Filmmaker John Huston and Report from the Aleutians
Report from the Aleutians is the official U.S. Army film documenting the combat operations and daily life of soldiers serving in the Aleutians during World War II. While he is not officially credited, Hollywood filmmaker John Huston wrote, directed, edited, and narrated Report from the Aleutians.
Prior to the war, John Huston was Hollywood’s go-to-man for fixing poorly written scripts. His first venture into directing feature films won him two Academy Awards for the film, Maltese Falcon (1941). At the start of World War II, Huston enlisted in the Army and was assigned to the recently established U.S. Army Signal Corps - Motion Picture Unit as a lieutenant.
Huston was quickly promoted to captain after receiving his first assignment to film at a remote Aleutian outpost on Adak Island in Alaska. Capt. Huston and his small film crew spent 6 months on Adak living and working out of the same tent and filming in all types of weather conditions. His chief cameraman, Lt. Rey Scott (a well-regarded Hollywood cinematographer prior to the war) received a medal for flying nine combat missions over Kiska in six days. While filming bombing missions himself, Huston had several close-calls. On one mission, enemy fire killed the gunner standing next to him. On another mission, the bomber that he was filming in crashed and caught fire upon landing.
Along with Huston’s narration, Report from the Aleutians also featured his father, Hollywood actor Walter Huston, as co-narrator, and bomber pilots who had flown combat missions over Kiska played themselves in voice-over roles.
The U.S. Army wanted Report from the Aleutians to be released as a short film, but Huston insisted that the film be released in its original form as a feature length documentary. The film won a New York City Film Critics Circle Award (1943) and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary (1944). The film lost to Divide and Conquer, directed by famed Hollywood filmmaker, and Huston’s commanding officer, Major Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life).
Report from the Aleutians was the first of three films Huston directed for the U.S. Army. His second, Battle of San Pietro, became the standard for how Hollywood makes war films even today. While billed as a documentary, it was largely a re-enactment of how U.S. forces, despite being greatly outnumbered and having taken heavy casualties, captured the San Pietro Valley in Italy. His third film, Let There Be Light, which examined the effects and treatment of “combat fatigue” (now known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), was deemed so controversial by the U.S. Army that it was listed as classified until 1980, when it was released to the National Archives. Today, film critics consider Let There Be Light to be one of Huston’s greatest films.
Huston also served as chief cameraman for the joint U.S./British Army film Tunisian Victory, and he shot newsreel footage during the Allied Invasion of Italy.
After the war, Huston returned to Hollywood as an actor and director. He appeared in 54 films and went on to direct 47 motion pictures, including such Hollywood classics as The Treasure of Sierra Madre, The African Queen, and Moby Dick.
Film & Video Specialist
Alaska State Library Historical Collections
Alaska State Division of Libraries, Archives, and Museums