For years people pointed to The Battle of San Pietro as a great example of observational filmmaking, until it came out that Huston had staged most of the events in the film. Like the controversy surrounding Nanook of the North, many were disappointed when they learned the truth about the circumstances behind the filming. However, staged or not, the tone of the piece is very somber, and Huston refrains from reaching for answers, instead choosing to dwell on the apparent senselessness of war. The film represents another step for Huston, away from propaganda towards a style of filmmaking that would challenge the status quo.
When Huston finally finished the film, he showed it to a gathering of senior military staff and generals. As Harris puts it, “Still badly shaken by the loss of life he had seen in Italy, he had chosen to make a documentary that was true to his emotional experience, a film that emphasized the terrible cost of the Allied campaign in Italy,” instead of the feel-good story of the triumphant battle that Capra had wanted. At one point, he’d included some shots of dead American soldiers, and rather than use the reassuring voice of the narrator, he overlaid interviews of “excited GIs poignantly talking about their futures”. At this point in the screening, the military personnel began walking out, beginning with the most senior in rank, down to the lowest, until Huston was left alone in the screening room. While the film had been staged, Huston refused to back down from what he saw as a larger truth that needed to be highlighted, and perhaps in some sense to atone for the lie he’d told in Report From The Aleutians. That bigger truth: battles cannot be won without casualties, both physical in the form of injuries and death, and psychological in the form of the incredible trauma the soldiers experience. The war department subsequently forced Huston to re-cut the film, and it was not released to the public until 1945, just after the end of the war, when the American people could start to digest the cost of war without feeling like every film needed to contribute to the morale of the country. Even with the cuts the war department wanted, the film is gruesome and depressing. Huston described it as a film in which, “I succeeded in making (the audience) miserable which is the purpose of the picture”.