A Soldier’s Heart: Let There Be Light

A Soldier’s Heart: Let There Be Light

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the invisible wound that scars war veterans, and some individuals are so afflicted that they die physically or psychologically from this traumatic wound through suicide, homicide or incurable psychosis. In 2012, this disorder is recognized and understood in ways it never was before, making it more possible for traumatized men and women to get the help they need. However, war-related PTSD certainly isn’t new, and when the 20th century and its technological might ushered in massively brutal, worldwide conflicts that buried forever idea of a “gentleman’s war,” it also drastically increased the psychological pressures on combat troops. Motion pictures have been used to document the many aspects of war. Over the years, the United States government has commissioned a number of documentaries that look at soldiers returning from theaters of war, as they attempt to reintegrate into the society they left behind.

Perhaps the most famous documentary about returning soldiers is the 1946 film Let There Be Light by the acclaimed filmmaker John Huston, who considered the film to be one of his best movies. However, its fame derives mainly from being kept hidden for 35 years after it was made, by a War Department uncomfortable with the notion that there is any lasting downside to war for the returning veteran. The War Department was so uneasy about this documentary that it had the film remade as Shades of Gray, a propaganda docudrama based on Let There Be Light, which not only eliminated African-American soldiers from the cast, but also suggested that only soldiers who were disturbed before they went to war broke down upon their return.

Film history isn’t the only context in which to appreciate Huston’s hour-long documentary, his third and final film for the Army Signal Corps. Let There Be Light is also one of the earliest commercial depictions of psychotherapy, in this case the military’s use of it to treat what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The U.S. military now offers a wide array of pre- and post-battle therapies to help soldiers recover from traumatic experiences. In contrast, Let There Be Light’s gruff doctors, who inject sodium amytal and conduct religious group therapy sessions, look prehistoric by comparison.

Nevertheless, Let There Be Light, like its routinely under-appreciated 1946 fictional counterpart, The Best Years of Our Lives, remains essential viewing. Each of the films conveys a sense of compassion toward soldiers; the soldiers presented in these films don’t ask to be called heroes, they only want normalcy. Today’s returning soldiers surely feel the same, and yet their experiences on the battlefield are increasingly abnormal, even unknown, to most people they encounter upon returning.

Seven months after the War Department forcibly prevented Let There Be Light from premiering at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, a disabled Army veteran named Harold Russell became the only man to win two Oscars for the same performance. Russell received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and an Honorary Award for Nonprofessional aActing for his role as a returned soldier in The Best Years of Our Lives. William Wyler’s 168-minute drama concerns the homecomings of three soldiers, and it was showered with awards throughout the winter and spring of 1947, including a Best Picture Oscar and multiple Golden Globes and New York Film Critics Circle citations.

The Best Years of Our Lives and Let There Be Light aren’t cynical or judgmental of American society, but are quietly brave and emotionally devastating. Let There Be Light attempts to shield us with its preentation of hospital interiors that are clean, orderly and positively overstaffed. Nonetheless, the men and their stories are unforgettable. You finish watching the film feeling emotionally drained and deeply grateful that they won’t have to fight again.

To commemorate this past Memorial Day, the National Film Preservation Foundation premiered the film on its website and will run the film through the end of August.

A Soldier’s Heart: Let There Be Light

The Best Years of Our Lives

Read more about Let There Be Light in The Morning News here.

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The Studs Terkel Centenary: Chicago Celebrates Legendary Studs Terkel

The Studs Terkel Centenary: Chicago Celebrates Legendary Studs Terkel

May 16th marks the 100th anniversary of Studs Terkel’s birth and an occasion to memorialize one of the most prolific writers and cultural critics in the history of Chicago letters. As an author, broadcaster and oral historian, legendary Chicagoan Studs Terkel celebrated the lives of ordinary Americans. Some of Terkel’s many friends and fans are hoping to return the favor with a series of events marking the 100th birthday of a man whose work is a chronicle of the 20th century.

The Studs Terkel Centenary, a group headed up by Terkel’s friends, including Chicago Tribune reporter Rick Kogan, on Saturday will rededicate the Division Street Bridge, which was named after Terkel 20 years ago. On Wednesday, The Newberry Library will host a birthday party featuring guest speakers who will share stories about Studs. Terkel’s friends will ensure that his memory lives on with a day of Studs-only programming on WFMT-FM on his birthday, with performances of passages from Terkel’s 2001 book Will the Circle Be Unbroken? at Steppenwolf Theatre next week and by phoning in personal anecdotes about Terkel to a hotline set up by Chicago’s Hull House Museum.

A Tribute: Remembering Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel: The Human Voice (StoryCorps)

Remembering Studs Terkel: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

The New York Times reported that Chicago’s legendary Studs Terkel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose searching interviews with ordinary Americans helped establish oral history as a serious genre, and who for decades was the enthusiastic host of a popular nationally syndicated radio show on WFMT-FM in Chicago, died at his home at the age of 96.

In his oral histories, which he called guerrilla journalism, Mr. Terkel relied on his effusive but gentle interviewing style to bring forth in rich detail the experiences and thoughts of his fellow citizens. For more than the four decades, Studs produced a continuous narrative of great historic moments sounded by an American chorus in the native vernacular.

Division Street: America (1966), his first best seller, explored the urban conflicts of the 1960s. Its success led to Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970) and Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974).

Mr. Terkel’s book The Good War: An Oral History of World War II won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. In Talking to Myself: A Memoir of My Times (1977), Terkel turned the microphone on himself to produce an engaging memoir. In Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession (1992) and Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century by Those Who’ve Lived It (1995), he reached for his ever-present tape recorder for interviews on race relations in the United States and the experience of growing old.

In 1985, a reviewer for The Financial Times of London characterized his books as “completely free of sociological claptrap, armchair revisionism and academic moralizing.” The amiable Mr. Terkel was a gifted and seemingly tireless interviewer who elicited provocative insights and colorful, detailed personal histories from a broad mix of people. “The thing I’m able to do, I guess, is break down walls,” he once told an interviewer. “If they think you’re listening, they’ll talk. It’s more of a conversation than an interview.”

Readers of his books could only guess at Mr. Terkel’s interview style. Listeners to his daily radio show, which was first broadcast on WFMT-FM in 1958, got the full flavor as Studs, with both breathy eagerness and a tough-guy Chicago accent, went after the straight dope from guests like Sir Georg Solti, Muhammed Ali, Mahalia Jackson, the young Dob Dylan, Toni Morrison and Gloria Steinem.

The entire New York Times article can be read here.

Rick Kogan has written a detailed article in The Chicago Tribune, which can be read here.

Studs Terkel’s website at The Chicago Historical Society can be accessed here.

Studs Terkel’s (1970) WFMT-FM radio interview with me (Patrick Zimmerman) can be heard here. Parts of this radio interview later become a selection (pp. 489-493) in Terkel’s acclaimed book, Working:

Audio: Part I of The Radio Interview

Audio: Part II of The Radio Interview

Studs Terkel: Remembering His Life and Times

Conversations about Studs Terkel (2004)

Studs Terkel: About the Human Spirit (2002)

Studs Terkel: The Pioneering Broadcaster

Music Audio: Mavis Staples/Hard Times

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