Let There Be Light (1946)


Let There Be Light (1946) – known to the US Army as PMF 5019 – is a documentary film directed by American filmmaker John Huston.

Intended to educate the public about posttraumatic stress disorder and its treatment among returning veterans, the film’s unscripted presentation of mental disability led to Let There Be Light being suppressed by the US government; it was not released until the 1980’s.

It is featured in the docuseries “Five Came Back“.

Outline (Background)

As the US Army was demobilising near the end of World War II it had the task of reintegrating returning military veterans back into peacetime society.

An obstacle veterans faced was the stigma surrounding “shell shock” or “psychoneurosis”, the old terms for posttraumatic stress disorder.

To convince the public, and especially employers, that veterans being treated for battle-induced mental instability were completely normal after psychiatric treatment, on 25 June 1945, the Army Signal Corps tasked Major John Huston with producing the documentary The Returning Psychoneurotics.

Huston visited multiple Army hospitals on the East and West Coasts before deciding upon Mason General Hospital on Brentwood, Long Island. The reasons being that Mason General was the biggest mental health facility on the East Coast, the hospital was located near the Army motion picture production center at Astoria Studio in Queens, New York, and the doctors were very open and receptive to the filming and any psychiatric questions he had.

The new title that Huston gave the film, Let There Be Light, was a reference to Genesis 1:3 of the King James Version of the Bible. This was an allusion to the documentary revealing truths that were previously concealed as too frightening or shameful for acknowledgement.

Outline (Documentary)

The film begins with an introduction, stating that 20% of wartime casualties are of a psychiatric nature.

Veterans are transported from a medical ship to Mason General Hospital to be treated for mental conditions brought about by war.

A group of seventy-five US service members – recent combat veterans suffering from various “nervous conditions” including psychoneurosis, battle neurosis, conversion disorder, amnesia, severe stammering, and anxiety states – arrive at the facility. They are brought into a room and told by an admissions officer to not be alarmed by the cameras, which will make a photographic record of their progress.

Next are scenes of interviews between a doctor and some of the patients about their problems and circumstances leading to that point. Afterwards, various treatment methods are employed to cure them.

Treatments depicted include narcosynthesis, hypnosis, group psychotherapy, music therapy, and work therapy. One soldier who had amnesia was hypnotised to remember the trauma of the Japanese bombings on Okinawa and his life before then. Another is given an intravenous injection of sodium amytal to induce a hypnotic state, curing him of his mental inability to walk.

The treatments are followed by classes (designed to reintegrate patients into civilian life) and group therapy sessions. Therapists make a point of reassuring the patients that there is nothing to be ashamed of for receiving treatment for their mental conditions, and that civilians subjected to the same stresses would develop the same conditions.

At this point the documentary shifts the tone to a sense of normalcy, with the soldiers performing regular activities and complaining about everyday problems.

The film ends with a number of the featured patients participating in a ceremony in which they are discharged, not just from the hospital, but from military service, and returned to civilian life.

Production & Filming Details

  • Narrator(s): Walter Huston.
  • Director(s): John Huston.
  • Producer(s): John Huston and US Army Pictorial Service.
  • Writer(s): John Huston and Charles Kaufman.
  • Music: Dimitri Tiomkin.
  • Cinematography: Stanley Cortez, John Doran, Lloyd Fromm, Joseph Jackman, and George Smith.
  • Editor(s): William H. Reynolds and Genre Fowler Jr.
  • Distributor(s): US Army.
  • Release Date: 1946.
  • Running Time: 58 minutes.
  • Country: US.
  • Language: English.

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