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THIN RED LINE, THE(director/writer: Terrence Malick; cinematographer: John Toll; editors: Leslie Jones/Saar Klein/Billy Weber; cast: Sean Penn (First Sgt. Edward Welsh), Adrien Brody (Cpl. Fife), Jim Caviezel (Pvt. Witt), Ben Chaplin (Pvt. Bell), John Cusack (Capt. John Gaff), Woody Harrelson (Sgt. Keck), Elias Koteas (Capt. James “Bugger” Staros), Nick Nolte (Lt. Col. Gordon Tall), John C. Reilly (Sgt. Storm), Arie Verveen (Pfc. Dale), Dash Mihok (Pfc. Doll), John Savage (Sgt. McCron), John Travolta (Brig. Gen. Quintard), George Clooney (Capt. Charles Bosche); Runtime: 170; Fox 2000; 1998)
“In many ways it seems like a discourse on philosophy given by a company of infantrymen in Guadalcanal, on August of ’42, in the middle of a war zone.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Interestingly enough, during the same year, and The Thin Red Line, two epic films about WW11 have come out, each with a different perspective on the war. A different way of telling it, telling about a war whose heroes are fading fast in the memories of a country’s conscience. As these men, presumably our dads and grandfathers, the old gentlemen we might have had a drink or two with, our old boss, or the fellow who never could quite tell us what happened back then or told us what happened and we could only refer back to the old-style WW11 movie for a point of reference. Some of these fellows who are still with us, are now well into their 70s, 80s, or 90s and older. They have seen America as it was and as it is, and now their story seems well-yearned for by the generations that came after and by the old-timers of the “Greatest Generation” themselves. They try to collect their thoughts and jar their memories and put back the pieces of their life that they might never have done before, knowing full well this may be their last chance to get their story down while they are still alive to authenticate their experiences of WW11. The experiences that historians need in order to enliven their subjects, especially after so much history and changes to the American landscape has taken place.

The questions remain: Are we still the same people? What about our values, are they the same or have they changed? And, of course, we must ask our politicians, can this country afford to be the policeman for the world? Just what are our attitudes about war? Both films have tried to find answers to some of these imponderable questions, but in different ways. One by trying to paint a realistic picture in our mind of the horrors of war by showing in detail the bloodshed and sacrifices the men had to make when trying to comprehend what war was supposed to be like, as they landed on Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion. The director, Spielberg, not getting side-tracked with the bigger philosophical questions. There was no controversy over his film’s statements that ‘war is hell.’ While, the other director, Malick, takes a broader view of things. For the most part, he depersonalizes the infantrymen fighting in the Guadalcanal war zone, he does it by trying to be more philosophical and more artistic in his approach to understanding how mankind is driven into war and forced into shedding blood for a cause.

It seems to me, that Malick tries to do too much and fails to meet his aims completely; while Spielberg’s safer approach, using the more plain arguments against war, easily meets his goals. Therefore, which is the better film? I would be forced to say Spielberg’s, from a technical point of view. But with all its flaws and pretensions and trying not to define one war but all wars, Malick takes more risks; and, even if he does not make the better technical film he has made the more interesting one, the one that has a greater “mythos.” And, he should be rewarded, somehow, for being the more ambitious filmmaker.

Terrence Malick has a unique set of career moves to his credits having graduated from Harvard and been a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, then becoming a journalist, then teaching philosophy at M.I.T., and subsequently studying at the American Film Institute. He wrote PocketMoney (72), and wrote and directed Badlands(73). His last film was made twenty years ago, Days of Heaven (78). All these films were critically successful. Why he didn’t make another film in that time span, I have no idea. But this film was certainly being looked forward to by the many cinema buffs who have followed his career; perhaps, allowing his long departure from films to give him too much of an air of mystery for his own good.

This film is adapted from the James Jones novel; it is close to three-hours long. In many ways it seems like a discourse on philosophy given by a company of infantrymen in Guadalcanal, on August of ’42, in the middle of a war zone.

The director also seems to be motivated to record the beauty of nature with his magnificent camera footage of the area. Very odd, indeed, for a war film. But I actually loved seeing the blades of grass blow in the breeze of the azure sky and the wild flowers abound. I thought the picture was so beautiful to watch that I was hypnotized by the lush forests, the wounded hens and the perched owl and the parrots (I mean the real parrots, not the soldiers parroting the director’s messages). Unfortunately, there were parts of this film that were so out of place, it seemed like it was a film within a film. A film from another generation placed onto a film of this generation; perhaps, a silent movie. A tribute to the great German director, Murnau, as the film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum suggests. A film that allows the state of nature to be a pure state undamaged by civilization, that stays that way until civilized nations bring about their infectious wars.

