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Film / The Battle of San Pietro

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The Battle of San Pietro (1945) is a 38-minute-long Army documentary film made by John Huston, director of The Maltese Falcon, who had joined the military for World War II and been assigned to the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

The film is Exactly What It Says on the Tin, telling the story of the battle of San Pietro Infine in December 1943. Huston's film sets the scene with shots of the broad Liri Valley where the town is located, then shows with maps the roads that lead into the town and the major German positions in the town and in the mountains around it. U.S. Army soldiers assault German positions, making progress but taking terrible casualties. U.S. tanks then brave a single winding mountain road, fully exposed to German artillery fire, in order to attack the town. Finally the Americans drive the Germans out of San Pietro and the surrounding mountains.

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The graphic depiction of dead American soldiers and dead Italian civilians in The Battle of San Pietro got Huston in trouble with Army brass and nearly got the film shelved, but it was shown to the public and to American servicemen at the insistence of Gen. George Marshall. It is now recognized as one of the greatest contemporary World War II documentaries. Compare Huston's other World War II documentaries, Report from the Aleutians and Let There Be Light.


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Tropes:

  • Birth/Death Juxtaposition: A shot of a corpse being removed from the ruins of San Pietro is followed by a shot of two women sitting on rubble, nursing babies.
  • Bittersweet Ending: In the closing narration Huston notes that many of the soldiers shown onscreen would be killed not long after, and that the brutal battle for San Pietro was just one in an unending series of battles (in Real Life the Italian campaign lasted until the end of the war in April 1945). But the peasants are shown tilling the fields again, and life comes back to the valley.
  • Dramatization: For many years after the release of the film it was believed that Huston's crew was actually there for the battle and took live footage of the attack on the town, including real footage of soldiers getting shot down. Later research has shown that Huston and his crew didn't get to San Pietro until the end of the battle, and the combat scenes shown in the film are recreations. They're pretty damn realistic, though - shot immediately following the battle, the corpses strewn all over the battlefield and the town are real, and some of the soldiers were allegedly recreating actions they'd experienced for real only a day or two earlier.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: Army brass suspected Huston of making a covertly anti-war film. Huston replied that if he ever made a pro-war film, they could shoot him.
  • Irony: There's some snark in Huston's narration.
    • Huston shows the locals picking up rubble, and says that the Italian villager is a born mason who builds not for himself but "for future generations." This is immediately followed by a shot of a dead Italian teenaged girl lying in the street.
    • Huston's establishing shots of the town include a statue of St. Peter, for whom the town was named. Huston, possibly quoting from a travel guide, marks as a "point of interest" the town cathedral, St. Peter's, which dated to 1438. This is accompanied by interior shots showing the church to be completely destroyed.
  • Jitter Cam: Decades before this trope was popularized in war films like Saving Private Ryan, it was used in this film. Huston's crew shot the battle scenes with handheld newsreel cameras. The cameras can often be seen to shake when artillery rounds land, and they shake quite a bit more when the cameraman follows American soldiers on the attack.
  • Narrator: Huston narrates the film himself, getting in a little subtle snark. See Ironic Juxtaposition above.
  • Scenery Gorn: The town of San Pietro is destroyed, bombed to rubble. The latter third of the film is devoted to showing the devastation as the Americans enter the town. (In Real Life, it was so bad that the locals didn't even bother to repair the damage. Instead they built a new town next to the ruins.)
  • Scenery Porn: Some beautiful establishing shots of the Liri Valley.
  • War Is Hell: It certainly is, as shown by all the dead soldiers getting zipped into the body bags and all the dead bodies littering the town of San Pietro. This unflinching look at the cost of battle is the main reason the film was nearly shelved.
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