For a few moments, the present fades for John Huston. The tubes leading from his nose to the green oxygen tank--sitting like a growling pup at his side--don't exist. The voice, the spirit and the memory are still strong--if the lungs aren't--and the images are recalled in sharp detail.
Huston is a young soldier standing on a corner outside the walls of a palace in a small Italian town during World War II. Suddenly, a jeep rumbles around the corner, sending the tall Signal Corps officer diving headfirst into the dusty street.
As the jeep passes, Huston sees that it's "one of ours," and remembers that he is miles from the front. Moments later, another jeep turns the corner and he's on the ground again.
"I felt like a perfect fool," he says, with a laugh made husky by his long bout with emphysema. "Your instincts become so alerted that you do things automatically, trying to keep yourself in one piece."
FOR THE RECORD - IMPERFECTIONS
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 22, 1985 Home Edition Calendar Page 95 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Joseph McBride of Green Valley Lake writes that he, Ray Stark and Jack Valenti campaigned along with then-Vice President Walter Mondale in 1980 to get the Defense Department to release John Huston's controversial wartime documentary "Let There Be Light." A Sept. 11 interview with Huston credited only Mondale.
The subject of this interview, at a friend's home in Mandeville Canyon where the 79-year-old director is staying, was the war effort--his. Like many of the best film makers of the time--William Wyler, John Ford, Anatole Litvak and George Stevens among them--Huston went to war with a camera and captured history.
He captured it in the North Pacific, documenting American flying missions over Japanese bases in the remote Bering Strait. It was "Report From the Aleutians."
He captured it in Southern Italy, documenting a costly battle to take a mountain village. It was "The Battle of San Pietro."
He captured it in Mason General Hospital on Long Island, documenting the treatment of shell-shocked GIs trying to shake the shakes on their way back to society. It was "Let There Be Light."
"San Pietro" and "Let There Be Light" were so good, they were temporarily banned from release--the first for a year or so, the second for nearly four decades. "Let There Be Light," made in 1945, sat in a Defense Department vault until 1980 when, according to Huston, Walter Mondale mounted a successful offensive to liberate it.
Huston, whose brief but indelible documentary career will be honored by the International Documentary Assn. next month, says he just followed orders. After completing "Report From the Aleutians," which he says was basic "patriotic cheerleading" aimed at lifting spirits back home, he was sent to Italy to cover what was to be the Army's triumphant march into Rome.
The premise faltered when bad weather and feisty Germans combined to derail the objective and Huston ended up shooting a story that shot back (two members of his crew were killed). After seven months in Italy, he returned with a documentary that included some of the most painfully authentic footage of combat ever filmed, and no one in the Pentagon wanted to watch.
Talk about tough audiences. When Huston showed "The Battle of San Pietro" to Army brass in Washington, they all walked out--in descending order of rank, starting with the presiding three-star general.
"By the time I got back to the Signal Corps, my name was mud," Huston says. "The picture would never have been shown, except that Gen. George Marshall saw it and made it required viewing for every man who might have to go into combat."
Marshall's endorsement quickly washed the mud off Huston's name. He was, in fact, decorated for his work and given a promotion. Then he was assigned to Mason General Hospital to film the treatment of psychologically impaired veterans, with the honorable goal of convincing industry that these men could responsibly perform work.
The changes in the men, filmed during therapy sessions over a period of about four months, were astounding and seemed to prove the Army's point. Even the men loved it, Huston says, celebrating their participation at one point by decorating a jerrybuilt lamppost with a sign saying "Hollywood and Vine." The patients were shown the final product, he adds, and each one signed a release.
Nonetheless, the Army, calling it an invasion of privacy, refused to show it to anyone. As for the signed releases, Huston says they miraculously disappeared. There is no record of who those men were, or what became of them (and wouldn't that make a documentary?).
Now, after adding 37 features to his 1941 debut, "The Maltese Falcon," Huston is planning another documentary. This one, for producer Alan Landsburg, would take him to the Sea of Cortez along the Pacific Coast of Mexico, south of his jungle compound in Puerto Vallarta, to film some of the most exotic marine life in the world (how about 100-foot-long whale sharks?).
Huston left his Mexican home to promote the opening of "Prizzi's Honor" three months ago, and ended up spending two weeks in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for treatment of his emphysema. The chronic illness, which Huston attributes to a lifetime of cigar abuse, forces him to install the oxygen tubes for extended conversation, but it saps none of his creative vitality.