#178. The Battle of San Pietro (1945)

Last year on December 22nd I went to my friend Maria’s house for a holiday party and she told all in attendance that her mom wasn’t feeling well, that she’d be holed up in her room all day, and the guests were all kinda bummed cuz we’ve grown up together, and Maria’s mom has always been so friendly and inviting and accommodating. And so when finally Maria’s mom did sneak out of her room to say hello a couple hours later, we all kinda pounced to give her hugs, shake hands, etc. Then she got some water, retreated into her room, and the night went one.
Fast forward to Christmas Eve. I’ve eaten way too much food, I’m lying in bed, and I get this vibe like I’m gonna puke. Which is fine. It happens. So I go to the bathroom, assume the position, and eventually I puke, a lot, and it’s painful and it takes a while and it really really sucks but when it’s done, I figure, it’s done. I’ve got that endorphin rush, I’m exhausted. Time for bed.
So I get back into bed but now I’m sweating. And then suddenly I’ve gotta puke again. So I’m back in the bathroom, assuming the position, when suddenly my stomach starts reeling in the other direction. And anyway, long story short: I had food poisoning, and it was awful. Lasted all night and then on through Christmas.
At one point, around 3 a.m., I get a text from Lynda. She’s sending me a bunch of bloopers from movies of the 1930s. She says, “Hey, hope this doesn’t wake you, I’m just sitting up with Bob cuz he’s got food poisoning and thought you’d like this.”
So, shitting my brains out, I text back, “lol I’ve got food poisoning too.”
I figure she probably didn’t believe me, but we trade a few more texts, and eventually I curl up and tremble and sweat myself to sleep.
Morning comes and the symptoms return with it. Back and forth between bed and toilet for the whole day, feverish and scared, until finally the symptoms slow down and I get on the phone with Bob.
We’ve got the same thing, but he’s doing better. He went to the emergency room in the middle of the night cuz he thought he was dying. They put him on an IV and he got better.
So on a whim I go to the Facebook group where, for the past couple weeks, all of the guests at Maria’s party had been planning it out. I ask if anybody else got sick last night and, within the hour, almost everybody responds to say that they have. Two people say they’re fine but, a few hours later, are not fine. One of them pukes so hard he has a seizure and goes to the hospital.
Turns out Maria’s mom didn’t know she had norovirus, and we all got it when we hugged her.
But anyway. So I’m sick for thirty hours or so and then, on December 26, I’m feeling pretty good and I go to the living room and start watching stuff from the List again. First one up is this movie here, The Battle of San Pietro, which I’m not looking forward to at the time because, with the exceptions of Sergeant York and All Quiet on the Western Front, I haven’t really had a blast with war movies. But then I found, to my delight, that it’s only a half hour long.
Great! We zoom through the boring war movie and then I’ll have enough time and energy to watch a couple other movies that actually capture my interest.
Turns out Battle of San Pietro is absolutely not the movie you wanna watch when you’ve been throwing up for a few dozen hours. It’s a brutal documentary directed by John Huston (Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierre Madre, The Asphalt Jungle) who – I’m not quite clear on this – was either there for the battle or not there for the battle.
San Pietro is a little Italian town that was occupied by Germans. Huston’s film follows the Allied effort to penetrate and take it over, battling Germans along the perimeter through difficult terrain. I feel totally disarmed in trying to discuss military motive and strategy, so I’m probably doing a shitty job of it here, and this is after I’ve consulted TCM and Wikipedia for summaries to supplement what I saw.
(Digression: It reminds me of this professor I had in college, I only remember that his middle name was Dewey, but Dewey was a veteran of the Gulf War who one day brought a chunk of the Berlin wall to class in a Zip-Lock bag. The class was a history of the Vietnam and Cold War and, having seen some combat and been through plenty of training, he told us – in his one flash of profanity that whole semester – that “if you’re lookin’ for a clear description of what battle is actually like, it’s this: a cluster-fuck. You can train all you like. When the day comes that you’re all just sitting around and gunfire breaks out, nobody has any idea what direction it’s coming from. Plans get scrambled in your head. It’s chaos.” That’s kinda how I felt watching San Pietro.)
The stand-out thing about Battle of San Pietro is that, apart from having the real-life feeling that was only re-created for something like Fires Were Started, it’s the first movie on the List to show actual dead bodies (of young Allied troops) and, in so doing, seems to usher the medium toward something new.
It gets me thinking of The Great White Silence, a tedious but revelatory documentary from the 1920s about a doomed expedition in the arctic, where the craft of cinema was used to introduce the audience to something brutal and real (the vistas of the arctic, more so than the tragic fates of its explorers). It reminds me too, however, of Luis Bunuel’s thirty-minute Land Without Bread, a documentary that totally broke my heart and haunted me for a couple days until, after consulting with Pavel, I found that it was basically a prank. Bunuel was trying to demonstrate how manipulative the medium of film could be; how images could be presented in no particular order and, if overlain with suggestive commentary, can spin a persuasive made-up narrative. (Susan Sontag wrote some interesting stuff about this in her brief book Regarding the Pain of Others, how the addition of a one-sentence caption can either amplify or dilute the empathy that a person feels in seeing, say, the image of a dead child in war. Without the caption, it’s an inherently tragic picture; if suddenly there’s a caption saying that this is a child from the enemy side, well, maybe you don’t feel so bad.)
The Battle of San Pietro doesn’t seem to spin anything. It seems like a brutal documentary that shows us the rigors and horrors of war. There was apparently some discord among military officers about whether this was something that oughta be shown to young recruits. There was fear that the sight of dead young men might terrify and disillusion them – but, on the other hand, there was a good chance that it’d keep them from fucking around. It’d let them known that this was a matter of life or death.
What makes me think of Bunuel, though, is that John Huston, once the film was released, insisted that it was anti-war, and that if he’d ever made a pro-war film he’d like to be taken out and shot. A military official also accused him of having made a pacifistic film, of trying to subvert the war effort.
I just don’t see how the hell this documentary is one of those things or the other. It shows the horrors of war and, yeah, there’s inherent bias with filmmaking because you have to put the camera somewhere. By directing your lens toward the east, you’re omitting what’s happening in the west, and if the thing that’s happening in the east is a consequence of what’s happening in the west, then your viewer is gonna have a lopsided perspective of what’s going on.
But that’s…a bit heady. Ahdunno. I’m surprised that documentary filmmaking hasn’t popped up more often on the List. I would have liked to see some of the animations that Walt Disney made for the army, or the stuff that Jimmy Stewart did for the air force.
The second half of the 20th century will, I think, make for a more interesting sample of documentary filmmaking if only because film was more readily available – especially when we get to the home video market and cable TV. There will be more footage of things that have happened in the world and, accordingly, more samples to choose from. The documentarian will have more dexterity in crafting his or her narrative.
I don’t really wanna dwell on this one because all I can remember, frankly, is some of the combat stuff with soldiers trotting over rocky terrain and, of course, the dead teenagers. Also, ahdunno what to say about the pro- or anti-war stance. So. Lemme just leave things here.

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