Monday, August 6, 2012

World War II: 'Battle of San Pietro'

“The Battle of San Pietro” is an exciting World War II documentary made by famed director John Huston.

Huston was among many esteemed Hollywood directors who made gripping documentaries during World War II, including Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Ford and George Stevens. However, among this group, Huston was the youngest and, having started as a screenwriter, had directed only three movies before heading overseas. He was a captain in the Army and later was promoted to major before returning to Hollywood.

His first documentary effort was “Report from the Aleutians” in 1943. His second was “San Pietro,” a film so stunning that it puts many Hollywood war movies to shame.

San Pietro was a nondescript town, population 1,400, and was mainly a farming community. But in December 1943, for more than a week, it was the location of intense fighting between the Germans against the Allies, which had invaded Sicily in July of that year. The town was located along one of the best roads south of Rome, and yet it was bordered by mountains. Its possession would be key to controlling the region, and yet it would be one of many areas that would be essential for the Allies to gain footing in Italy. In short, San Pietro was important and yet typical of other battles taking place throughout Europe.  

The opening narration – written and delivered by Huston – describes this town’s history as the viewer sees its ruin at the hands of war. Then the film turns toward the battle, and it’s tense, grim and fascinating. The casualties are heavy, as the Allies meet heavy resistance from the Germans. It was a near-impossible battle, and the death toll costly. Yet the movie ends in victory, and the people of the town come out of hiding and return to the village.

Huston produces brilliant contrasts in this film – from the opening narration to the images of the dead, to the simple joy on the faces of adults and children as they greet the Allies.

Huston did take a few liberties in making the film. While the combat footage is real, with a handheld camera look associated with modern films, he did flip the negative on some of the sequences so that the Allies were always attacking from right to left.

The results were stunning – and too powerful. When Huston screened a rough cut for the Army in 1944, they were shocked. A few officers left, and edits were ordered. Several voiced opinions that this film could be viewed as anti-war.

Huston himself agreed some sequences were too strong and changes were made. Still, the film was held from release until after victory in Europe was achieved.

James Agee, writing for “Nation,” named “San Pietro” one of the year’s best films (along with “The Story of G.I. Joe”). Describing Huston’s narration, Agee wrote, “For once wordiness in a film more than earns its way.”

Huston manages to show the horrors and humanity that occur during a war. For a battle that was important yet not monumental, reflective of so many others like it, “San Pietro” is like a slap in the face when compared with what Hollywood was releasing about the war. It also has a look and feel that distinguishes itself from other World War II documentaries. 

If the theme of my series was realism in World War II films, this documentary is a terrific complement to the others that I am reviewing, because both “The Story of G.I. Joe” and “They Were Expendable,” within the confines of Hollywood, did not shy away from the horrors of war. Next week I’ll look at “A Walk in the Sun,” a film set in Italy that nicely complements “San Pietro.”


  1. Filmboy, I haven't seen this but have heard good things about it, and you make it sound fascinating. I know that postwar Italian neorealism was a big influence on narrative filmmakers of the time, but reading this post and thinking about the other WW II films you've written about makes me wonder if these films, especially the documentaries, were also in part responsible for the greater realism in American films made immediately after WW II. I'm thinking of the greater use of real locations, heightened social consciousness, and more naturalistic acting.

    1. It's interesting to look at the directors who were making documentaries during the war and then look at their output afterwards. You do see a change in their work, a maturity in both storytelling and atmosphere. Huston's first film after World War II was "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre."

  2. Thanks for writing about this film Classicfilmboy, as I was not familiar with it. The WWII documentaries do offer a clear realism that the pre-war movies lacked. Even if the goal of the films was to help morale, the directors couldn't escape their need to be true to the realities of the battlefront. I'll definetely look for this one.

    1. If you can find it, I highly recommend it. Let me know what you think if you see it.