The Great Anti-War Films The Thin Red Line

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After
Terrence Malick helped launch the careers of Martin Sheen and Sissy
Spacek in 1973's Badlands,
he waited five years to direct his second film, Days
of Heaven
. Though the films were critically acclaimed, they
were not exactly blockbusters at the box office. Inexplicably, Malick
"retired" from the film business, but as he faded from
the scene, he and his movies enjoyed a growing cult status.

Fans
and film buffs, therefore, looked forward with great anticipation
to Malick's return to the director's chair when the reclusive auteur
agreed to helm The
Thin Red Line
(1998). James Jones' semi-autobiographical
account of his experiences on Guadalcanal in World War II provides
the source material for Malick, who also wrote the screenplay. Previously
filmed in 1964 by Andrew Marton, Malick's version is far less faithful
to the book. His film is not a narrative-driven retelling of heroic
battles, but a mesmerizing meditation on the vagaries of war.

The
Thin Red Line was and always will be cast in the shadow of Steven
Spielberg's Saving
Private Ryan
, another WW2 film. Both were nominated for
several Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture. In an
upset, and perhaps a split of the war-film vote between Line,
Ryan and Roberto Benigni’s Life
is Beautiful
, the fluff period-piece Shakespeare
in Love
garnered the statuette. (Sit down, Steven — the
Academy already threw you a bone for Schindler's
List
.)

Whereas
Spielberg chose to hit his audience over the head with an opening
20-minute tour de force depiction of the storming of the beach at
Normandy, Malick begins Line by showing two American soldiers
gone AWOL, frolicking in the idyllic milieu of the natives, who
have accepted the Americans for what they are: thoughtful men who
abhor the brutal realities of war.

The
men are discovered and forced to return to their wretched jobs:
killing the Japanese. 1st Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn)
threatens Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) with court martial, but attempts
to regain his loyalty by assigning him to stretcher duty. Nonetheless,
even the sergeant admits, unwittingly perhaps, the true nature of
war:

Welsh:
You haven't changed at all, have you Witt? You haven't learned
a thing … you'll never be a real soldier.

Witt:
I can take anything you dish out. I'm twice the man you are.

Welsh:
In this world, a man, himself, is nothin'. And there ain't no
world but this one … we're livin' in a world that's blown itself
to hell as fast as everybody can arrange it.

In
a brilliant casting move, Nick Nolte plays Lt. Colonel Tall, a West
Point grad who brags of reading Homer in Greek. Despite Tall's years
of hard work, ambition and sycophantic treatment of the Generals,
he has been continually passed over for promotions in favor of younger
colleagues. When told of the plan to capture a hill held by the
Japanese, Tall, who has waited fifteen years for a war, senses his
opportunity for glory.

Hundreds
of men storm the beaches, but unlike in Saving Private Ryan,
the expected resistance is not met; the beach is deserted. One of
the soldiers issues a telling warning: "If they didn't know
this beach was deserted, what else don't they know?"

In
a scene reminiscent of Paths
of Glory
, Lt. Tall informs an incredulous Captain Staros
(Elias Koteas) of the plan to take the hill:

Tall:
We're going straight up that hill there.

Staros:
We can't do that, Colonel.

Tall:
Well, there' no way to out-flank it … the Japanese hold the
jungle. It has to be taken frontally.

Staros:
What about water, sir? Water's not getting up here. My men are
passing out, sir.

Tall:
The only time you worry about a soldier is when he stops bitchin'.

The
second act portrays the offensive on the Japanese position. In the
initial charge up the hill, Tall and Staros communicate by radio;
Tall exhibits the tendency of the commanding officer to keep the
rank and file ignorant of the risks of a questionable mission:

Staros:
What kind of artillery support do we have, sir?

Tall:
Two batteries of 105s.

Staros:
They won't make a dent in that position.

Tall:
No, but it bucks the men up. It'll look like the Japs are catching
hell.

As
they push up the hill, Staros' men suffer heavy casualties. Observing
from a safe vantage point, Tall is livid that the attack is not
proceeding according to plan. On the radio, Tall is apoplectic:

Tall:
Have them press the center. Get straight up that goddamn hill.
You attack them now!

Staros:
Colonel, I don't think that you fully understand what's going
on down here. My company alone cannot take that position, sir.
The Japs are too well dug in; they've got too much firepower.
Colonel, there's a bunker up there. We can't see it and it's
chewing my men to pieces, sir.

Staros'
suggestion of a flanking maneuver serves only to intensify Tall's
rage:

Tall:
No! There will be no flanking move. Now listen to me, Staros.
You are not going to take your men around into the jungle to
avoid a goddamn fight … I want you to attack right now, with
every man at your disposal. Now attack, Staros. That's a direct
order.