I loved this film for being so grandiose and not having to follow the traditional linear travails of one soldier, but of following the collective psyches of an entire company. The men in Charlie became interchangeable with each other, as well as melting into the landscape. I appreciate Malick for not caring what anyone else might think of how he filmed it. This was the way Malick was going to make the picture, and that’s that. And I bought into that, for the most part, until I realized the film ran out of purpose, after its second hour it lost its rhythm and flow, it had nowhere to go, there were just too many generalizations to ponder. What I eventually dug out from all the killings and messages delivered throughout was that, if there was one thing you can do in life it is to find what you want to do then make an island for yourself and do what you have to do. This message was delivered very close to the end of the film, and it seemed like it took an eternity in coming.

The opening scene leaves a question mark, the one which showed a crocodile going into the green slimy water (Is that supposed to symbolize… Viet-Nam? … Or, is it a reminder for us that nature can not only be beautiful but it also can be dangerous?).

Some AWOL soldiers are captured on an ideal Melanesian village in the Solomon Islands and returned to their military companies so that they can fight the oncoming war, and so the film begins by taking off from nature’s heavenly state and what ensues are epic battle scenes and a living hell.

The title of the picture signifies that the thin red line is the crossing point between sanity and madness. And here is where Malick picks up the story, trying to explain and understand the evil that results from war. He does this by use of idyllic imagery (no mosquitoes in this film version of Guadalcanal). He also does it, by using the men whom he has depersonalized; and, only humanizing them by allowing us to hear their thinking process as it is being said out loud.

I thought the soldier reading a “Dear John” letter was very emotionally moving, bringing home the point that most of the soldiers really just want to survive, to get on home. But this film, also, brings on some pretty heady stuff for these nondescript soldiers to say about why they are fighting a war and it is all done, for the most part, in general terms. A voice-over, with a rich Southern accent sets the tone for the director’s ruminations about war. This is done by either Pvt. Witt (Caviezel) or Bell (Ben Chaplin), it is hard to tell one voice from the other, as the voice waxes poetic about the bloody action going down, adding further to the absurdity of what is happening by rambling on, saying the most philosophical of things; such as, “What keeps us from reachin’out and graspin’ the glory?”

The juiciest role in the film is reserved for Nolte who plays a gung-ho West Point lieutenant colonel named Tall, who is distraught that he has been passed over for promotion to general while younger and less experienced officers than him get promoted. He justifies his love for this war by saying that it is made for him, it is “his” war, it is his chance to get promoted after all the years of eating shit from all the higher-ups and that he is going to do nothing to ruin it; even if, it requires his men to take a hill that will result in tremendous casualties. And the taking of the hill is the focal point of the film, with its action scenes being bloody and stupefying. The film also gets caught-up in the grips of politically motivated reasons why things are done a certain way as the company captain, James Staros (Elias Koteas), questions the colonel’s decision to charge the hill and take its machine gun fortified bunker that is firing down on his men, saying he has to disobey the order because he is afraid that it will be a hopeless suicidal bloodbath.

Sean Penn gives an understated performance as the hardened but compassionate veteran sergeant, in a part that many actors could have played. But he is good in this role, proving he has a wide range of talent. The screen seems to favor him, he seems to catch our eye, there always seems to be something going on in his thought process and we want to observe him as we seem to sense that he is where the action is.

Private Witt has gone AWOL and is absorbed in the native culture; he is a future hero, brought back to the war by Sergeant Welsh (Penn). Private Bell plays the part of a soldier who only wishes to return to his beautiful wife (Miranda Otto). Travolta has a cameo, that he is either wrongly cast for or plays it like it should be played with an uncomfortable tension — he’s also sporting a sleazy mustache. He is a young general full of hubris and political know-how, playing mind games with the subservient Colonel Tall aboard a transport ship heading for Guadalcanal. My vote is that he is just right for the part.

This is an easy film to criticize — it has many faults, too many to overcome and make an argument that this film is the ultimate war film Malick hoped it to be. That it is not. But it is a better film than its many apparent faults make it seem (sappy dialogue, force-feeding the audience with its self-righteousness and poor pacing are its worst detraction). I’m always suspicious of films that pontificate against violence and then justify their bloodiest and goriest parts that draw for them their audience, by stating that their aims are so lofty that the violence in their films are artistically justified. This film is no exception, except I genuinely felt that there was something strong that was embedded that got lost in all its great action scenes and grandeur and philosophizing; something easy to overlook that creeps up on you as you start thinking about what was happening to the men, and why they are fighting such a bloody war. What Malick has given us is a flawed film, that is visually beautiful and arty, that also allows us to think of war in its most simple terms reminding us that we better know what it means to go to war; or else, we will be doomed to keep repeating our past mistakes. He seems to take no sides, Japanese or American, they both got caught in a bad deal.

In a 1964 b/w film director Andrew Marton’s The Thin Red Line used the same book and title for its film, but you would never know it. Malick’s movie is truly an original filmmaking experience. This film will be long remembered as a personal film, one that will be well-thought of despite its flaws. It is a darn shame that it couldn’t have been edited better so that it would make sense for the entire picture, not just for three-quarters.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”