I’ve been involved, off and on, with the story of The Thin Red Line in various incarnations for about six months now. I spent nearly a month alone weeding through the massive, dense, spectacular original novel by James Jones. Then watched the 1964 film adaptation. Then found a draft of the screenplay by Terrence Malick, which was nearly as dense as the book at just 200 pages. And now I’ve finally come to watch the main film itself… and I don’t have a clue where to begin.
Why don’t we start with Malick himself. As many know, 20 years went by between the release of Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, with many jokes about the eccentric and reclusive director having wandered away from the industry, but this is actually a fallacy as he was involved in numerous film productions during that time. He spent decades developing The New World and a project called Q, which would later evolve into The Tree of Life. He wrote a film called The English Speaker, about Josef Breuer, the predecessor of Freud who laid the groundwork of modern psychoanalysis with his examination of a patient named Anna O. He penned adaptations of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer – a detatched Korean vet goes on an existential journey around the gulf coast – and Larry McMurtry’s The Desert Rose – a fading showgirl looks for love in Las Vegas. He wrote an unproduced stage adaptation of Sansho the Bailiff – two boys are sold into slavery, one of whom escapes, grows into a politician, and uses his new power to destroy the slave camp – for director Andrzej Wajda. He developed films based on Joseph Merrick and Jerry Lee Lewis, but they were beaten to the punch by, respectively, Lynch’s The Elephant Man and McBride’s Great Balls of Fire. He also pitched an adaptation of Moliere’s 1664 play Tartuffe, which explored a battle of wills as a conman embeds himself into the household of a family constantly trying to prove that he’s a conman.
This adaptation of The Thin Red Line began life in 1988, when Malick was approached by producers Bobby Geisler and John Roberdeau. To recount the frustrating decade they spent pouring money into the film’s development would require me directly copying the film’s Wikipedia page even moreso than I did in the paragraph above, so just go there for the whole story. To sum up, Malick is a deep yet odd dude, and he and the moneymakers of the industry seem destined to never get along.
The story remains the same, with C “for Charlie” Company being among the soldiers sent to Guadalcanal, one of the many Pacific Islands the US fought Japan for control of in WWII, mostly to establish landing strips and supply routes. The defining feature of the landscape is a massive hill already laden with Japanese gun nests and bunkers, and if the Americans can capture that, it should give them the upper hand in ultimately clearing the island. What follows are detatched men sobbing at the inhumanity they must commit against other detatched men sobbing at the inhumanity they’ve committed.
The landscape, as expected, is stunning, with misty, vibrant, tropical vistas often shot in harsh noon light instead of Malick’s beloved magic hour. Even as our soldiers move inland, filing through the forests of bamboo and gnarled trees, there’s still the sound of waves as the wind ripples through the tall grass coating the hill and its surrounding peaks and valleys. There’s moments, even amongst the bloodshed, where soldiers just stop and look at a flower, a bird in the trees, the sunlight filtered through the leaves over their heads… often these moments are of said soldiers bleeding out the last of their life. There’s an especially touching moment as we see the face of a mostly buried Japanese soldier, a nameless figure already long dead, and we hear the ghost of his whisper as he wonders what led him to this fate.
While this is a strong theme, and leads to some powerful images and performances, this also leads to my main problem with the film. Something horrible happens, everyone meditates on how horrible it was. Something horrible happens, everyone meditates on how horrible it was. Something horrible happens, everyone you see where this is going. It’s a film of moments, of sequences, of little stories amidst a broader event, all meant to tell us how horrible war is, and how even when it brings out the best in men as soldiers, it does so by smothering their humanity and turning them into either raging animals or cold machines. Malick has already done quite an admirable job slimming the heavy source material down to the length of a single film, but 171 minutes is still more than this story ultimately needed to make the point it does, as it keeps making that point over and over and over again. There’s a bloody battle as the Americans slaughter a makeshift Japanese camp and round up the remaining shellshocked prisoners. It’s horrific, it’s gloriously well put together, but it’s ultimately redundant as nothing new is gleamed or explored than when our soldiers enacted a smaller raid upon the bunker hidden atop the hill, slaughtering most of the Japanese soldiers within and rounding up the remaining shellshocked prisoners. There are important, meaningful stories in this film, but regardless of how well they’re told, they’re often the same handful of stories told again and again. Yes, that’s the reality of war, but it’s also the reality of a bloated, repetitive cinematic experience. So many situations end with people sobbing in horror or staring in stunned disbelief that an entire supercut of shared reaction shots could be spliced together from this film alone, and much of the movie’s bloated nature is represented right up front in a ridiculously long, masturbatory sequence of a soldier frolicking amidst peaceful island natives.
