwash. Huston shows perhaps more effectively than any other film of the era just how brutal the military campaigns of the war were.
Just top notch work from a brilliant director. Not to mention his awesome voice narrating it.