The Battle of San Pietro

The Battle of San Pietro. In 1941, Director John Huston was basking in the limelight of his Hollywood blockbuster, “The Maltese Falcon”, a ground breaking masterpiece that starred Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Peter Lorre and brought film noir into the main stream. 27 months later, in December of 1943, US Army Captain John Huston and his film crew were attached to the 143rd Infantry Regiment of the 36th Infantry Division. The division was trying to force its way through the Bernhardt Line via the Mignano Gap into the Liri Valley. The last obstacles were in front of them: the village of San Pietro Infine and the flanking mountains of Monte Sammucro and Monte Lungo. The battle raged from 8 to 18 December, 1943.

CPT Huston was there to make documentary films for the US War Department. And in December and January 1943 he would shoot the controversial “The Battle of San Pietro”. If you have an extra half an hour, it’s worth watching.

The film does an excellent job explaining the battle to civilians. The film was originally 55 minutes long but was ruthlessly edited by Gen George Marshall down to 36 minutes so it could be shown in theatres prior to the actual movies. He wanted to make it mandatory viewing so American civilians at home would understand what their Army was doing. However, it was never released to the general population during the war. The War Department suppressed it because of its gritty realism (for the time), the dead bodies, and its “anti-war” tone. Huston replied that if he ever made a pro-war film, he should be shot. It was quietly released to the public in 1946.

Some notes:

-Gen Mark Clark’s intro was filmed while the battles for Anzio and Cassino were fought in January 1944. Was he trying to justify something?

-The failed Italian attack on Monte Lungo was highly publicized because it was the first use of Allied Italian troops fighting alongside Americans. The Italians were rushed into the fight so they could be part of the overly optimistic expected breakout and capture of Rome. They weren’t ready and paid for it.

-About 30% of the film was shot after the fact using “dramatic reenactments” by 36th Division soldiers and Italian civilians in San Pietro Infine. Most of the recreated shots are of soldiers walking around, the shots in the town, and of the civilians. The difference between the actual footage and the recreated footage is obvious.

-All the dead bodies are real.

-The civilians were actual citizens of San Pietro Infine, but they had to be cleaned up first. It took several weeks for them to recover from their hellish ordeal living in the caves outside of town before they were ready to film.

-The only factual inconsistency was the name of the church. In the film it is said to be “St Peter’s”, but the church is actually St Michael’s. John Huston didn’t want to break up the flow of the film with the difference.

-Almost all of the American soldiers in the film would be killed, captured, or seriously wounded during the 36th Division’s failed assault across the Rapido River a month later in January 1944.

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