A Hill Away From Malick: Andrew Marton’s The Thin Red Line

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Author James Jones exploded onto the literary scene in 1951 with From Here to Eternity, a fictionalized account of his experience in Hawaii before and during the attack on Pearl Harbor. A film version came two years later and was instantly deemed a classic as it swept that year’s Academy Awards, winning eight out of thirteen nominations. Jones’ second novel, Some Came Running, was a meandering affair about a veteran returning to his small town after failing to make it as an author. The book was savaged by critics and didn’t match the success of his debut, but it was still adapted into a successful film of the time, which also scored five nominations, though just for acting, costumes, and a song. His third novel, Pistol, wasn’t even considered by Hollywood until it was condensed into an episode of a TV anthology a decade later, and by the time Jones finally scored big again in 1962 with his fourth book, The Thin Red Line, the best adaptation he could get was a somewhat stock studio production that came and went before slipping into obscurity. To this day, the film has been completely overshadowed by Terence Malick’s later adaptation of the novel, and the one and only DVD release Stateside was a region-free pan&scan cheapie spat out in 1998, which has itself slipped out of print and into obscurity. Before resuming my exploration of the films of Malick, I decided to dig this one out and give it a watch. Because… well, because it came first. And I’d rather give it a chance to stand on its own before getting to Malick’s adaptation just so I’m evaluating it in the proper context.

The basic structure of the novel is in place, as C “for Charlie” Company are among the troops dropped on the Japanese held Pacific island of Guadalcanal. As bonds and enmities form between the men, they have to plow through the constant hail of enemy fire with the ultimate goal of conquering a massive hill – named the Dancing Elephant because of its shape from the air – and a fortified camp through which the enemy troops are manned and supplied. The film flips the order in which these two appear in the novel, the Dancing Elephant shifting from the centerpiece to the big climax, which doesn’t harm things as both are still ultimately impressive setpieces.

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The screenplay was by Bernard Gordon, a studio writer for Columbia who still maintained steady and dependable work after being Blacklisted, thanks to producers like Charles Schneer and Philip Yordan (who produced this film) continuing to supply him with gigs, first under fronted names, then refusing to back away from letting him use his own after the bold defiance of Spartacus changed the atmosphere of the system. His work on this script is equally steady and dependable, taking a massive, episodic book with a sprawling ensemble, and stripping it down to its iconic elements as it re-arranges them into something new. It’s very cleanly done, and he does create powerful setpieces and character moments… but in my opinion, he goes maybe a little too far, to the point where this is less an adaptation than it is an entirely new story re-built from scraps of the novel. It’s not bad, it’s just a bit disappointing as a reader looking for an adaptation of a solid read.

The ensemble has mostly been narrowed to two main leads. Private Doll (Kier Dullea, four years before 2001: A Space Odyssey) is a fusion of two characters from the book. His namesake was a wily bastard who often performed above and beyond the call of duty as a mask for his own cowardice and jealousy against other men. The other was Private Bell, a meditative internal philosopher, pondering the fate of his wife back home while both fetishizing and admonishing the battlefield around him. This is the character we mostly get on the screen, as the Doll of the film is a free-thinker who refuses to cave to the callous orders of his superiors or abandon his guilt as he sees both friends and foe alike fall on the battlefield. The scene where he scores the first kill of the group when he beats a stray Japanese soldier to death with his bare hands after a fierce fight is just as powerful here as it was on the page, and as he becomes more comfortable with killing as the film goes on, it’s as a result of him pouring his emotions into his actions, making him increasingly unstable, instead of burying them like a “good soldier”. Bits from the Doll character of the novel feel out of place, as the thieving of a pistol and grenades no longer have the smirky charm that sold them, but hanging that character’s emotional drive on the lamenting philosophies of Bell actually works quite well, and there’s a great new climactic moment where this Doll is in such a daze from mowing down enemy soldiers that he keeps firing at (though missing) his own men, only letting up when he runs out of ammo.

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The other main character is Sergent Welsh (Jack Warden). In the novel, he was a sadistic anarchist who reveled in his own instability and the effect it had on others, even as this allowed him to perform spectacular feats on the battlefield and make harsh judgment calls that would cause others to freeze up. Here, he still has the nastiness and constant sense of delight, but instead of being an antagonist (despite Doll seeing him as such) he’s a mentor figure who genuinely believes that the only way to keep his men from breaking on the battle field is to first break them himself. He pushes them over a metaphorical edge so when they come across a real one on the battlefield, they won’t hesitate to leap off it. And this is shown as nothing but effective as, aside from Doll’s frequent breakdowns, everyone performs ably and admirably, and Welsh expires in Doll’s arms with the final lesson that he truly did know what it took to be a good soldier, and now it’s Doll’s turn to accept his fate with open arms.

This attitude is the biggest alteration from a novel which was a cynical and sarcastic examination of how the hell of the battlefield drove people mad in a way that was almost addictive, with violence creating a daisy chain of violence by flipping a switch in people which couldn’t easily be flipped back. Here, all the horrors are on display – the wounded soldier who the Japanese refuses to finish off in the middle of a battlefield just so he’ll keep screaming, the platoon leader Captain Stone (changed from Stein, as an anti-semitism thread from the novel has been censored) being dismissed from his command just because he second guessed wiping out all his own men in a suicide mission, people dropping from bullets and mortars left and right and you never know if your friend is going to make it to the other side with you – but these are now presented as challenges for soldiers to overcome in order to do their part to save the day in the end, instead of just more killing with promotions being a cheap reward people use to further justify more killing.

