Blu-ray Classics: John Huston’s WWII documentaries, ‘The Vikings,’ ‘Passage to Marseilles’

LetThereBeLightLet There Be Light (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – John Huston, like so many members of the Hollywood community, offered his talents to the armed services after Pearl Harbor. He was assigned to the Army Signal Corps, where he made four films. This disc features all four films, including a recently restored version of his final documentary for the armed services.

You can see his changing perspective on war through the productions, from Winning Your Wings (1942), a recruitment film narrated by James Stewart, to Let There Be Light (1946), his powerful portrait of the mentally and emotionally scarred men treated at a Long Island military hospital. Report from the Aleutians (1943) shows the routine of military life at a remote base in the frigid Aleutian Islands between Alaska and Russia (it’s also the only film shot in color), but his tone becomes darker in San Pietro (1945), which documents the battle to take a small Italian village from the occupying German forces. Huston provides the ironic narration himself over the record of destruction and loss of life on a single battle. The scenes of bombed-out ruins and dead soldiers are real but the battle itself was restaged by Huston for maximum dramatic impact. The military chose not to show the film to civilian audiences but new recruits did watch the film to understand the grueling ordeal awaiting them in battle. The film was voted into the National Film Registry in 1991.

Let There Be Light, his final film, is on the one hand a straightforward portrait of soldiers receiving help for “psychoneurotic” damage, what today was call post-traumatic stress disorder, and on the other a powerful portrait of the damage that war left on these men. It’s also a portrait of an integrated military, with black and white soldiers living and working in group therapy sessions together, before it ever existed in the barracks. The film was censored for 35 years and restored just a few years ago. This disc features the restored version.

All four films were shot on 16mm and were not well preserved so there is evident damage and wear. The Blu-ray and DVD editions also feature a 26-minute documentary, raw footage from San Pietro, and Shades of Gray (1948), a remake of Let There Be Light with actors recreating scenes from the documentary and the dark corners of Huston’s film replaced with a sunnier portrait of the returning soldier.

These are important pieces of World War II history and the most radical documentaries produced during the war.

VikingsThe timing is good for the Blu-ray debut of the 1958 The Vikings (Kino, Blu-ray, DVD), the splashy Hollywood adventure that launched a wave of Viking movies through the 1960s, with the History Channel series Vikings a cable hit and the BBC America The Last Kingdom reaching back to the history of the Norsemen.

Set in the middle ages, when the Vikings pillaged the English coast, The Vikings is barbarian fantasy, with Kirk Douglas playing the lusty Viking Prince Einar, the “only son in wedlock” of King Ragnar (a cackling, wild-eyed Ernest Borgnine) and Tony Curtis as his defiant slave Eric, who is in reality the long-lost heir to the British throne. Douglas is too old for the boy prince role and Curtis is unconvincing as an action hero but makes the prettiest slave boy in the movies, and their combined star power overcomes their miscasting. With jagged scars down his face and a milky white blind eye that almost glows in his skull, Douglas has a rowdy time as he kidnaps a Welsh Princess (Janet Leigh) betrothed to the King of England and battles the defiant Eric who rescues her from the Viking clutches and sneaks her back to England with the help of a primitive compass.

It’s pure Hollywood hokum, with the Vikings reduced to pagan cartoon barbarians who make sport of terrorizing women and take pride in the torture and murder—the fact that Janet Leigh’s character lives in constant threat of sexual assault makes for uneasy viewing when the film plays it as some kind of “Taming of a Shrew” situation—but it is spectacular hokum. The great cinematographer Jack Cardiff turns his Norway locations into a lush Valhalla on Earth and journeyman director Richard Fleischer, faced with an absurd story, goes for the gusto in brawling Viking parties, furious sieges, and clanging broadsword battles. The sexual politics are barbaric to say the least, and borderline jawdropping as the film walks a fine line between playing the sexual threat for lusty humor and making it a genuine danger, but it is colorful, energetic, and hearty, with star power to burn. It was enormous hit and it spawned a huge wave of Viking movies, some perhaps smarter but none as much fun, and has become a cult movie in its own right.

PassageMarseillesThe 1944 wartime drama Passage to Marseilles (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) reunites Humphrey Bogart with his Casablanca director Michael Curtiz and co-stars Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre in a production that packs a lot of genres into a single film. Opening on an air force squadron of Free French fighters hidden in the countryside, it segues into a sea drama, a prison escape thriller, a war film, and during a brief deck brawl something approaching a pirate film, all nestled into the storyline through flashbacks and plot twists. Bogart’s story takes us to pre-war Marseilles, where his crusading newspaper publisher takes on the rise of Fascism and is framed for murder by his enemies, and to Devil’s Island where he meets his fellow patriots.

This is shameless wartime propaganda, a rousing call to arms to free Europe from the Nazis and the turncoat collaborators (all of whom are presented as martinets with Fascist sympathies from the beginning), but is also enormously entertaining and action-packed. And for fans of Hollywood storytelling tricks, this films features the rare treat of a flashback within a flashback nestled within yet another flashback. Curtiz and cinematographer James Wong Howe create the world of the film, from Devil’s Island to a cargo freighter on the high seas, entirely in the studio. Howe’s cinematography is gorgeous, creating a sense of shadowy menace in the flashbacks, and it looks superb in the film’s Blu-ray debut.

Includes the supplements featured on the earlier DVD release, including the Oscar-nominated short Jammin’ the Blues featuring Lester Young and other jazz greats of the forties, a collection featuring a newsreel, short subject, cartoon, and trailers from 1944, and a Warner Bros. studio blooper reel.

More Blu-ray classics at Cinephiled

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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