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.”
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