The Bootleg Files: Report from the Aleutians

BOOTLEG FILES 669: “Report from the Aleutians” (1943 U.S. Army documentary directed by John Huston).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube and other online video sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On public domain labels.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: There was no copyright filed.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Stuck in public domain hell, but it would be great if this little was digitally restored.

Everyone knows that the Japanese bombed the U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. But few people seem to know that the Japanese invaded and occupied Kiska and Attu in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands in June 1942, which marked the only section of North America was taken over by the Axis forces in World War II.

The Japanese presence in the Aleutians was an embarrassment for the U.S. military. And while government censorship ensured the mainstream media did very little reporting on that remote territory, the public was aware that something was taking place out of public view. To mollify the wartime population that things were under control, the U.S. Army commissioned a documentary to detail how the Americans were addressing that crisis.

The Army tapped John Huston, who had scored back-to-back triumphs directing the Warner Bros. films “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), “In This Our Life” (1942) and “Across the Pacific” (1942). Although he had no formal Army training, Huston was given the rank of captain and provided with the budget and manpower he needed to shoot a documentary.

The resulting work, “Report from the Aleutians,” was unusual among the wartime documentaries turned out by the U.S. Army in World War II because it focused more on the teamwork and talent of the American servicemen stationed in the Aleutians rather than on the actual combat. The film works as a portrait of the brave men who responded to their country’s call, but as a record of military history it leaves something to be desired.

Huston took along five cinematographers including Rey Scott, a prominent photojournalist who won the Academy Award for his feature-length documentary “Kukan,” on a six-month shooting schedule at the military base on the island of Adak, spanning the frigid autumn and winter months. Each cinematographer was equipped with a silent, hand-wound 16mm camera using Kodachrome film – “Report from the Aleutians” would later be blown up into 35mm and printed on Technicolor film, with sound effects and brief flashes of dialogue were added in post-production. No one behind the camera received screen credits.

Huston wrote the screenplay and picked himself to handle the narration. Much of the charm in the film is hearing Huston’s mellifluous voice giving a slightly hammy spin to his clever command of the language. For example, Huston described the U.S. pursuit of the Japanese by noting how “our Army and Navy airman flew through storm and fog and hurricane, one-fifth on instruments and four-fifths on luck.” When Huston identifies the Army Services Forces, he calls them “the bloodstream of our whole military body, maintaining its every organ and muscle,” adding that “why the job of supplying a military force is dignified by a twelve-dollar word like ‘logistics.’” The director’s father, the distinguished actor Walter Huston, volunteered some bits of dialogue attributed to the servicemembers featured on the screen

The film offers a brief view of photographs of servicemembers killed in combat at the Aleutians, and there is one segment where the soldiers carry a coffin to a burial ground. But, for the most part, the viewer never gets to know the servicemembers in depth. We see them smoking, eating together, eagerly gathering letters in roll call and gathering in a sing-along centered by a guitar strumming soldier – the latter set-up is marred by the dubbing of a cowboy-style tune on the soundtrack that was obviously not the song being performed for Huston’s silent camera. Huston’s narration also stresses the melting pot aspect of the fighting force by noting how “Down-Eastern accents mix with Texas drawls to Midwestern twangs to Brooklynese.” While racial diversity was absent due to the Jim Crow policies of the World War II military, social and economic classes merged together. Huston notes how “bookkeepers and grocery clerks, college men and dirt farmers” are shown standing together, pipes and cigars in their mouths, becoming one big brotherhood.

“Report from the Aleutians” has a lot of talk about planning for battle and footage of the long and (according to Huston) monotonous flight to the Japanese-occupied Kiska, but there is relatively little combat footage. The details of Japanese base on Kiska are impossible to see from the vantage point of the fighter planes dropping bombs, and the bombing run captured on film seems like a breezy hit and run from the American standpoint.

In reality, Huston barely survived a bombing raid – on one flight, Japanese fire struck the airplane killed the gunner standing next to the director. And that’s a major problem with “Report from the Aleutians” from a contemporary standpoint: this is not an in-depth examination of the Aleutians campaign. It is never explained how the Japanese managed to take over two islands, nor is there acknowledgement of the indigenous people of the islands who became Japanese prisoners of war and were shipped to Japan for internment. The full cost of the conflict is not shared, and the assistance of the Canadian military in the Aleutians campaign is ignored.

Huston ran into problems with Army brass over his film – the superior officers wanted a short film, while the director stubbornly insisted keeping it at a feature length. The film was kept out of release due to concerns about military secrets being revealed at Adak, but it eventually opened in July 1943 to positive feedback. The New York Times noted how Huston’s film broke the silence on a campaign on which “Americans have had only that sparse information which has been allowed to pass through the strictest censorship.”

The Hollywood studios took turns offering gratis theatrical release of the Army’s documentaries and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer handled the cinematic distribution of “Report from the Aleutians.” The film received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary and shared a special award from the New York Film Critics Circle with Frank Capra’s war documentary “Why We Fight.”

Because the Army’s wartime films did not carry copyrights, these works were always public domain works. As a result, “Report from the Aleutians” has been available for years on multiple labels, but mostly in battered, faded and second- or third-generation prints. It is difficult to appreciate the film’s color cinematography, which looks muddy in most of the available copies.

To date, there has been no effort to digitally restore this and other wartime documentaries with the latest 2K and 4K technology. That’s a shame, because these films are an important part of both the nation’s cultural and military heritage. If a digital restoration could happen, it would enable today’s moviegoers to have the same visual sensation that wartime audiences experienced when they were introduced to films like “Report from the Aleutians.”

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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