Saturday, August 27, 2011

War! What is it Good For?

Film: The Battle of San Pietro (San Pietro)
Format: VHS from personal collection on big ol’ television.

I sometimes acquire movies in strange ways. A next-door neighbor moved away several months ago after booting her husband out of the house. The reason for the boot? The man was a serious hoarder. Our neighbor had boxes and boxes of his stuff (seriously, we’re talking the entire garaged filled with boxes because there was no more room in the house) that she wanted to get rid of including multiple boxes of video tapes that were still shrinkwrapped. Buried at the bottom of one such box was a VHS copy of The Battle of San Pietro (sometimes called simply San Pietro), which I took as my very own and finally got around to watching.

I’ll come completely clean here, though. If you glance to the right and scroll to the top of this blog, you’ll see a plug for my daughter and her upcoming trip/tour in Europe. We’re holding a garage sale for her as a fundraiser. I watched this today in part because it’s on the list and in part to see if it’s something that will have a 50-cent price tag on it on my driveway next week. Turns out it will be—I don’t foresee a need or desire to watch this one again.

The Battle of San Pietro is exactly what it claims to be—a short documentary (by film legend John Huston) on the eponymous battle. We see footage of Allied troops fighting in Italy; actual footage of the battles, complete with aircraft, tanks, artillery, and mortars; and even the bodies of fallen American troops being placed in body bags, wrapped in cloth, and buried near the site of the fighting.

Why this battle? Why not D-Day or Iwo Jima or the bombing of Dresden? This I cannot answer, although I am fairly sure that a part of this is because of the tremendous difficulty of this particular piece of the campaign. The terrain around San Pietro was perfect for the defenders and a nightmare for the attacking Allied troops. Huge mountains, rugged passes, few good roads, and more meant that the Allied troops essentially walked into the mouth of a meat grinder every time they attempted to take the German positions on the heights. Some companies were whittled down to almost nothing by the end of this battle.

What’s interesting here is that the documentary really pulls no punches. It doesn’t denigrate the German soldiers, downplay their bravery or tenacity, or brush off the massive casualties taken by the Allies in the week or so the fighting centered about this village. There’s no jolly pan of the camera past smiling troops (okay, there is one, but more on that in a minute). Rather we see a field of white crosses, women from the village carrying coffins on their heads, and graves being dug. The sacrifice of more than 1,000 men is neither glossed over nor turned into a point of patriotism and pride. It’s merely a fact of the documentary—taking this part of the road in Italy was costly and terrible, and the fighting didn’t stop once the Allies broke through here.

As for that pan across a group of soldiers, the narration suggests that between the time of the filming and the showing of the footage, many of these men gave their lives as the push up the Italian boot continued. There’s no happy ending to speak of here, just a brief pause in the battle before the battle continues. There’s no resolution and only a brief respite.

Where the film tends to bog down is in the sequences that describe the battle in terms of general strategy and troop movement. For these, we get a rough, undetailed map of the area and military symbols showing positions. Troop movements are indicated with a pointer. While perhaps integral to the understanding of the overall battle and limited by the technology of the day, these portions of the film are slow and a bit tedious for anyone who isn’t specifically a student of military history or military science.

The Battle of San Pietro is a unique piece of history, a military film that aims for accuracy and truth rather than mindless jingoism. Students of history may find quite a bit here to recommend it. If it feels a bit cold, it’s perhaps a welcome change from what could easily have been bleeding red, white, and blue.

Why to watch The Battle of San Pietro: True history with the propaganda toned down.
Why not to watch: A lot of maps and pointers.


  1. As to why this particular battle I think the answer is as simple as this was where Huston happened to visit. Not that there were many choices in Europe for visiting American troops in action in 1943. This was the campaign du jour.
    I think the maps served the gung-ho line of the narration in opposition to the camera. On one side the official story with plans and action, heroism ans fancy equipment and on the other, the camera side, the casualties and the utter destruction wrought by warfare, the unofficial but very real side. I think it all serves a very subversive purpose and I am I think more possitive about this film than you for this reason.

    1. You're probably right about why this was selected. I recently read "Citizens of London" about prominent Americans in the U.K. during the Blitz. What I learned from that is that there were a number of Hollywood elite who went to London to claim to be there. There were a few who were completely badass. William Wyler, for instance, flew on combat missions and was wounded in action.

      I liked this more than I thought I would for the reason you mention--I expected something pro-American military and it ended up being something very different.

  2. I watched The Battle of San Pietro this evening. Afterwards I was looking at the List and I noticed that I've seen all the films for 1944 and 1945! I had no idea I was doing so well in the mid-1940s. Every time you complete a year, you've completed approximately another 2.5% of the List.

    I don't have too much to say about The Battle of San Pietro. I've seen a few of these - Tunisian Victory, Let There Be Light and the one about the war in the Aleutians all come to mind - and I tend to enjoy them quite a bit. San Pietro seems to be more matter-of-fact than the others. I really liked the end when the villagers came out of the caves to go back to the village. That was rather touching, and looked a bit like outtakes from a Rossellini film.

    I'm actually having fun watching one movie from the List and then watching another one almost immediately. I may do it for a while, at least while the 1001 List movies hold out. Tomorrow, I'll have The Sorrow and the Pity and Night and Fog off TCM. I noticed Netflix has Carmen Jones on streaming so I might watch that tomorrow morning.

    1. As I recall, there's not really a lot here to say much about. It's pretty straightforward. I like that it seems to strive for accuracy instead of propaganda. That's a massive plus in my book, especially for something that calls itself a documentary.