This story is over 5 years old.

This is the Banned 1945 US Army Documentary That Inspired "The Master"

In _Hard Eight_, Paul Thomas Anderson's first feature, John C. Reilly becomes the gambling protege of Phillip Baker Hall. Like some of Bret Easton Ellis' returning characters, Anderson scripted Phillip Baker Hall, in _Boogie Nights_ and _Magnolia_, to...

In Hard Eight, Paul Thomas Anderson’s first feature, John C. Reilly becomes the gambling protege of Phillip Baker Hall. Like some of Bret Easton Ellis’ returning characters, Anderson scripted Phillip Baker Hall, in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, to reprise characters that were first mentioned by Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Hard Eight. If vast character-mapping and cans of 70mm filmstock aren’t enough to captivate an audience, PTA is also more than capable of digging up an obscure story, as he did in The Master. But, oddly enough, it’s a story that’s been dug up before.


Not to worry, my son, I’m not going to spoil the plot for you; this is hardly a plot-driven film. The Master, which reminds me a lot of Polanski’s early short films and centers around Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character trying what we think of as old cult methodologies to cleanse the psychological traumas from Joaquin Phoenix’s WWII veteran character.

But if you watch the above excerpt from a 1946 John Huston documentary, Let There Be Light, about the treatment and rehabbing of U.S. war veterans, you’ll see where Anderson got some of his own masterly inspiration. Anderson, describing his influences at the Toronto International Film Festival, said “Let There Be Light was a big one… we ripped them off line-for-line.”

The documentary was commissioned by the U.S. Army, but for decades was kept from public viewing for its controversial themes. It didn’t come back to life until 1980, and since then has undergone restorations to bring it back to what the NFPS calls the film’s “full force,” and gives it credit for having “pioneered unscripted interview techniques unprecedented look into the psychological wounds of war.” Phoenix, in developing his character, cited the film in an interview with TIME, saying that Anderson had him watch it to prepare for the role. According to IMDB, producer JoAnne Sellar has also said that the film was also used as a reference for production design and costume design.


"The war department took one look at this film and said, ‘absolutely no way we’re showing this to anyone,‘" Anderson said at a press conference in Toronto. "They kinda had this amazing footage… very graphic and kinda showed you what these fellas were coming back with… It was sort of a way to talk about time travel. It was the best source of material that we found to show what these VA hospitals were like at that time. So we were sort of ripping it off and left, right and center. And the fictional version of that is [William Wylers] ’The Best Years Of Our Lives’ which is just a great film and obviously tell its story in a very different way."

“That one’s a cock turned upside down”

While I’ve only posted an excerpt of Huston’s doc, if you’d like to watch the film in its entirety, you may at the National Film Preservation Society’s website.

Thinking about influences, and navigating the film’s theme of recovery, I’ve gotta say: certain shots of Joaquin Phoenix can’t help but remind me of Man On The Bed, a painting of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill W., a painting often hung in AA meeting halls.

Am I right or am I right?

Perhaps an AA reference is stretching it a bit, but one thing is for sure: as with his adaptation of the real-life story of David Phillip, aka The Pudding Guy for Punch Drunk Love, PT Anderson is like a Truman Capote of the screen in his retelling of non-fiction. And no matter how influential may have been the true story of Scientology’s early days, the cinematic touchstone for The Master is in fact much broader, more familiar, and perhaps even darker than the tale of any cult.