Jones’ original novel was a very sneering and sarcastic work intended to thrust a middle finger straight up the idea of the nobility of war and the brotherhood of the battlefield, using the constant bouts of horrific violence to show the twisted bonds formed over shared dehumanization. There, heroism was being stupid and reckless, and if you somehow managed to survive, either refusing commendation as a way of sticking it to the man, or scooping up as many medals as you could for political gain or bragging rights. This element is still present, but by dropping a lot of the book’s cynicism, Malick infuses a bit of nobility back into these character, not through removing the horror, but by enhancing the reflection upon it. This is the biggest shift between his 200 page screenplay and the finished film, as what was on paper was largely a condensed yet faithful adaptation of the material, but what’s on screen adapts maybe half of it, and replaces the rest with its own original sequences and philosophical ponderings. This is fine, but it does create a bit of unevenness, as there are occasionally clear divisions between what Jones wrote, what came purely from the mind of Malick, and those bits which act as a fusion of the two. The buffoonish Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), ragingly willing to sacrifice lives for the common good, butting heads with the compassionate Captain Staros (Elia Koteas), is purely from Jones, and could have had a place in any war film of the past. In fact, it’s played with nearly equal skill in the ’64 adaptation.
Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), on the other hand, is almost a pure Mary Sue of Malick himself. The Witt of the novel – and Malick’s screenplay – is a comical supporting role, bouncing from company to company at the flip of a dime, and always getting through situations because he’s too dim to appreciate the full danger of events, until the end where this devil-may-care figure ultimately becomes the last soldier to die on the island. Malick has revised him as a hero character, incorporating elements of Private Bell, and that of Prewitt, the protagonist of Jones’ earlier novel, From Here to Eternity, and leaving the comical buffoon now a quiet philosopher, the one most deeply taking in the horrors, not only of man against man, but of man against the nature of this island, this paradise, now sullied and burned. Despite my disliking the length of it, the opening of Witt among natives is contrasted nicely as he visits the natives of Guadalcanal, who all fear and avoid him as an invader who brought with him a war which they should never have been made to suffer through. This is a strong moment, and I like that Malick has given the island a tribal populace to add this additional perspective, but these moments – and that fucking over-produced, over-used Hans Zimmer chanting on the soundtrack – feel like invaders themselves from another film, another story, another tale of the horrors of war, as they’re ultimately unexplored beyond their glimpses, with no final moment about how these people were left as the Americans now pack up and head off to the next island.
Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn) is one of those middle-ground characters. In the novel, he was the most pure and concentrated voice of Jones’ cynical argument that men have to give up humanity to become the best of soldiers on the battlefield, and often made his case with a leering grin or spitting in the face of altering opinions, even from figures of authority. Here, he’s just tired. He has the same view and preaches the same lessons, but the zeal has been replaced with the weight of exhaustion as the repetitions of his own experiences with war have sapped from him the surprise and shock the others still feel. It’s a different take on the character, but a very touching one, and I like how he and Witt quietly bond through their opposition instead of pounce on one another in animosity. Even as Witt’s death leaves nary a flicker on Welsh as he grits his teeth and keeps pushing the next wave of soldiers under his wing.
The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, but there isn’t much to their characters, so one has to wonder if so many of them are known, recognizable actors just as a method of allowing the audience to keep who is who straight. Ben Chaplin plays Bell, a soldier always dreaming about his wife back home (with ridiculously dragged out and repetitive flashbacks of Miranda Otto), only to find out she left him for an airman. Woody Harrelson is Keck, a commander who sacrificially sits on a grenade he accidentally pulled the pin from while it was still in his pocket. Adrien Brody is Fife, a major character from the book – and Malick’s script – now reduced (but not poorly so) to a nearly silent figure always looming over shoulders with eyes widened in horror. John Savage is McCrone, a sergeant who suffers a mental breakdown when every soldier under his command are killed in the first wave. John Cusack is Gaff, a captain who leads the final mission to overtake the primary hill. John Travolta is the ridiculously spit-and-polish general who fist sends the troops to the island. George Clooney is the captain who takes over command once it’s been conquered. Thomas Jane is a private who takes a bullet to the leg, but isn’t too eager for rescue as the hill he’s been abandoned on has an amazing view. Also showing up from time to time are John C. Reilly, Jared Leto, Nick Stahl, Tim Blake Nelson, Matt Doran, and Larry Romano. These are fine actors all, with the goofy and spluttering Dash Mihok – as Doll, who often covers for his deep cowardice with theatrically brash battlefield bravado – being the only sour note for me among the cast. On the cutting room floor are additional performances from Bill Pullman, Gary Oldman, Lukas Haas, Viggo Mortensen, and Mickey Rourke, only the last of which can be seen in an outtake on the Criterion release of the film.
The Thin Red Line is a beautifully crafted work of art, an absolutely moving and sweeping work of cinema, but its bloated length and occasional navel gazing does leave it often making the same movements as it keeps sweeping the same spots over and over again, and there isn’t much more I can say about it than I already have. I’m glad I’ve finally had the time to sit down and watch this film, but equally glad my extended trip through the various installments of the story have come to an end. Fingers crossed that it won’t take me as long to get through The New World.
Originally posted 2013-10-18 19:55:47. Republished by Blog Post Promoter