Let There Be Light (1946 film)

Let There Be Light (1946) — known to the U.S. Army as PMF 5019 — is a documentary film directed by American filmmaker John Huston (1906–1987). It was the last in a series of four films[1] directed by Huston while serving in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II. Intended to educate the public about posttraumatic stress disorder and its treatment among returning veterans, the film's unscripted presentation of mental disability led to Let There Be Light being suppressed by the U.S. government; it was not released until the 1980s.[2]

Let There Be Light
PMF 5019
Directed byJohn Huston
Produced byJohn Huston, Army Pictorial Service, Signal Corps, U.S. War Department
Written byJohn Huston
Charles Kaufman
Narrated byWalter Huston
Music byDmitri Tiomkin
Edited byWilliam H. Reynolds
Gene Fowler Jr.
Distributed byU.S. Army
Release date
1946 (film completed)
1948 (date on title card)
1981 (actual release)
Running time
58 minutes
CountryUnited States


As the U.S. Army was demobilizing near the end of World War II it had the task of reintegrating returning military veterans back into peacetime society. An obstacle veterans faced was the stigma surrounding "shell shock" or "psychoneurosis", the old terms for posttraumatic stress disorder. To convince the public, and especially employers, that veterans being treated for battle-induced mental instability were completely normal after psychiatric treatment, on June 25, 1945, the Army Signal Corps tasked Major John Huston with producing the documentary The Returning Psychoneurotics. Huston visited multiple Army hospitals on the East and West Coasts before deciding upon Mason General Hospital on Brentwood, Long Island. The reasons being that Mason General was the biggest mental health facility on the East Coast, the hospital was located near the Army motion picture production center at Astoria Studio in Queens, New York, and the doctors were very open and receptive to the filming and any psychiatric questions he had.[2] The new title that Huston gave the film, Let There Be Light, was a reference to Genesis 1:3 of the King James Version of the Bible. This was an allusion to the documentary revealing truths that were previously concealed as too frightening or shameful for acknowledgement.[3]


The film begins with an introduction, stating that 20 percent of wartime casualties are of a psychiatric nature. Veterans are transported from a medical ship to Mason General Hospital to be treated for mental conditions brought about by war. A group of seventy-five U.S. service members — recent combat veterans suffering from various "nervous conditions" including psychoneurosis, battle neurosis, conversion disorder, amnesia, severe stammering, and anxiety states — arrive at the facility. They are brought into a room and told by an admissions officer to not be alarmed by the cameras, which will make a photographic record of their progress. Next are scenes of interviews between a doctor and some of the patients about their problems and circumstances leading to that point. Afterwards, various treatment methods are employed to cure them. Treatments depicted include narcosynthesis, hypnosis, group psychotherapy, music therapy, and work therapy. One soldier who had amnesia was hypnotized to remember the trauma of the Japanese bombings on Okinawa and his life before then. Another is given an intravenous injection of sodium amytal to induce a hypnotic state, curing him of his mental inability to walk. The treatments are followed by classes (designed to reintegrate patients into civilian life) and group therapy sessions. Therapists make a point of reassuring the patients that there is nothing to be ashamed of for receiving treatment for their mental conditions, and that civilians subjected to the same stresses would develop the same conditions. At this point the documentary shifts the tone to a sense of normalcy, with the soldiers performing regular activities and complaining about everyday problems. The film ends with a number of the featured patients participating in a ceremony in which they are discharged, not just from the hospital, but from military service, and returned to civilian life.[4]


The film was made as one of the early entries in the Army's Professional Medical Film series, which began in 1945. It was shot during spring 1945 at Edgewood State Hospital, Deer Park, Long Island, New York which between 1944 and 1946 was part of Mason General Hospital, a psychiatric hospital run by the United States War Department named for an Army doctor and general.

There are no personal credits in the film. Offscreen credits have been compiled by several sources. The film includes scoring by Dimitri Tiomkin. The cinematography has been credited to Stanley Cortez, John Doran, Lloyd Fromm, Joseph Jackman, and George Smith. The film's editors were William H. Reynolds and Gene Fowler Jr..[5][6][7]

The film crew shot about 375,000 feet of film – close to 70 hours of film. The final product was edited down to less than 1 hour.[8]

Instead of hindering treatment, the cameras actually seemed to have a stimulating effect on the patients. Patients that were filmed showed greater progress in recovering than those that were not.[9] This is an example of the Hawthorne effect where patients responded better to being observed.[8]

The documentary was revolutionary for its time with the use of unscripted but real footage of interviews. Huston put hidden cameras[10] in the doctor-patient interview rooms, one focused on the doctor and the other focused on the patient. This style of showing raw emotion would not be replicated in documentaries for another decade or two.[2] Another unusual aspect of the film was its integration of African-Americans with whites. Although some Army hospitals were integrated at the time, it wasn't until President Truman's executive order in 1948 that the military was desegregated.[8][11]

