‘The Battle of San Pietro’, directed by John Huston in 1945, is an American war documentary following the Allied campaign to liberate Italy. The film follows infantrymen as they fight up the steep hills of the Naples countryside to capture the town of San Pietro. The film was controversial on release because of its explicit display of dead soldiers and its focus on the brutality of conflict. As such it was suppressed for a number of years, but since resurfacing it has become clear that Huston’s film was the ground-breaking forerunner for war documentaries (and a particular type of war film) ever since. The direction is unflinching, although it has since been revealed that a significant amount of the footage was staged. Huston concentrates, not on making a patriotic statement or an artefact of propaganda, but rather a realistic document of the event. The feeling you get from watching the film is being within the action, particularly in the early scenes as the troops fight through the wooded countryside. The second half of the film, following the successful liberation of the two, focuses more on the locals, on the inhabitants of San Pietro who have become enmeshed in the conflict. Huston uses the expressions of the young children of the town to make a point about how war shocks in the short term, but often settles down in the long term to become the norm You can see fingerprints of this innovative style in films ever since from Gillo Pontecorvo’s ‘The Battle of Algiers’ to Samuel Fuller’s ‘The Big Red One’.
Would I recommend it? If you can find it, it is worth watching – it’s a short, powerful slice of history. Watch in a double bill with ‘The Big Red One’ for a look at how documentary can feed fiction.