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James Wong Howe

Blu-ray Classics: John Huston’s WWII documentaries, ‘The Vikings,’ ‘Passage to Marseilles’

LetThereBeLightLet There Be Light (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – John Huston, like so many members of the Hollywood community, offered his talents to the armed services after Pearl Harbor. He was assigned to the Army Signal Corps, where he made four films. This disc features all four films, including a recently restored version of his final documentary for the armed services.

You can see his changing perspective on war through the productions, from Winning Your Wings (1942), a recruitment film narrated by James Stewart, to Let There Be Light (1946), his powerful portrait of the mentally and emotionally scarred men treated at a Long Island military hospital. Report from the Aleutians (1943) shows the routine of military life at a remote base in the frigid Aleutian Islands between Alaska and Russia (it’s also the only film shot in color), but his tone becomes darker in San Pietro (1945), which documents the battle to take a small Italian village from the occupying German forces. Huston provides the ironic narration himself over the record of destruction and loss of life on a single battle. The scenes of bombed-out ruins and dead soldiers are real but the battle itself was restaged by Huston for maximum dramatic impact. The military chose not to show the film to civilian audiences but new recruits did watch the film to understand the grueling ordeal awaiting them in battle. The film was voted into the National Film Registry in 1991.

Let There Be Light, his final film, is on the one hand a straightforward portrait of soldiers receiving help for “psychoneurotic” damage, what today was call post-traumatic stress disorder, and on the other a powerful portrait of the damage that war left on these men. It’s also a portrait of an integrated military, with black and white soldiers living and working in group therapy sessions together, before it ever existed in the barracks. The film was censored for 35 years and restored just a few years ago. This disc features the restored version.

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“That’s the kind of hairpin I am”: ‘Gentleman Jim’ and ‘The Strawberry Blonde’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

In Gentleman Jim a basic premise of the humor is that a good face-to-face brawl is one of the things that make life worth living. Here the physical and the sensual are a good deal less destructive than in White Heat and a good deal more pervasive than in Me and My Gal and The Bowery. Seen alongside The Roaring Twenties and White Heat, this movie’s celebration of turn-of-the-century urban vigor establishes it as a vision, imaginary or otherwise, of a time when personal wholeness and physical joy were much more accessible and more fully communal. But the conflict between eros and civilization turns up again, largely in the form of a refined young lady, Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith), who watches “Gentleman Jim” (Errol Flynn) performing on a theatre stage and wonders aloud why anyone would pay good money to see this guy—a bankteller turned boxer—as an actor. The question is a bit of an in-joke and the answer, of course, lies in Flynn himself: he may or may not be much of an actor, but he has great physical appeal. Vicki Ware and Jim Corbett are at odds through much of the film, but their sexual antagonism doesn’t boil over into romance until her hitherto-verbal belligerence begins to assume tones that are more physical and less uninhibited. Up to that point, their relationship seems a function of their differing responses to Vicki’s remark that “After all, we all started out in the same wooden washtub.” She means this only in a snootily abstract way, as an affirmation of democratic principle, but he takes it in a wholly physical sense, as an unbuttoned acceptance of skin-to-skin pleasures.

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