Friday, August 9, 2013

The Battle of San Pietro, Part 2

The final release version of SAN PIETRO (more on that title later one) was 32 minutes, but there is an earlier, quite different 38 minute version as well (a 50 minute version existed as late as the early 1960s, but is not known to survive). Though the shorter version is the "standard," copies of the longer exist, in 16mm, on video, and viewing on YouTube. The Academy Film Archive has preserved long version, from a very good quality 35mm safety print. A new preservation dupe negative was made, and a new show print made from that, which screened in an entry of the John Huston lecture series at the Academy in March of 2008.

Though the film is well known, and much written about, no one - so far as I know - has detailed the history of the film, and the differences between the two versions. I found quite a bit of background material in the John Huston papers at the Academy's Margaret Herrick Library which reveals some of that history, but many mysteries still remain. I've done shot-by-shot breakdowns comparing both versions (see my next post). You can see how carefully Huston chose every word, every shot from version to version, even though under tremendous pressure to complete the project.

The most obvious change is that Huston and his editor William Hornbeck "flipped" the image of many shots of advancing troops. Any careful viewer of battle scenes in traditional war films - or a student of classical film editing - knows that troops on one side should face one direction, and those on the other side, the opposite direction. That's how the filmmaker keeps it clear who's who. and how the battle is progressing. So, if a soldier is advancing toward the right in the long version, he advances to the left in the short version. But why the "flipping" of images here? --we never see any Germany troops in action, so we always know we're looking at American troops. Most of the changes seem to be for consistency's sake, as the direction is almost always right to left - but not entirely. Was this Huston's decision? Hornbeck's? Watch the short version, and notice soldiers firing rifles or tossing hand grenades, and ask yourself, "Did the Army send all its left handed troops to fight in this one battle?" (One such image graces the cover of the National Film Preservation Foundation's first DVD compilation "Treasures from American Film Archives.")

Did Huston think of this film as a creative project, or just an "assignment?" It's clear reading the correspondence in his papers at the Herrick that he wanted to do the film his way, and bucked at all "suggestions" from his Army superiors or Washington politicians to make changes in the film. With each new memo from brass, Huston argued against them, and later often "forgot" to make the changes he's finally agreed to. One of my favorite moments in years of film research occurred when I came across a memo from Undersecretary of War James Patterson, complaining that the required changes demanded in previous directives had not been made. At the bottom of the page, in pencil, is a note from Huston's filmmaking supervisor, Major Frank Capra, saying, "Huston, let's have no more of this insubordination." It's fascinating that Huston had the courage, chutzpah or stupidity, to go against direct military orders, as if though they were merely artistic differences between him and a studio head, and that Capra believed there was more at stake here than just art or box office.

Why do so many scholars and sources refer to the film as THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO? It was called BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO during production, but title cards on the two version are SAN PIETRO. The original press kit calls it SAN PIETRO, as do contemporary reviews. 

Below is a timeline of SAN PIETRO:
4/42 – Huston enlists in the Army
9/43 – Colonel Melvin Gillette learns that Huston will be sent to Italy (Gillette had asked for a replacement for George Stevens)
11/3/43 – Huston sent to Italy
12/8–17/43 – Battle of San Pietro takes place
11/43-2/22/44 – Huston’s team shooting footage
5/1/44 – Production of “short version” approved
6/17/44 – Huston, in LA, requests footage of damaged St. Peter statue in San Pietro
7/25/44 – script
10/12/44 – Script – still 5 reels
10/44 – Huston shows film to Army brass (who walk out)
10/30/44 – memo from Colonel Munson – reel 5 almost entirely cut out from print shown to Patterson.
11/3/44 – memo from Mitchell to cut out shots of American dead loaded onto truck and any shots of recognizable American dead (close up being put into body bags)
11/3/44 – revised script (38 min. version not fully in sync with this version of the script)
11/9/44 – Memo from Munson to Nelson: bodies in truck are Italians; close-ups must be taken out. Also agrees about changing sentence with “battalions” and “Italians”
11/11/44 – 900 feet of footage cut out sent to Astoria from Suitland as a guide for future shorter versions
11/15/44 – Title: “Release # HR-2” assigned to four reel version
11/16/44 – General Marshall and Benjamin Hibbs see ??? version
11/23/44 – Capra says the film cannot be cut to two reels, but to three reels only. Suggests General Mark Clark introduction.
11/30/44 – Mark Clark sees film in Italy, approves of it.
12/4/44 – memo to Capra - short version needs to be expedited
12/15/44 – shown in Newark, New Jersey to business and civic leaders, for a manpower drive
12/17/44 – House Military Affairs Committee tours Italy, sees the film
12/20/44 – William Hornbeck cutting SP down to three reels. Proposed text of Clark intro sent by Capra to Munson
12/22/44 - Memo about Italians/battalions (Under Secretary of War James Patterson objects) (Capra to Huston: no more insubordination)
12/28/44 – Text for intro sent from Washington DC to Italy for Clark to read
1/5/45 – revised script (38 minute version doesn’t correspond exactly to this version of script)
1/9/45 – memo from Lord in LA to DC – SP cannot be completed in less than a month. Waiting for Disney-made maps. Clark's introduction not available yet, new dubbing not yet done.
1/45 – Late January, seen by war plant executives in Ambassador Theater, Los Angeles
1/45 - 3/45 - Mark Clark intro added
1/45 or 2/45 – Huston makes 38 minute version
late 2/45 or early 3/45 – Huston Makes 32 minute version.
2/23/45 – memo from Colonel Curtis Mitchell – all previous versions to be recalled and impounded
3/6/45 – Memo concerning cuts made to get to 32 minute version
3/16/45 - Final 32 minute release version approved
4/30/45 – NY and DC previews
5/3/45 - Official release date by War Activities Committee
7/10/45 – Press conference in New York with Huston
7/11/45 - Opens in New York at 55th Street Playhouse with PORT OF SHADOWS and the short LENINGRAD MUSIC HALL. Plays in Washington DC at the Keith Theater with SALOME.
8/1/45 – Academy received print from War Activities Committee, via RKO
4/13/59 – Army releases an episode of THE BIG PICTURE on SP with new introduction by Huston
6/60 – Robert Hughes and Richard Griffith interview Huston (later published in: Film Book 2: Films of Peace and War. Ed, Richard Griffith. Interview by Robert Hughes, New York, Grove Press, 1962). Huston says Richard Griffith (then head of MOMA Film Department) has the 50 minute version. He also suggests that the decision to cut from 50 to 32 minutes is an exhibition issue, not one of censorship. 50 minutes is too long for a short to play theatrically.
1961. Representative Robert Kastenmeier asks Huston to use SP in JFK’s proposed Peace and Disarmament Agency. Says he’s seen 38 minute version. Huston says the Army has the 50 minute version.
1981 – Academy received 35mm print of 38 minute version. Why is there a safety print of a "non-official" version of the film, made in 1944-5, and supposedly "destroyed"? A negative of the longer version had to have survived some time into the safety era five years later. 

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