Friday 15 November 2013

The Battle of San Pietro (1945)

The Battle of San Pietro
In 1943 the director John Huston was visiting the American troops fighting in Italy with the purpose of making a film about them. Today we would say he and his team were embedded with an army unit and his role was not unlike reporters today who follow the troops around and report back to the public at home.

I am certain Huston was not the only film or media person who documented the armed forces, but the result, his 37 minute film is quite unique. Certainly in the avalanche of war reports available I have not seen anything quite like this before.

On the surface of it it looks fairly standard. In typical newsreel style an excited narrator (Huston himself?) tells about the taking of an Italian village and all the machinations of war. The first impression is that the soldiers are good boys, heroes with excellent equipment who is out to wipe the German ass. The enthusiasm with which the tanks, planes and military tactics is described is textbook propaganda, almost designed to sell war bonds.

But something is terribly wrong. People are dying, soldiers as well as civilians and the dead do not at all look like heroes. They look like boys, dirty and bloody and terribly young. The battle is not a walkover, nor a heroic storm. It is slow and dangerous. Grenades are exploding right in front of the camera, machineguns are pounding at everything that moves and the camera is flung around and covered in ruble. Attack after attack are repulsed. Gains are lost in counterattacks and when finally victory is at hand the enemy are… just boys as well and the front has moved 5 km down the valley.

The narrator tells about the civilian population who has been liberated from the evil foe, but the camera shows the ruins that remains after the war machine has pommeled the town and scorched the land. In these pitiful ruins emerge women, children and old men, poor and shocked, alive, but their livelihood destroyed. Dead civilians are dug out from the ruins and we see the corpses. Most heartbreaking is watching the children. The narrator tells us that only days after the battle they are laughing, but the camera tells a different story. They look lost. Two toddlers the age of my own son are holding each other’s hand as they walk through the ruins and in their dirty, ill-fitting cloth the children look more like orphans than anything else.

This may be a war document telling about the brave soldiers, but underneath it is also a subversive story about the terror, chaos and general destruction which is war. You cannot help wondering if this is a film to cheer the troops or a protest against the evil and general pointlessness of war. I suppose it can be seen both ways and it has. The army both hated and loved it. The release was delayed until the end of the war in Europe for fear that it would sap morale, yet it is also a pad on the shoulder of those men who had to fight the war. They were indeed brave and neither narrator, nor the camera denies that, but the prize was very high.

Modern war movies ride the same wave. Saving Private Ryan, Platoon or Band of Brothers all praise the boys and abhor the war, but that is the present. In wartime forties there was no room for criticism. War was a heroic pissing contest as far as the public was concerned. For the troops the reality was different. That was what Huston wanted to change.

In a way I am reminded of Bunel’s Land Without Bread in the sense that narration tells one story and the camera a different one, but in “The Battle of San Pietro” the narrator never entirely disconnects from the images. It is the tone that diverges. There is very little enthusiasm in those pictures.

The backdrop of the film is the Italian campaign. While Germany and the Soviet were fighting a battle of the titans in Russia the western allies were fighting a miniature (by comparison) campaign in North Africa and Italy. The idea was that an invasion in Italy might take out all of Italy from the war. Italy quit soon enough, but the Germans simply took control and set up a scheme for controlled withdrawal. With only token units (compared to the Russian campaign and the allied forces invading Italy) they were able to stretch that invasion for 2 years. The Italian peninsula is mountainous and very easy to defend and while the Allies paid a high prize for their advances it is difficult to say what exactly was the purpose once the Germans had taken control of Italy. It is possible its purpose simply was to be a token front to placate the Russians while they were fighting the real war until a second front could be opened in France in 44. If that is really the case then the battle of San Pietro was really futile.

No doubt the general cause was noble and just, and I personally appreciate what the western allies accompliced, otherwise I would have grown up on the other side of the iron curtain, but war is an ugly business no matter the cause and damage all across is terrible. That is the message of “The Battle of San Pietro”. Huston himself is quoted to have said that if he ever made a pro-war movie, he should be shot. Well, he would not be shut after this film.


  1. Great review. I really liked this film as well. If you ever have time, Frank Capra made a series of propaganda films called "Why We Fight" that is very interesting though way more gung-ho than Huston's film.

    1. Thank you. I like the old newsreels and alway enjoy it when they are included as extra material. Warner is quite good at doing that. I will check these ones out, though the prevalent gung-ho style can be difficult to stomach.

  2. What struck me the most during this was how idiotic the Allies' command officers were. They have two sets of men, but only send one to attack a near impregnable enemy position on a single front. When that predictably fails miserably, costing far too many lives for nothing but stupidity they finally commit both sets of men on multiple fronts whose combined force manage to dislodge the enemy. If they had just done that in the first place fewer lives would have been lost. I think that's the biggest reason the Army didn't like it.

  3. That may well be. I lack the military insight to tell if it was smart or not. What I noted was that it is so easy to stand behind the lines and look at a map with symbols representing units and something else entirely to be there on the battle ground. That contrast was highlighted very well.