Pros: Fascinating documentary footage
Cons: Post-production editing hacks up the original version of the piece into manipulative and didactic propaganda
Famed director John Huston's 1945 documentary The Battle of San Pietro has been both criticized and championed in the years since its release. A chronicle of a December 1943 campaign in mountainous central Italy, the film's sense of gritty realism has been the source of much of its criticism. Unlike many American newsreel and documentary films, this one has several scenes showing American casualties, in one instance showing corpses being bagged up in mattress cases. Thus, the film was labeled as being offensive, "anti-war" (a claim to which Huston responded that if he had made a pro-war film, he should be shot), and effectively banned by the military since it was perceived the film would lower morale. Following a reevaluation, however, the film was praised for the very material it had been chastised for earlier, and the military began utilizing the film for training purposes. Today, this work is interesting as a historical document, and certainly is one of the more harrowing views of World War II as provided by the documentary camera, but it has some glaring problems that somewhat limit its effectiveness.
In many ways, Battle of San Pietro is one of the most eye-opening portraits of warfare ever captured onscreen. Huston's camera crew actually was stationed with soldiers of the 36th Infantry Division as they attempted to capture a small Italian village and the surrounding mountaintops. Bombs and mortars are quite literally exploding all around the camera crew, and the shaky viewpoints provided in the resulting footage hint at the amount of legitimate danger they were in while filming this document. There are a couple scenes in the film where we literally see soldiers being gunned down by machine gun fire, and the viewer really gets a notion of how tough a situation these infantrymen were facing trying to capture heavily guarded and highly fortified enemy positions. I would have to say that the footage contained in this documentary is more vivid and gritty than anything provided by films such as Victory at Sea or similar documentaries. Those programs seemed to try and capture the bigger picture of what was going on, but Huston's approach is to capture a more complete portrait of what was actually happening on the ground during this battle.
Throughout the picture, there are expository scenes that show the battlefield as a map, illustrating the Allied and Nazi positions, and basic strategies undertaken by the Allied commanders. These explanations do a solid job of summarizing the basic campaign and let us know what the documentary footage is actually capturing. The narration for the film is provided by director Huston himself, and is fairly well done, seeming to refrain from glamorizing the situation until the lengthy, extended climax of the film. I find the film quite effective especially in its opening scenes, where Huston's sadly ironic narration talks about the town of San Pietro and its 1400 citizens while showing the absolute devastation that took place during the battle which reduced this historic town to little more than rubble. The editing during the battlefield sequences is enthralling, and frequently utilizes out of focus or jumpy shots that would normally be excised from a film’s final cut in order to be more authentic and capture the hectic, hellish conditions on the battlefield.
While The Battle of San Pietro is quite extraordinary in several ways, the film is also marred by some rather unfortunate problems. First, the film as it exists today in a version running just over a half hour, has been cut down to about one-third of its original length, and at times, it shows. An analysis of the film seems to suggest that the entire project was toned down and somewhat sanitized for popular consumption. In this truncated version, there's some footage that shows the inevitable consequences of war and first-hand footage of the battle raging, but it seems like the editor of the project has eliminated sections of the film that contained more harrowing footage. The result is a film that's definitely a piece of propaganda rather than an unbiased document of the event it captures.
As such, the film operates in exactly the manner that Americans have come to expect: the battle is planned, carried out, then the local citizenry come out to hail the conquering heroes. It's a basic formula that has been repeated time and again, seen even in today's media coverage of American military action, but as we've come to realize in the post-Vietnam era, things are rarely as straight-forward and cut-and-dry as this. An extended (and overlong considering the length of the film) ending montage that shows the Italian peasants carrying on with their daily life seems rather tacky, giving the film an all-too-tidy ending that seems to go against Huston's authentic portrayal of the horrors of the actual conflict. All in all, it seems like the existing cut of Battle of San Pietro presents a portrait that tries not to sully its hands in too many of the inevitable unpleasantries of the battle - a battle which ended up costing the American forces some 1100 lives. I suppose this is nothing if the expected manner in which such a film would be released, especially in 1945, but it would have been interesting to see the full, unedited version of this film as originally produced.
In the end, Battle of San Pietro is certainly an interesting historical document and a fascinating piece of American propaganda from World War II, but in its existing form, it seems to fall short of being an accurate, unbiased document of the conflict it aims to detail. The film is chock full of fascinating footage from the front lines of battle, and would be most rewarding for military enthusiasts, but I'd be more inclined to give it a middle-of-the-road rating since the film becomes fairly manipulative with its convenient ending. The narration is decent as these films go, and Dmitri Tiomkin's music score is excellent, but in its sanitized, truncated form, it comes across as being didactic and is somewhat disappointing.