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