Malick’s The Thin Red line: An Addendum

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Two major WWII films were released in 1998, both to critical acclaim. Now, I like Saving Private Ryan, I also like The Thin Red Line. But which is better? There’s only one way to find out – FIGHT!

To be serious though, each has both merits and faults. I am firmly in the camp that Ryan is two brilliant, visceral, war is hell” segments bookending cliched, getting to know and understand one another” scenes of bickering soldiers on a mission. But The Thin Red line (based on the classic James Jones novel) is a more mature, philosophical, metaphysical examination of warfare’s effects, from the top ranks down to the lowliest grunt. True, it is over long, maybe pretentious in places, and should have ended after two hours, but the middle act is tour de force of tension, action and recriminations. Throughout, we get into the characters heads, their thoughts, hopes and fears, before, during and after combat, all played out against the indifferent beauty of the natural world.

There’s only a thin red line between the sane and the mad – old Midwestern saying

Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) has kissed butt throughout his career to get a wartime command, and seeks glory at Guadalcanal. But when he and Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) clash over the seemingly chaotic attack on Japanese dug in on a grassy hill, who is right? Is Staros overly concerned for his men, too cautious? Is Tall right to push them on? “Only time you worry about a soldier is when he stops bitchin’,” he tells Staros. He knows the artillery volley is useless, “but it bucks the men up.” The Captain sends stretcher bearers out to those less injured, just because he can see them and their wailing tears his guts.

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Men are ordered forward then shot and fall out of sight. Sunlight sweeps away shadow across the undulating tall grass as if they were never there. In the midst of the blood and thunder, a cowering soldier checks as an unconcerned snake slithers past. Nature abides, while man dances to the same old tune.

Another private spots three enemy soldiers on the ridge and shoots one down. “I killed a man,” he thinks. “I  killed a man, and no one can touch me for it.” He’s at once a detached observer, yet also pumped with adrenaline, enough to alert his comrades.

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The cliche of the dying soldier requesting a friend write his family at home is knocked down. “You gonna write his old lady?” “F-fuck no, that’s not my job,” a guy says, backing away, bug eyed at death up close and personal.

The battle goes on all day, the men parched and isolated in the sweltering sun. At dusk, wild dogs feast on corpses. Sergeant McCron (John Savage), in shock at the loss of his squad, stands up and yells at the unseen enemy. How come he lives and they die? God’s silence mocks him. Private Bell (Ben Chaplin), whose uxorious feelings for his wife cost him a previous peacetime commission, seeks escape in fantasies of their life back home. (He later gets a Dear John letter requesting a divorce and grants it, too in love with her to fight for her, acknowledging the distance that now exists between them.)

Tall compromises and allows Staros’ flanking manoeuvre, but puts the keen Captain Gaff  (John Cusack) in charge of the chosen squad. The move breaks the impasse and victory is assured, the men going on to sweep clear the Japanese rear line bivouac. Tall promotes Staros to an Army legal post befitting his peacetime experience, and throws in a medal, for the sake of a clean Regimental record. The Army wants yes men up front, not mollycoddlers. “It’s not necessary for you to ever tell me I’m right,” he tells Staros. “We’ll just assume it.”

Perhaps Malick should have finished on the scene as the soldiers pass their dead comrades fresh white crosses, sprinklers feeding the freshly laid grass growing over their graves. They have all the water they need now. Instead, he continues with meandering, internalised philosophising, amidst the “Paradise Lost, an Eden, raped by the green poison of war,” as Malick put it to his producers during the development and wooing stage of bringing him on board.

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His vision was to portray much of the violence indirectly. According to Bobby Geisler, who was instrumental in getting Malick to direct, only to be unceremoniously ousted (although he and his partner, John Roberdeau retained screen credits), “A soldier is shot, but rather than showing a Spielbergian bloody face we see a tree explode, the shredded vegetation, and a gorgeous bird with a broken wing flying out of the tree.”

Malick debated every change and deviation from Jones’ novel, asking permission from his widow, Gloria. She eventually told him, “Terry, you have my husband’s voice, you’re writing in his musical key; now what you must do is improvise. Play riffs on this.”

From Total Film: “one anecdote told by John Toll (Malick’s Cinematographer), whose wife Lois Burwell worked as key make-up artist on Saving Private Ryan, is telling about what makes The Thin Red Line unique. 

During production, Malick sent Spielberg, who was shooting Ryan, a Japanese battle flag packaged up like a soldier’s trophy from the front line. It was a symbolic act layered with contested meaning: was it a gift, or a competitive shove? 

Spielberg’s response was tellingly prosaic: he sent Malick a crew jacket from Saving Private Ryan. Apparently, not every Hollywood director has the soul of a poet…

Originally posted 2013-10-20 12:28:15. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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