Some thoughts about THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO. First, my overview of the film:
Considered by many the greatest American documentary made during World War II, SAN PIETRO (aka THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO), was the second of John Huston’s non-fiction war trilogy. Simultaneously a tribute to the courage and heroism of the ordinary footsoldier, and an indictment of the waste and futility of this battle and of all war, SAN PIETRO stands as a monument to Huston’s talents as director, writer, and speaker of his own brilliant words.
Huston had established his filmmaking credentials prior to his entry into the U.S. Army Signal Corps in April of 1942. He had been nominated for an Academy Award three times, for DR. EHRLICH'S MAGIC BULLET (1940), SERGEANT YORK and THE MALTESE FALCON (both 1941). After enlistment, the Signal Corps attached him to Frank Capra’s film unit, and assigned to show the daily activities of Army and Army Air Forces personnel on Adak Island in Alaska. The resulting film, REPORT FROM THE ALEUTIANS, released in July of 1943, was nominated for Best Documentary Feature.
Huston’s next major assignment was to document the Allies’ recapture of Rome. Plans for such a film were derailed, as the Allied advance through southern Italy had slowed to a halt. In the fall of 1943, the Army wanted a film explaining this situation to Americans at home. It attached Huston to the 143rd Infantry Regiment of the 36th Texas Infantry Division, and sent him to the Liri Valley, the site of some of the bloodiest fighting of the Italian Campaign. The tiny village of San Pietro, the key to the entire valley, proved to be nearly impervious to assault. The Germans kept Allied troops at bay, inflicting tremendous casualties.
As this project was to be a joint Anglo-American production, British novelist and screenwriter Eric Ambler joined the otherwise all American filmmaking crew. Over many weeks, Huston and his fourteen member crew (two of whom were killed in battle) shot 45,000 feet of film. It was probably the first time in the war that an “embedded” film team stayed with a single combat unit for an extended period of time. Huston, Ambler, and Jules Buck (Huston’s “fixer” throughout the war, and later a Hollywood producer) even entered the blasted-out remains of San Pietro before the Allied troops, later returning to document the shell-shocked villagers emerging from their hiding places.
During the filming, Huston had no idea what the footage looked like, as it was sent directly to Washington for processing. Only after he returned to Astoria Studios in New York could he see what he had, and piece together a film. He screened his initial five reel cut to Army brass, who deemed its violence too graphic for both military and civilian audiences. Some even described it as “antiwar,” eliciting Huston’s famous retort, “If I ever make anything other than an anti-war film, I hope you take me out and shoot me.” However, General George C. Marshall came to the film’s defense, saying, “This picture should be seen by every American soldier in training. It will not discourage but rather prepare them for the initial shock of combat.” For the film, Captain Huston was decorated and promoted to major.