John Huston’s World War II documentary on the battle of San Pietro is easily up to the high standard that he set with his numerous classic dramas. It is impressive in describing both the events and the atmosphere of a desperate and costly struggle, and it is memorable in preserving its effect on those who had to live through it. Even on a purely historical level, this would serve as a valuable description of one stage in the grueling Italian campaign, one of the war’s least-remembered and least glamorous aspects.
The narration is very efficient in detailing what the battle was about, what happened, and why it happened. It puts everything into the perspective of the war as a whole, and it also provides a look at the nature of the Allies’ slow, grueling, costly progress up the Italian peninsula. On a dramatic level, it is even more effective and memorable. Without forcing anything, without resorting to ploys of any kind, it brings you into the world of the unfortunate foot soldiers on whose backs and blood the fate of the battle rested. Huston’s narration is flawless, using evenly measured tones to describe events in such a way as to allow them and the pictures of them to speak for themselves – and they speak in a powerful way. Most of the footage must have been taken at considerable risk, and while there is nothing fancy about the techniques, it’s impressive how much it captures. The soldiers slowly crawling along rocky heights, the pounding of heavy artillery, the frightened civilians hiding in caves, and much more, are all vividly captured. It’s hard to think of another documentary then or now that succeeds so well at what it set out to do.