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San Pietro

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Loomis has been badgering me for a while to watch The Battle of San Pietro, and in a moment of weakness I finally succumbed. It’s truly fantastic; some thoughts:

  1. Mark Clark’s intro is just weird.  You wonder how the Army could be so tone deaf, not only to think of the film as pacifistic, but also to add on the awkward Clark monologue.  I suppose that the answer is that nobody really wants to tell a senior officer that his ideas are stupid.  The comparison with a film like Saving Private Ryan is interesting; I don’t see any really profound difference in tone, yet the Army loved SPR and nobody’s ever mistaken it for pacifistic.
  2. I’ll admit that I’ve never been energized by the debate about the wisdom of the Italian campaign.  On the con side, you have the points that are made obvious by the film; it’s hardly ideal to take on an experienced and well trained army in terrain that heavily favors the defense.  On the pro side, the Allies had to attack Germany in some fashion, and I’m not convinced that an invasion of France in 1943 would have worked out.  As an addendum, the skill of the Wehrmacht in the film is implicit, but awesome; they exacted tremendous casualties while securing themselves an easy five kilometer retreat, all while faced with overwhelming Allied material superiority.
  3. San Pietro helps reinforce the truth that the differences between World War I and World War II aren’t nearly as extreme as sometimes portrayed.  While World War II did feature several transformational breakthrough and envelopment battles, supported by improvements in armor and air technology, most of the fighting remained bitter infantry combat over fortified, contested ground.  It’s interesting that recent fictional portrayals of World War II fighting, including Saving Private Ryan Band of Brothers, Thin Red Line, and Letters from Iwo Jima, have emphasized this kind of combat.  The experience of the Western Front in World War I remains badly understood.  On the one hand, the focus on stalemate overlooks the degree of doctrinal innovation in World War I in the West and elsewhere, and tends to treat the course of the campaign as technologically determined, even amidst the contemporary and later examples of successful maneuver warfare under similar technological conditions.  On the other hand, people seem often to imagine that trench warfare disappeared with the tank and the airplane, when in fact the latter still displays only a limited ability to break prepared defenses and the former has become an integral part of such defenses.
  4. Huston doesn’t discuss at length, but one obvious question invoked by the battle involves the degree to which respect for antiquities should influence a battle plan. This becomes more of a question at Cassino, but even this battle involves the destruction of a centuries old town.  I’m not familiar with all of the law, but the question of how much force to use in order to drive Nazis out of an occupied ancient town is obviously fraught with value tradeoffs.

Update from Erik–couple of additional thoughts on a movie I routinely show my classes. Rob’s military analysis is quite interesting and I don’t have too much to add, but it’s amazing how non-heroic it makes it all out to be. These guys are fighting and dying, theoretically for a reason, but really just to do it all again 5 miles up the road. The footage is unbelievable. And John Huston should be cloned just to do narration. In all seriousness, I believe The Battle of San Pietro is one of Huston’s best works; he understands the infantryman and shows them as close to real life as he can. It’s utterly gripping and without a single flaw.

It is also available in the first collection from the National Film Preservation Foundation, titled Treasures from American Film Archives. I can’t remember which disc but all those collections are so outstanding that you can’t go wrong.

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