The Battle of San Pietro

(1988) Produced and released in 1944 by U.S. Army Pictorial Service, black and white 35mm negative 1.33:1 screen ratio, mono sound, 33 mins., DVD released 2000 by National Film Preservation Foundation

map from Haskew



According to Scott Simmon, "The Battle of San Pietro (originally titled simply San Pietro) builds into the greatest of combat documentaries, unmatched in evoking the physicality and human price of war. It's at once factual and inspirational, harrowing and tender. It's filled with eloquent words and with images that defy words...San Pietro combines astonishing actuality footage with one of the most memorable voice-over narrations in film--both in script and delivery. James Agee characterized it best in his 1945 Nation review: "Huston's narration is a slightly simplified technical prose, at once exact and beautifully toned and subtly parodistic; it is spoken with finely shaded irony, equally free of pompousness and optimism and mawkish generalizations and cheap bitterness.... For once wordiness in a film more than earns its way." When the army reaches the village of San Pietro itself, even these words fall silent before images of bodies unearthed from rubble and children's resilient faces...Some recent critics have expressed shock on discovering that San Pietro is carefully crafted and not the compilation of artless footage that some associate with truth in documentary. The battle sequences have a handheld, cinema-verite look, but careful viewers will notice, for instance, the oddly large number of apparently left-handed soldiers. Evidently Huston flipped some shots to make the soldiers' screen movements correspond to the east-to-west attack on the maps: "We" always attack from right-to-left, "the enemy' from left-to-right. Huston also restaged more footage than his end title admits. But accurate facts about this particular battle are marshaled into an authentic argument about valor in combat... After shots of soldiers' dog tags nailed to rough wooden grave markers, we see survivors smiling wearily, but the voice-over undercuts the relaxed moment: "Many among those you see alive here have since joined the ranks of their brothers-in-arms who fell at San Pietro.... Ahead lay ... more San Pietros, greater or lesser, a thousand more." What is most uncompromising about San Pietro among combat documentaries is its refusal to claim that the battle we've experienced in such detail was in any way distinctive or decisive, and thus its refusal to bestow special military significance on the soldiers' sacrifice. Tacked on to dispute this view is the two-minute introduction by Gen. Mark Clark, commander of the Italian campaign. Looking ill-at-ease, General Clark claims San Pietro was "key' to the region and that the "cost" in deaths "was not excessive." The complaint voiced against the film by the army brass was most simply that "this picture is pacifistic. It's against war, against the war." Huston responded that he made the film in profound admiration for the courage of the foot soldier, but he also said, "Well, sir, whenever I make a picture that's for war--why, I hope you take me out and shoot me." - see article by Simmon

According to Midge Mackenzie"The Battle of San Pietro stands alone in the history of documentary filmmaking. Presenting the battle in the Liri Valley as a costly continuing campaign rather than in retrospect as a strategic victory, it is the only complete record of an infantry battle. Filmed with...35mm hand-held Eyemo newsreel cameras in the midst of gunfire, its camera angles are low and from the ground. Shots are grabbed, immediate, unexpected. It is a vivid, complete record...." Let There Be Light and The Battle of San Pietro, both by John Huston, were the only two films banned by the Army during the war. In 1945, Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall viewed the film and reversed the ban: "This picture should be seen by every American soldier in training. It will not discourage but rather will prepare them for the initial shock of combat." Huston was promoted to major and decorated. - see article by Haskew

According to Time magazine, "San Pietro is in every respect as good a war film as any that has been made; in some respects it is the best. A 30-minute record of one of the tense and bloody battles for the Liri Valley in Italy in late 1943, it is a story told chiefly in terms of the experiences of one infantry regiment -- the 143rd of the 36th Division. San Pietro's record of combat, its eye for terrain and for weather, its recognition of war as a science both wonderful and tragically inexact, are at least equal to any seen in films so far. Its narration, delivered with quiet irony, is repeatedly given life and resonance by images which show what 'heavy seasonal rains' look and feel like to get a truck through, what Texan 'elements' in a regiment are as people, something of what eleven hundred 'replacements' (in one regiment) mean in terms of death and survival. The huge close-ups of the helmeted heads of infantrymen as they move into battle, or rest after it while you are told that many of those you watch are soon to die, have the simple immediacy of good family snapshots -- and the enduring majesty of a heroic frieze. San Pietro is a very fine film. History is likely to recognize it as a great one." ---Time review quoted in 36th Division


revised 11/7/05 by Schoenherr | Filmnotes