John Huston’s Fake Documentaries Of World War II

By Nolan Moore on Monday, October 19, 2015
John_Huston_-_publicity
“The search for the truth is the most important work in the whole world—and the most dangerous.” —James Clavell

In A Nutshell

If you’re a fan of classic films, then you’re probably a fan of John Huston. He’s the guy behind movies like The Maltese Falcon, and during World War II, he directed several memorable war documentaries. Only as it turns out, a few of Huston’s war docs were actually fakes.

The Whole Bushel

When we remember the great directors of classic Hollywood, John Huston is one of the first filmmakers who comes to mind. The man behind classics like The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Huston was equal parts storyteller and showman. In addition to his film career, the director was a larger-than-life figure who joined the Mexican cavalry in his twenties, hunted iguanas with Ernest Hemingway, and once went “mano a mano” with Robin Hood star Errol Flynn.

Huston was a man who loved excitement, so when America entered World War II in 1941, Huston was ready to go. According to film historian Mark Harris, author of books like Five Came Back and Pictures at a Revolution, Huston viewed the war as an adventure and a chance to test his manhood. Of course, Huston wasn’t the only filmmaker fighting the Axis. Directors like Frank Capra, John Ford, William Wyler, and George Stevens all signed up to do their part.

But these soldiers weren’t armed with guns. Instead, they were carrying cameras.

These directors were charged with the chronicling the war on film and producing propaganda flicks to inspire both the troops and the folks back home. Serving in the Signal Corps, Capra produced the Why We Fight films, a seven-episode series that explained why America was at war with Hitler. As head of the photographic unit for the Office of Strategic Services, John Ford captured the intense fighting at the Battle of Midway, and George Stevens (director of Giant, Shane, and A Place in the Sun) was on hand to capture the horrors of the Dachau concentration camp.

As for Huston, he’s probably best remembered for Let There Be Light, a documentary following a group of veterans suffering from PTSD. Unfortunately, the film was confiscated by military brass who thought it would demoralize audiences. They locked it up for over 30 years.

Of course, this wasn’t Huston’s only contribution to the war effort. Prior to Let There Be Light, he directed The Battle of San Pietro, a film depicting an American advance on the titular Italian town. The film was unflinching in its portrayal of real warfare, complete with corpses and body bags. There was even a fair amount of shaky cam going on. After all, there were bullets flying everywhere, and the film crew was forced to take cover from enemy fire . . . right?

Well, no, not really. Huston and his film crew didn’t show up in Pietro until the fighting was over, so instead of filming real-life combat, Huston recreated the entire battle with the help of the US Army. Huston was given actual soldiers and actual weapons to recreate the scene, and military officials even forked over classified documents describing what had happened during the fighting. As for all that bumping up and down, Huston knew he could make the footage appear more realistic if he added a bit of shaky cam. Basically, The Battle of San Pietro was one elaborate fake.

Of course, Average Joe citizen didn’t know that. When audiences (both civilian and military) sat down to watch The Battle of San Pietro, there was a title card at the end of the film that read, “For the purpose of continuity, a few of these scenes were shot before and after the actual battle.” So technically, perhaps the War Department wasn’t lying when they sent the film to theaters, but they were definitely telling half-truths.

It gets even worse when you realize this wasn’t the first time Huston totally faked a battle scene.

Before working on The Battle of San Pietro, Huston contributed to a propaganda film called Tunisian Victory, a documentary about the Allied success in North Africa. Originally, the film contained real war scenes, but unfortunately, the ship carrying the film sunk before it could reach the US.

That made things kind of awkward when President Roosevelt asked to see the footage. Unwilling to admit they’d lost the film, Frank Capra ordered John Huston to recreate the North African battle scenes. Instead of shooting in Tunisia, Huston filmed the aerial scenes in Florida and the infantry scenes out in the Mojave Desert, complete with fake tanks made out of wire frames with a canvas thrown on top.

Admittedly, Huston was pretty embarrassed of Tunisian Victory and later described the film as “so transparently false that I hated to have anything to do with it.” However, he never admitted San Pietro was a fraud. (In fairness, faking documentary footage has been going on ever since Robert J. Flaherty directed Nanook of the North.)

Even modern-day films like Catfish and Exit Through the Gift Shop have been accused of being less than truthful, but perhaps the John Huston hoax hurts worse because we expect more from our World War II heroes.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo via Wikipedia
You Must Remember This: Star Wars Episode IX: John Huston and Olivia de Havilland
The Daily Beast: WWII Lies of Hollywood’s Greats
New Republic: The Best World War II Documentary Was Faked
The Montreal Gazette: Huston says Mitchum finest actor, describes fight with Errol Flynn

  • Jimmy

    In fairness the purpose of the films wasn’t accuracy but propaganda. I think he fulfilled his task as well as could be expected under the circumstances.