In the summer of 1998, two important American movies arrived in theaters that inadvertently triggered a renaissance of books and films on the Second World War. Both were classified as “war films,” and both were so in completely different senses of the term.
The first: After a brief, unexplained interlude at a war cemetery six decades after the war it went back in time — Long lines of landing craft plow through choppy gray seas, carrying clammy, nauseous faces straining with anticipation and fear at the ominous dark country ahead. The crafts crunch up the sable, chilly beach. The ramps drop and men are torn to pieces by a hail of machine-gun fire.
The second film preferred to be more ambiguous but soon more landing craft appeared, this time with the gray of the English Channel replaced by the blue spray of the South Pacific. Once again nervous and fearful faces occupy the screen; groups of men huddle together and pray. And as the landing crafts ground up on the beach to the sounds of Taiko drums, men scramble out, ready to confront the enemy only to find…nothing. Not a single bullet, not the whistle of one. The suspense shattered into anti-climax, the film goes on to meander, skirting art and poetry, often focusing on the rich landscape of the South Pacific instead of what it had been advertised for – warfare.
Obviously the first film is Saving Private Ryan, which went on to garner 11 Academy Award nominations of which it won five. The second is The Thin Red Line, directed by the reclusive Terence Malick, nominated for seven Academy Awards – of which it won absolutely zero. But while Private Ryan has established a reputation as a timeless masterpiece, Malick’s film, based on the James Jones classic novel of the same name, has continued to enrage and enthrall viewers since its release.
I saw both films within a year of each other. Private Ryan on the big screen; Thin Red Line on television. Private Ryan with its scenes of savagery and careless evil forced me to reconsider the subject of my growing expertise, the Second World War. The Thin Red Line, in contrast, filled me with contempt. Yet ten years on I find myself with a reevaluated opinion of Malick’s visually stunning, deeply enigmatic picture.
Saving Private Ryan, in short, was made by a great director, but it is not a great film. The Thin Red Line, on the other hand, is a great film made by a director “of towering reputation.” It can arguably be called the greatest war film in the history of cinema to date – If only it shed some of its distracted meandering. But those who criticize the film as a bad movie have clearly misunderstood what they have watched. I certainly misunderstood it on my first viewing. Treating combat as a necessary aside, the film is a philosophical examination of the effects of war on man – but that is not to say that the scenes of warfare are substandard. Combat when it comes is harsh and unannounced, callous but also strangely impersonal in its depiction of human beings at war.
The original novel was a sequel to Jones’ epic From Here to Eternity with a few central characters from the earlier book transposed into the second book although under different names. Malick’s focus is on one of these, the Christ-like Private Witt (brilliantly portrayed by Jim Caviezel), whose spiritual ancestor was Private Prewitt (literally pre-Witt) in From Here to Eternity.[*] Still, Witt was only a minor character in the second book compared to the others. Malick actually shot seven hours of film focusing on most of them, only to cut it down to three for theatrical release – with the deleted footage capable of supporting an entirely different version of the film – he says.
All this effort was in aid of Malick’s desire to remain faithful to Jones’ writing. But repeated consultations with the late novelist’s wife, Gloria Jones, led to a certain degree of creativity. “Terry, you have my husband’s voice,” she told him, “You’re writing in his musical key; now what you must do is improvise. Play riffs on this.”
In the book, the bulk of the narrative deals with the men of C-for-Charlie Company and the battle for the fictional Hill 210 on the Pacific landmark that was Guadalcanal. With Malick’s lyrical prose, the battle for the hill takes an immense prominence but in the end it proves a mere background to the men who swarm over its grassy slopes. The story, helped by dialogue of incredible depth and cinematography of astounding beauty is bound together by the technique of the voice-over. Often spoken by a person who sounds like Witt, this is actually Private Train, a nervous, fearful farm boy who appears only at the beginning and at the end of the film.
Train speaks as if in a private whisper to the audience, speculating, meditating on the heart of man, the soul of humankind and the force of nature and evil. The narrative of The Thin Red Line is focused most cogently around three conflicted relationships: Between an aging regimental commander eager for a last chance at glory, Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) and a humane company leader, Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) who fears for the lives of his men. An act of love between the honorable, homesick Private Bell (Ben Chaplin), and his wife, Marty (Miranda Otto) who later leaves him for an Air Force Captain, and the last, perhaps the most critical of all because of its examination of truth and courage, life and death – the conflict between Private Witt and the hard-bitten Company First Sergeant, Welsh (Sean Penn).
Welsh is a cynical nihilist who is contemptuous of everything. Jones said of him: “Everything amused Welsh… Politics amused him, religion amused him, particularly ideals and integrity amused him; but most of all human virtue amused him. He did not believe in it and did not believe in any of those other words.”
After heroically running through enemy fire to help a dying man, Welsh angrily refuses to let Staros recommend him for a Silver Star. “Property, the whole fucking thing is about property,” he says in a rage. The war is in service of a lie, the lie of acquiring property through force of arms. “Everything is a lie. Only one thing a man can do, find something that is his, make an island for himself.”