Staros:
I refuse to take my men up there in a funnel attack. It's suicide,
sir. I've lived with these men for two-and-a-half years and
I will not order them on to their deaths.

Tall
relents and arrives at Staros' position to investigate. When he
finds that the situation is not as Staros had described it, he does
not believe his Captain that the conditions had changed in a mere
five minutes.

As
they are planning the continued attack for the next day, Staros
still believes the plan to be suicidal, but has no choice other
than to defer to his superior officer. "No, sir, you're right,
about everything you said."

Tall's
response is a metaphor for the State. "It's not necessary for
you to tell me you think I'm right. Ever. We'll assume it."

Eventually,
there is a turning point in the battle, and the American forces
prevail, taking the hill. Several Japanese soldiers are taken prisoner.
They are just as frightened, just as shell-shocked as their "enemies,"
presumably wondering how their government could put them into such
a hopeless situation.

A
more conventional war film would have ended here, with the heroic
Americans winning the battle against long odds. Luckily, this is
not a conventional film, and Malick is not a conventional director.
The film lingers on as the soldiers contemplate the futile nature
of war, sometimes in quiet conversation:

Soldier
1: You see many dead people?

Soldier
2: Plenty. They're no different than dead dogs, once you get
used to the idea. You're meat, kid.

In
another quiet scene, Sgt. Storm (John C. Reilly) reveals the fortuitous
nature of surviving the wars of the State:

No
matter how much training you got, how careful you are, it's
a matter of luck whether or not you get killed. Makes no difference
who you are, how tough you might be. You're in the wrong spot
at the wrong time, you're gonna get it. I look at that boy dyin',
I don't feel nothin'. I don't care about nothin' anymore.

Malick
uses a technique that can be clumsily abused by a lesser talent:
the voice-over. As employed by Malick, the dreamy voice-overs convey
his anti-war message through the thoughts of his characters:

This
great evil. Where's it come from? How'd it steal into the world?
What seed, what root did it grow from? Who's doin' this? Who's
killed us? Robbin' us of life and light. Mockin' us with the
sight of what we might have known. Does our ruin benefit the
earth? Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is
this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night?

Juxtaposed
against scenes of drunken soldiers celebrating the victory, one
character sees the greater truth: "War don't ennoble men; it
turns them into dogs, poisons the soul."

Throughout
the film, Private Bell (Ben Chaplin) maintains his sanity by dreaming
of his beautiful wife back home. He imagines her perched on a swing;
he imagines making love to her. Against the backdrop of the celebratory
ambiance, Bell reads a letter from his beloved wife. In a cruelty
of war worse than any bullet, she informs him that she has fallen
in love with another man and asks for a divorce.

The
reviews of The Thin Red Line have been mixed at best. Some
of the criticisms are valid: at 170 minutes, the film is long, but
not too long. As Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger
Ebert says, "No great movie is too long; no bad movie is too
short." Rather than open with the bang of battle like Spielberg
in Saving Private Ryan, Malick elects to show the lushness
of the location (shot mostly in Australia) and the peace and tranquility
of the natives as a stark contrast to the primal nature of warfare.
Likewise, he allows his characters to contemplate the meaning of
war — its utter futility and its human destruction.

The
film has also been attacked for lacking in plot and character development.
Indeed, the characters are covered in grime and blood and at times
tend to look and sound alike. In my estimation, this technique is
used by Malick to show the dehumanizing nature of war and the way
in which the military attempts to strip each soldier of his individuality
in order to turn him into a robotic killing machine.

Another
frequent negative comment is that the film is unrealistic and not
faithful enough to the Jones' novel. This disparagement is unwarranted.
Malick, like any filmmaker, has no duty to be faithful to the source
material. A film director is an artist, and as such has license
to present his own viewpoint, his own vision. Ultimately, Malick
is successful in his goal to depict warfare as a fruitless exercise
in death and destruction.

The
film works on a visceral level. The combat scenes are gritty and
realistic to the extent that they depict the sheer violence, pain
and death of battle. The cinematography by John Toll, who also received
an Oscar nod, is stunning. The performances, especially those of
Nolte, Penn and Koteas, are compelling. Terrence Malick has created
a film filled with poetic images, striking juxtapositions and the
unmistakable message that war is futile, even when battles are won
by the "good guys" against the "forces of evil."

Count
me as one observer who hopes Malick doesn't wait another twenty
years before creating his next masterpiece.

The
Great Anti-War Films:

October
24, 2001

Rick
Gee (send him mail) is
a freelance writer residing in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He also authors
a monthly column “On Liberty” for The Valley News.

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