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Film / Let There Be Light (1946)

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"Every man has his breaking point."
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Let There Be Light is a 1946 documentary film directed by John Huston, who had volunteered for service in World War II and served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. It was the third and last documentary Huston made for the Army, which wanted a film that would reassure the public that the shell-shocked veterans coming home from service overseas were not dangerous lunatics and could, with help, be re-integrated into society. The film follows a group of PTSD victims arriving at Mason General Hospital on Long Island. Psychiatrists talk to the men and help them talk out the traumas that they suffered in combat. Other activities such as occupational therapy and baseball help the men come out of their shells and re-engage with the world.

While Huston's movie showed all the veterans cured and returning home at the end of the film, the Army was not happy about the first part of the film and its unflinching portrayal of deeply damaged veterans. In fact, the film was shelved, with the Army going so far as to send MPs to break up a private screening arranged by Huston. The film was not made available for the public until 1980. As a product of the federal government, it is in the public domain.

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This film inspired the Army hospital scenes in Paul Thomas Anderson's film The Master, which even took bits of dialogue from Let There Be Light. Huston's other war documentaries are The Battle of San Pietro and Report from the Aleutians.

Not to be confused with the 2017 film of the same name.


Tropes:

  • As the Good Book Says...: In a group session with the men a therapist says "Man does not live by bread alone", when talking about re-adjusting to civilian life. The title, of course, is an allusion to the first chapter of the Book of Genesis.
  • All Psychology Is Freudian: Almost all psychology was Freudian in 1946, and that is reflected in this film. Although the film talks about physical causes for psychological problems, the therapy shown is pretty much straight Freudian, with psychiatrists using hypnosis, sodium amytal, and the old-fashioned "talking cure" to bring the soldiers around. Apparently Huston filmed scenes of soldiers getting electroshock therapy, but left it on the cutting room floor as being too disturbing.
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  • Call-Back: A scene of the men playing baseball near the end of the movie includes flashbacks to earlier in the movie. After a soldier is shown yelling "Out! You're out!", the film flashes back to that same soldier, who was the severe stutterer. As another soldier runs around the bases, the film flashes back to that soldier, who was the one unable to walk.
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: Seen from one soldier who takes deep drags from a cigarette as he struggles to get out his story of combat.
  • Happy Ending: Ironically, this film, suppressed by the Army for being a too harsh portrayal of PTSD, actually shows an unrealistically optimistic portrayal of PTSD recovery. All the men shown in the film recover fully, and leave the hospital seeming to be fully functional and ready to return to civilian life.
  • Inkblot Test: Part of the therapy used to help the men.
  • The Insomniac: One scene shows the soldiers sleeping in a common barracks room, with one soldier unable to sleep. Another soldier confesses during therapy that nightmares of combat are preventing him from sleeping.
  • Manly Tears: One of the soldiers tells about receiving a picture from his girlfriend, then breaks down sobbing. As he apologizes, the psychiatrist tells him that it's OK, crying is necessary to release what's inside.
  • Narrator: Walter Huston, John's father, who also narrated John Huston's documentary The Battle for San Pietro as well as Frank Capra's war documentary series Why We Fight.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: "The psycho-neurotic soldier...the casualties of spirit, the troubled in mind." One veteran twitches uncontrollably, another has a severe stutter, another can't walk. Most of them mumble and have difficulty making eye contact with the psychiatrists.

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