San Pietro

John Huston's "fake" propaganda movie, but unlike other faked documentaries covered by Mark Harris's book, San Pietro won large favor with critics and audiences for its aesthetic brutality. Both James Agee and Manny Farber went for it, the latter calling it, "breathtaking reality, fullness of detail and sharp effect from shot to shot." Knowing the footage is "fake" thus makes watching it strange. My favorite moment in Wyler's real Memphis Belle was watching the 16mm footage of a downed B-17 bomber and its pilots slowly escaping. There's both a clarity and an obscurity to Huston's footage, which seems to both present the actions of the soldiers with a clarity (Here they are running; now they are jumping into a trench; now they load a canon) while never providing a spatial clarity of how one shot often relates to another - a so-called "chaos of war" tactic? Even the film's "map" of the attack is ridiculously confusing when it's explained for at least 10 minutes. I'm not sure I see the war combat influence Harris argues for in his book - I think people like Fuller with The Steel Helmet and Mann with Men In War pushed cinematic combat further than this in a way I can trace their influence much more easily. But one can't argue that there is a certain brutality in the images here - some of the violence and gruesome bodies are the kind that was certainly never present in the American cinema before, and has become all too standard now. The most exciting shots, ironically, are of the Italians after the battle, staring at the camera with perplexed looks - these people just survived hell, why do they care about cinema?

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