An Interview With John Huston

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The Army wanted no part of the picture at first. During the first screening, they all started walking out, by rank order, beginning with a three-star general. For a time I was highly suspect for turning out such a product. They figured the picture would dishearten any young soldier. Mental casualties usually occur, you know, during the baptism of fire. General George C. Marshall saved the picture. He saw it and said, of course, every recruit should see this film to prepare himself for the reality of combat. There were some scenes I did take out, reluctantly. Again, it was Marshall who requested it. I could understand. I had interviewed some of the men on camera before the first attack to ask them why they thought they were fighting the war. They were quite eloquent. It wasn’t like Korea or Vietnam then, you know. I can never forget the kid who told me how everything was going to change after the war. There he was in the midst of hell, and he believed the world was going to be a better place. Why, he told me, there was going to be a tunnel under the English Channel, maybe under the Atlantic. Not long afterward he was dead. They laid out the casualties in a row on their bedrolls. They had to lift their backs up to pull the bedroll over the head. I had my camera right down there filming their faces close up. In the original version of the film, I had their voices speaking about their hopes for the future over the dead faces. I guess that would have been too much for the families. So it was cut, along with about a third of the film. But after General Marshall approved of the picture, the rest of the brass fell into line. I was decorated, promoted, too, to major.

 
 

Your other Army documentary, Let There Be Light , was suppressed for thirty-five years. How did you finally get it released?

It was to show how men who had been mentally damaged in the war could be helped by psychiatric care to lead useful lives. We filmed it at Mason General Hospital on Long Island. We set the cameras up in the receiving room and filmed the patients as they were checked in. Then, as their treatment progressed, we kept on filming, thousands of feet. The cameras caught miraculous things—men who couldn’t walk recovering the use of their legs; one fellow regained the power of speech. But the War Department wouldn’t release the film. They said it violated the patients’ privacy, even though all the men filmed had signed releases. I think the Army was concerned about not destroying the warrior myth. Only a few weaklings were supposed to break under the experience of war. The others were to come out standing proud and tall. No one had been able to budge the Army before, but after years of trying we finally got the picture released in 1981. It was quite a campaign. Ray Stark, one of the most powerful figures in the film business and a man for whom I have the deepest affection, led the effort. Jack Valenti, the head of the Motion Picture Association, worked on it. We had the U.S. senators and representatives from California, but the person who was most instrumental in getting Let There Be Light released was Vice President Walter Mondale.

In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre there is a memorable scene at the end in which the wind is blowing the gold dust away. And Old Howard, played by your father, is laughing a mad, gleeful laugh. What is that laugh saying?

The point is he gets the young character, played by Tim Holt, to laugh, too. They laugh at the absurdity of the venture. My father could inspire that kind of awareness and laughter in others. He would laugh and get me laughing—not necessarily at a joke. Usually it was a shared weakness he spotted or made me see that brought on that marvelous laughter. I haven’t laughed like that since he died.

You obviously had a close relationship with your father. Yet you weren’t raised by him. Is that possibly the reason for the father-son success, that you weren’t always under each other’s feet?

It was more that I didn’t regard him so much as a father but as a friend. He hadn’t been much of a father to me; that wasn’t required. When I got to know him, I liked him. I also respected him, but I didn’t go to him for advice. Instead, I learned from his actions, from his way of looking at life. My father was my closest friend, and he would have been even had he not been my father.

You made a picture of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. But the film you made is not exactly what the public saw. What happened?