So "brought to you by the War Department" doesn't exactly foretell a subtle and complicated look at the paradoxes of war, and sure enough, San Pietro tells the made-for-the-movies story of what "we" did to overcome "the enemy," complete with stirring background music. However, the long, lingering shots of bloody corpses and body bags does much to raise the doc above your typical junior high filmstrip. (A side note: do middle schoolers even watch filmstrips anymore? They always sucked, but they are such an emblematic part of my memories of school. I don't think I could date anyone who has never seen a filmstrip.) I like the way the movie suggested that this battle, this moment, was only one of many--it wasn't the triumphant end of the war. In fact, the conclusion isn't really triumphant at all. One of the last images is that of gravediggers. The audience is invited to multiply those graves for all the battles that weren't filmed, "a thousand San Pietros." The maimed and mourning villagers who emerge from the ruins at the end is a nice move away from the doc's early America-centrism, though I thought the nursing babies/kids stuff managed to be both heavy-handed and tone-deaf. How can he suggest that the trauma from this battle won't last? Is that wishful thinking or a sincere inability to imagine the lasting damage from having your ENTIRE TOWN destroyed? Oh, and the Liberty Bell? Barf.
So, can we agree that this is only on the list because of John Huston's name? It seemed almost schizophrenic--on the one hand a real sensitivity to the human cost of war, and on the other complete agitprop. Is this what happens when a talented director is circumscribed by the War Department?