In the summer and fall of 1947, the U.S. Army Pictorial Service created a reconstruction of Let There Be Light called Shades of Gray (PMF 5047).[2] Joseph Henabery directed Shades of Gray, using an all-white cast of actors to recreate scenes and dialogue from Huston's documentary.[12]

Reception, suppression, and release

The film was controversial in its portrayal of psychologically traumatized veterans of the war. "Twenty percent of our army casualties", the narrator says, "suffered psychoneurotic symptoms: a sense of impending disaster, hopelessness, fear, and isolation."[13] Due to the potentially demoralizing effects the film might have on post-war recruitment, it was subsequently banned by the Army after its production, although some unofficial copies had been made. Military police once confiscated a print Huston was about to show friends at the Museum of Modern Art. The Army claimed it invaded the privacy of the soldiers involved, and the releases Huston had obtained were lost; the War Department refused to get new ones.[13] Huston claimed that the military banned his film to maintain a "warrior" myth; that American soldiers went to war and came back stronger, everyone was a hero, and though there were casualties their spirits remained unbroken.[9]

The film's eventual release in the 1980s by Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander, Jr. was attributed to his friend Jack Valenti who worked to get the ban lifted. The film was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival.[14] The copy of the film that was released was poor, with a garbled sound track that "made it almost impossible to understand the whispers and mumbles of soldiers in some scenes.[15]

In 2010, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[16] The National Film Preservation Foundation then funded restoration of the print and its soundtrack. The restored version was released in May, 2012.[15][8]

The National Archives now sells and rents copies of the film and, as a federal government work, it is in the public domain.


See also


  1. The others were Report from the Aleutians (1943), were Tunisian Victory (1944), and The Battle of San Pietro (1945).
  2. Reflections in a male eye : John Huston and the American experience. Studlar, Gaylyn., Desser, David., Huston, John, 1906-1987. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press. 1993. ISBN 1560981946. OCLC 27035740.CS1 maint: others (link)
  3. 1943-, Brill, Lesley, (1997). John Huston's filmmaking. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521583594. OCLC 35886590.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  4. 1935-, Cohen, Allen, (1997). John Huston : a guide to references and resources. Lawton, Harry, 1938-. New York: G.K. Hall. ISBN 0816116199. OCLC 37675652.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  5. Sterritt, David. "Let There Be Light". Turner Classic Movies.
  6. Let There Be Light at the American Film Institute Catalog
  7. See 'Film Notes' at: "Let There Be Light". National Film Preservation Foundation. Retrieved 2017-04-15.
  8. Simmon, Scott. "Let There Be Light (1946) and Its Restoration" (PDF). National Film Preservation Foundation.
  9. Huston, John (1980). An open book (1st ed.). New York: Knopf. ISBN 0394404653. OCLC 6200011.
  10. M., Kaminsky, Stuart (1978). John Huston, maker of magic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0395257166. OCLC 3433523.
  11. "Casualties of the Spirit: Liberating John Huston's Let There Be Light (1946)". Bright Lights Film Journal. 2017-06-11. Retrieved 2019-03-20.
  12. Eagan, Daniel. "A Restored Version of Let There Be Light Available Online". Smithsonian. Retrieved 2019-03-20.
  13. Michael Kernan (Feb 12, 1981), "War Casualty, John Huston's 1945 Film Now Public", Washington Post
  14. "Festival de Cannes: Let There Be Light". festival-cannes.com. Archived from the original on 2012-09-30.
  15. Vogel, Steve (May 24, 2012). "John Huston film about WW II soldiers that Army suppressed is restored". The Washington Post.
  16. Barnes, Mike (28 December 2010). "'Empire Strikes Back,' 'Airplane!' Among 25 Movies Named to National Film Registry". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 28 December 2010.
  17. "The Master BluRay Release Details". twcguilds.com. January 14, 2013. Retrieved January 19, 2013; "'I Don't Consider That We're Dealing With A Cult' - Paul Thomas Anderson Talks About 'The Master' At TIFF". indiewire.com. September 9, 2012. Archived from the original on October 30, 2012. Retrieved January 19, 2013.

Further reading

  • Bibliography of articles/books (via UC Berkeley)
  • Jones, Kent (June 22, 2003). "To Tell the Truth. Let There Be Light". Reverse Shot. A different angle on moving images - past, present, and future. Museum of the Moving Image. you don't remember the final, preordained bus ride to a bright future in Let There Be Light, but those faces, emptied of certainty and comfort, knowing that their destiny is to face a future eternally haunted by a past they never asked for.
  • Rothöhler, Simon (June–July 2015). "Rückkehr des Verdrängten. Eine Mediengeschichte zu John Hustons Let There Be Light" [Return of the Suppressed. A history of the prints of John Huston's Let There Be Light]. Mittelweg 36 (in German). 24 (3): 4–18.
  • Turnour, Quentin (May 2000). "In the Waiting Room: John Huston's Let There Be Light". Senses of Cinema. 6.
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