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For a specific example, there’s a scene where soldiers on patrol come across a mass grave of dead Japanese. In the book, it devolved into soldiers one-upping each other in terms of the body parts they could rip out and the loot they could find in pockets or in tooth fillings. Here, it becomes a cautionary lesson as Welsh backs everyone away and shows the grave to be a mined trap. In another interesting scene, original to the film, the soldiers have conquered the Japanese camp and spend the night digging through souvenirs and drinking sake, unaware that Japanese nests have been lying in wait in trenches beneath the huts. They open fire on the Americans, mowing down over two thirds of the platoon before they’re taken out. It’s a great scene of horror, of how letting down your guard can lead to the deaths of dozens… but it’s again denied the cynicism of the novel as the surviving soldiers rally, vowing to stand together and take down the Dancing Elephant, a sequence drawn out over half the book which has now been reduced to the heroic final 15 minutes.

Once again, Doll is the only one who seems phased by things. Homosexuality on the battlefield is openly explored in the novel, mostly focused on the character of Fife (though the Doll of the novel had his own encounter at a later point). Here, Fife is the best friend of Doll, and the two have a close bond throughout their tender interactions. During the party at the camp, Fife strips down and redresses himself in womens’ underwear, a geisha robe, and the garish makeup of a drag queen, and puts on a show for the men. The boys eat it up, cheering as Fife peels off his stockings, but Doll maintains his distance. He’s uncomfortable with this side of Fife, but can’t take his eyes off the man, and Fife peeling a stocking off his leg mirrors a memory Doll had earlier of the eight days of marriage he spent with his wife before he shipped out. Their feelings for one another are left unresolved as the Trojan Horse ambush leaves Fife, still clad in drag, among the piles of dead.

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It’s an odd subtext to layer in the film and it’s never actually spoken of, with more time spent on a watch Doll loaned to Fife to represent passing along his “time to go” to someone else (which clashes with an earlier death metaphor motif of “your number’s up”). Something feels a little lost or rewritten in the script at points like this, as it seems to want to explore something taboo only to be stamped over with something typical and “safe”. Which is the biggest failing of the film in general, that it’s been handed a bold work of literature which charged head-on into controversial material, but the studio acceptabilities of the time meant they had to “tidy” it up, leaving it just another war movie. America’s involvement in Vietnam had already begun by this point, but it was only just ramping up and was still a year away from the full troop deployments that led to the numbing combat which changed how our entire country looked at and portrayed war. If this film had waited just a few more years to be made, it really could have sunk its teeth into the source material and become something culturally significant. As it is, it’s left feeling dated and no bolder than any typical studio war movie of the decade which preceded it.

Which isn’t to say it’s bad. The script, while compromised, is still quite strong, with a steady escalation to both the story and the characters. The rivalry between Doll and Welsh has a lot more complexity to it than a typical strawman “pro war vs anti war” argument. And the direction is very clean. I haven’t said much about Andrew Marton because his work here is largely workman, but he was a very experienced director at the time and does an admirable job of letting the material unfold. Andrew – born Endre – started directing in his native Hungary before joining the wave of talent emigrating out of Europe during the spread of the Nazis in the 1930s. He quickly became a contract director for MGM before settling into a gig helming television and film productions for producer Ivan Tors (Sea Hunt, Flipper), but made the biggest name for himself as a strong second unit director on the likes of Cleopatra and Ben Hur (where he’s often praised for working on the classic chariot race). As a side note, he was among the numerous directors involved with The Longest Day, on which author James Jones worked as one of several writers. Even as Marton stopped directing his own features at the end of the 60s, he kept on with second unit work for Kelly’s Heroes, The Day of the Jackal, and The Message. With The Thin Red Line, he shows a good skill balancing character drama with combat action, much of which was filmed on location in the jungles of Spain. The score and the way everyone strikes a dramatic pose as they die are a little old fashioned, but Marton’s dependable direction creates powerful moments like Doll refusing to hide in a trench during a night bombing, or the entire platoon trudging through a swamp, or the Trojan Horse ambush, or a silent charge through the tight tunnels of a mountain.

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Dependable is a word that best describes the film as a whole. The cast is dependable. The script is dependable. The direction is dependable. Nothing is phenomenal, nothing blows me away, nothing stakes a claim for this being an overlooked classic… but it’s not bad. It’s dependable. It’s compromised, yes, but it’s still an entertaining film that tells a good story and captures just enough of the original book that I don’t feel entirely robbed. I’ll probably forget the film in a year, but that just means I can watch it again down the road, and depend on it to entertain me again. I can’t say it’s worth your time to hunt down, but if you do, it won’t be a waste of the effort.

Up next, I get to see what Malick did with the novel. All… holy crap, it’s nine minutes shy of three hours long? I guess the 20 year gap between films robbed Terry of the ability to bring one in at 90 minutes. Geez.

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Originally posted 2013-05-01 17:03:25. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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