The Battle of San Pietro
The film depicts the grueling battle between Allied Forces and the Italian and German Armies. It is shot in the thick of the battle itself and depicts actual combat and scenes of the events as they took place. Due to the time when it was shot, the movie is in black and white and the sound is of gunfire and the narrator’s, Huston’s, voice. His narration is reserved and solemn and so is the music. His voice, by me, is meant to convey a sense of danger and urgency. The film’s perspective is to show the viewers the actual events as well as an unwavering sternness to show the reality on film. This, Huston does, ignoring the blood, cruelty and darkness of the situation. The voice of the narrator is critical and thorough in addressing the precarious lives of the soldiers in the war, the sheer brutality of the battle and the devastating consequences of the war.
Huston is not shy about filming the ground combat. The movie shows all the grittiness in an honest and vivid show. In the scene of the first assault, we see a man, who was shot dead and then there is a corpse followed by many corpses. We also see bodies of the wounded and dying, and the dead being wrapped in bags. The camera from the movie is placed at eye level meaning that it was being shot in real time. It puts the viewer right in San Pietro in the war and in the crossfire. The camera actually is affected by blasts as seen in the movie when it spirals around and faces the trees. This shows that the cinematographer either has been shot or has fallen down.
The ‘Voice of God’ effect used in the movie means that the narrator is not only in complete control of the telling of the story but of how and what information is being relayed to the viewer. The perspective of the movie, one to show the true occurrences is reinforced by the voice over by the narrator since he describes the scenes matching to what is showing in the pictures. The tone of his voice is subtle and distinct to show the seriousness of the matter, which he is discussing. In addition, being in the midst of the war itself, he is fearful for his very life. This is also heard in his voice.
The voice of the narrator is accompanied by the map of the San Pietro area showing the peaks of the mountains surrounding the area. Next, the movie talks about the natives of the San Pietro area, their economic activities and their total population. As this is being said, the pictures of the San Pietro area are being shown where we see the Saint Peter church and its remains and as this is being shown, the narrator gives a brief history of the area dating back to the fourteen hundreds.
As the narrator gives the importance of the infantrymen to the war, the images being shown are of helmeted soldiers assembling their rifles and marching probably towards the battlefield. The expression on their faces is not one of joyfulness probably because they foresee the danger, blood and anguish that lay ahead of them in the mountains of San Pietro. The narrator then guides the viewer through the map of the area, systematically, explaining the strategy that was laid down by the American army. This shows how well he understood the area and the strategies that the American army was using.
The daily life of any soldier in a war I would imagine is a very traumatizing and horrible life. The life is characterized by seeing dead bodies of people who you knew and were with few moments earlier, carrying and burying of dead comrades, killing them for survival and living not knowing whether you are going to see your family again or not. Uncertainty in ones future is the most basic and common thing in the life of a soldier at war. Their lives are shown in the movie where we see them in helmets marching towards the battlefield. They are also depicted where we see them carrying dead bodies of their comrades and bagging them, loading them on a truck to be taken to the mass grave cites. The soldiers do not know if they are soon to follow those that have gone.
The brutal nature of battle is also depicted in the movie. This is seen in many scenes including the one where a soldier gets shot and falls immediately. Though it is a quick scene, the soldier falls down like a sack and does not get up again. The brutality of the war is also seen when the American soldiers are firing missiles and throwing grenades at the Italian and German soldiers. The brutality of the war is also seen where in the movie the rubble remains of the town are shown and where we see a body being pulled out of the debris. This shows how the war does not discriminate and kills all, whether innocent or guilty.
The psychological consequences of a war are usually very brutal. From the movie, in the scene where the remaining soldiers are being shown, the narrator says that those you watch are soon to die. Here, I think the narrator means that the survivors of the war did not have such a long life to live also because America was still at war. Their faces show a part of them shall never recover and they show that they went in the war as innocent men and left changed men, forever. The visions of the war and the dead people shall echo in their minds for a very long time to come.
When the American soldiers finally took over the town, the shot of the camera was facing upwards, a shot that depicted conquering, victory and heroism of the soldiers. The voice of the narrator also changes and as he speaks of the triumph and the happiness of the people for getting their town back, the images we see are of mothers who are seated freely, bare breasted while suckling their young ones with children smiling and running happily through the debris. In the same scene, we see a woman carrying a coffin on her head. This shows the casualties that were involved and that she probably lost a close family relative who was an adult.
This is because the coffin was not in the size of a child. As the narrator gives the story of the villagers happy to get their freedom back, we see a girl with a little boy seemingly her little brother smiling while gazing at the camera. We also see a malnourished boy who does not look too happy to see the camera probably indicating the extent of his loss. Moreover, we see the villagers receiving food from the soldiers and the expressions on their faces were those of happy and thankful people.
Huston’s narration and the use of the Voice of God narration is a simplified prose that is at one point beautifully toned and is significant in the delivery of the documentary. It is then spoken with some finely concealed irony that is equally free of optimism and bitterness. He uses wordiness in the film so well that it earns its way through the movie. The movie then takes a sad turn when we see the dead being buried and shots of soldiers’ dog tags being nailed onto some pieces of wood meant to be grave markers. We then see the survivors wearing weary smiles, but the voice of the narrator interferes with the relaxed moment stating how many among those staying there have joined their brothers-in-arms’ ranks and commenting how a thousand more San Pietros lay ahead.
The Battle of San Pietro stands as the best documentary in the history of documentary filmmaking that I have ever seen. It presents the battle in the Liri Valley as a costly campaign rather than a remarkable victory for the Americans. It is also the only movie with a complete record of an infantry or foot soldiers battle. The Voice of God effect of the narrator’s voice matches with the events in the images so perfectly. The narrator also explains using maps of the region about the tactics that the American army was using. The words uttered by the narrator match perfectly with the images associated with them in the movie. They seem to fall in together piece by piece and word by word as the story progresses. This makes the story captivating and highly educational.
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