This documentary movie is about the battle of San Pietro, a small village in Italy. Over 1,100 US soldiers were killed while trying to take this location, that blocked the way for the Allied forces from the Germans.Written by
Stephan Eichenberg <email@example.com>
I don't know how this documentary ever managed to be released in 1945 while the war was still underway. Other examples of the genre always ended in victory. Allied dead were never seen except at funeral services with flags flying and officers making speeches and a solemn narrator telling us of their brave deeds.
Huston's documentary is different. The narration is by the director and is full of the logic of battle and lacks sentiment. The film is shot from ground level, the level of the foot soldier. A phosphorous shell explodes some feet away, the ground trembles, and the air is filled with bits of burning chemicals. An American soldier is shot in mid-stride and flops unceremoniously to the ground. There are multiple shots of American dead, some being bundled into mattress covers and lowered into hasty graves by the Quartermaster Corps.
Only one speech is delivered, by General Mark Clark at the opening of the film. He was in charge of American forces in Italy and always saw to it that the press referred to the Fifth Army as "General Mark Clark's Fifth Army." Clark points out that there was great sacrifice during the campaign and hints that it might not have been so great if the Army hadn't seen fit to rob him of resources for the invasion of France. Nevertheless, he observes, we kept many Germans pinned down in Italy. No mention of the fact that the Allies too were bottled up in Italy with the Germans acting as the cork.
Huston uses a simple map and pointer to illustrate the tactical situation. And his narration is blunt. The attack on the German's right was launched and not a man got more than 300 yards beyond his starting point. All our attacks were repeatedly repulsed with heavy losses. And when at last the Germans withdrew, they did so swiftly and according to plan, and took up new defensive position five kilometers away.
Five kilometers away. That meant a new battle against a new defensive line. And after that, another battle against another defensive line, with all the German artillery sighted in, and their positions camouflaged and mutually supporting.
There was nothing else to be done. The Italian boot seemed made for defense, with a high mountain range forming a spine down the center, and innumerable smaller ranges to the east and west, interspersed with rivers that swelled during the winter rains. The obstacles and mud often halted operations entirely.
I suppose that's one of the reasons why we don't see very much footage of combat from the Italian campaign on television. It wasn't colorful. It wasn't glamorous. It didn't end in a smashing victory. The Battle of San Pietro was an early one, and Monte Casino and the Gustav Line and other terrors still lay ahead.
The closest Hollywood ever came to capturing the misery associated with the Italian campaign was in William Wellman's "The Story of G.I. Joe" -- and even there, the despair these men must have felt is muted by the homespun voice over of Burgess Meredith as Ernie Pyle. Huston evidently staged many of the combat scenes but I still don't know how Huston's short film managed to get past the wartime censors.
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