Witt, instead, believes in the human race. “Maybe all men got one big souls,” he says. “One big self.” The act of war is an act against oneself, against one’s own body. While Witt sees beauty and goodness in all things, Welsh sees misery. Witt’s purity bewilders Welsh but it also engenders a grudging respect and by being unable to share Witt’s glory or compassion, it heightens the Sergeant’s inner pain.
To call The Thin Red Line simply a war or an anti-war film is to reduce its meaning. Unlike Saving Private Ryan’s shallow nationalism, Apocalypse Now’s equally-brilliant but drug-addled intensity or Platoon’s self-righteousness, The Thin Red Line is a journey into the heart of troops who are in constant confrontation of not only death but their fading humanity. To endure a frontline army and combat is to acknowledge that one is already dead, perhaps at the moment of signing up – something incomprehensible to those who understand little of combat or soldiering. Because of this constant aura of death and life tugging at the fates of men, it becomes important to find some sort of immortality.
This search occupies Witt. Remembering his mother’s death when he was a boy, Witt says: “I was afraid to touch the death I seen in her. I saw nothin’ beautiful or uplifting about her going back to God…. I wondered how it’d be when I died. What it’d be like to know that this breath now was the last one you was ever gonna draw. I just hope I can meet it the same way she did, with the same… calm. Because that’s where it’s hidden, the immortality that I hadn’t seen.”
The end, when it comes, is immensely moving. As Charlie Company makes it way up the river it finds itself cut off from headquarters, as strong Japanese forces converging upon it. The incompetent inheritor of the company, Lieutenant Band, orders two jumpy soldiers, Corporal Fife (Adrien Brody) and the adolescent Pvt. Coombs to reconnoiter the jungle ahead. Seeing their fear, Witt volunteers to join them. He leads the two men into the jungle.
A distance inland, they run into the Japanese. Coombs is shot and badly wounded. Witt sends Fife back to warn Band that strong Japanese forces are pushing down towards them. As Fife departs, Witt comforts Coombs, pushes the wounded boy down the river to safety and then single-handedly proceeds to draw the Japanese away from the company. Soon, he is ringed by a platoon of Japanese soldiers, toting jungle camouflage, bayonets out.
Breathless, Witt stands still as the Japanese leader, his rifle up, yells for him to throw down his weapon, saying that he does not want to kill Witt if he doesn’t have to. The moment is agonizingly slow and the realization that he has met the end comes into Witt’s eyes.
Evoking a Bushido spirit (something that the Japanese would have admired), Witt raises his rifle and is shot.[†] The camera gradually cuts up into the trees, of a heavenly sunlight filtering through the leaves, of the immortality of nature that always remains. Nature may be cruel but it is also calm.
For those who condemn the film as being too artsy, full of hidden, obscure metaphors, this is an oversimplification of a complex film. The truth is blatantly present although it appears at times in the guise of a symbol. In the final scene as the army leaves, a coconut lies on the beach sprouting an emerald green shoot of stem and leaves – of life continuing to offset the inevitable phenomenon of death, natural or otherwise.
Ultimately the movie is loyal to Jones’ writing and vision (he was a Guadalcanal veteran himself[‡]) who wrote not just of the bewildering nature of combat but also of the monotony of soldiering, and of the unnatural lulls in war during which men waited in apprehension for the next bout or stared emptily into the distance, becoming automatons that reacted to stimuli than human sentiment. In Saving Private Ryan there is a tidy answer to a small mystery set up in the film’s opening sequences. There is no such ending in The Thin Red Line. The movie, mirroring the reality of its subject, ends as an unfinished contemplation of warfare, brotherhood, life and death. And by this it leaves the typical Hollywood penchant for safe sentimentality behind and enters the realm of truth.
As Steve Martin once said in another, altogether minor film[§]: You should watch the movies… “All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.” Maybe. But maybe more in some movies than others, and even if it happens to be incomplete. ♦
Characters mentioned (In alphabetic order by actor)
The Script of the Thin Red Line
The Thin Red Line Script
I can’t remember where I acquired this from but it adds a great deal of depth to the film, with a large amount of dialogue that never made it to the final cut. At one point, however, a scene is left unfinished (maybe deliberately so). Too bad it was at an interesting segment. But c’est le vie. Enjoy.
Even though Prewitt was killed at the end of the first book.
It can be said that Witt’s death was in many ways, an act of love. His end was once described by Malick as a sacrifice, for “what greater love can there be than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends?” In true Jones-style, Witt was resurrected in the last book of the trilogy, Whistle (1978),
this time under the name of Private Prell, a wounded man convalescing at a Veteran’s Hospital, ridden with guilt over what he feels is an undeserved Medal of Honor.
With the Army’s 25th Infantry Division
This is Grand Canyon
Cain, Jimmie E. Jr, “‘Writing in his musical key’: Terrence Malick’s vision of The Thin Red Line,” Film Criticism (2000), XXV: 2–24.
Jones, James, From Here to Eternity, NY: Delta, 1998.
——————-, The Thin Red Line, NY: Delta, 1998.
All images from my copy of the The Thin Red Line, Dir. Terence Malick, 20th Century Fox, 1998.