Lawrence Russell

The Thin Red Line (1998) dramatized and dir. Terence Malick (from the novel by James Jones) cine. John Tall music Hans Zimmer (plus Charles Ives et. al) star. Sean Penn (Serg. Welsh), Jim Caviezal (Pvt. Witt), Ben Chaplin (Pvt. Bell), Elias Koteas (Cpt. Staros), Nick Nolte (Col. Tall), Dash Mihok (Doll), Woody Harleson (Serg. Keck), John Cusak (Cpt. Gaft)

American Zen

Despite the poetry of the interior monologues and landscape cinematography, Malick's version of the James Jones novel is emotionally harrowing. The atmosphere gets into your stomach. Opening with the image of a semi-submerged crocodile, the action is slow in developing... but deadly when it does. The anticipation is one of anti-climax, for when Charlie Company hits the beach, its assault is unopposed, and the soldiers move easily into the jungle to meet a fate that seems to be continually moving away, like the disturbed exotic animals who inhabit the swamps and cling to the trees in this prehistoric paradise.

It's August 1942 and you're in the Solomon Islands, witnessing a key action in the larger theatre of war, The Battle of Guadalcanal. It's the turning point in the war in the Pacific which sees the Japanese eventually retreat to their home islands and a Zen finale in a nuclear flash. Two versions of spirituality go against one another in the sub-text as an economic contest for superiority in the material world. Malick concentrates on the spiritual dynamic, a cinematic mysticism in which the debate is seen and overheard in thoughts, reflections, conversations, and the occasional flashback, memories that are the codes of success and failure for each soldier as he confronts Death.

"Maybe we're all one big soul, faces of the same self..." (Witt)

Is the action really as confusing as some say? Does it matter if you don't always know who is thinking what or even who is who below the helmets? There's a homogenization of character by the interior monologue, so that you have one point-of-view, despite the fact that you get the full emotional spectrum -- the Private, the Corporal, the Sergeant, the Captain... and the Colonel who thinks he controls them all. There's a singularity in the collective character, just as there is really only one woman, Jack Bell's wife. Pvt. Bell's memories of his woman are the idealization implicit in all men, and her ultimate betrayal is part of the eternal myth that haunts our view of history, especially in times of crisis.

Men betray Nature, Nature betrays Men. Is there a method in this madness? Or is it part of a spectacular nihilism, a mechanism for our self-delusion, of which war and genocide are merely the natural expression....

Perhaps this is just a way of understanding Malick's approach, not an excuse for the obviously obscure narrative. Names, personalities, histories... these might be known to readers of the novel or Andrew Marton's 1964 film version. Certainly Malick knows who they are, just as if they're members of his family album, and he treats them with the sort of religious sympathy ancestors are due.

Like Antonioni, a Malick landscape continually threatens to overwhelm the characters, the photographic imperative reducing them to details in a bigger picture. Malick is always pointing towards pantheism, a mystic solution in the continually unfolding landscape. It's an American perspective, unadulterated by the classical geometries of European directors like Antonioni and Resnais, a reactive view of the natural world rather than an educated one. As the jungle burns and bodies smolder, innocence erodes, and from the smoke and mist of this Zen landscape a new Man emerges, a mid-century secular being who still believes in sacrifice -- even if this sacrifice has the characteristics of suicide.

When Bell decides to distract the Japanese in order to give his platoon a chance to avoid being slaughtered in an ambush, it's because he feels he has nothing to live for now that his wife has left him. As the gunfire alerts his comrades anyway, you have to ask if he would've acted differently had he not received the "Dear Jack" letter.

Is the symbolism of the river as a baptismal crossing lost in this long-distance narrative? There are two climaxes: one, the overruning of the Japanese position beyond Hill 210; two, the river and the death of Bell. The question is, what do you learn after Bell's death that you didn't know after Hill 210? By using the multiple POV -- a device common to the WW II American novel -- the narrative becomes exponential.

The Thin Red Line (1964)

Marton's version is absolutely orthodox, follows linear time with the exception of Doll's flashback memories of his wife, their brief honeymoon, and the phone calls he receives from an anonymous Japanese telling him they've "got his number". Unlike Malick's film, there's no "Dear Jack" letter from the wife, where in fact the wife belongs to a different character altogether, Pvt. Bell, another quasi-mystic.

The main conflict is between Sgt. Welsh (Jack Warden) and Pvt. Doll (Kier Dullea), an relationship of shifting contempt and uneasy respect. Doll steals an officer's pistol out of contempt for authority, yet would've died from a booby-trapped body shortly after landing if not for the timely intervention of the experienced Sgt. Welsh. And it's Welsh who sacrifices himself for Doll in the final dramatic firefight in the "Dancing Elephant Caves", Doll thereby becoming Welsh as he now assumes command of the squad. In a trick he's learned from Welsh, Doll breaks the chain of the Sergeant's number tag and jams the tag in Welsh's lifeless mouth. Exeunt stage left as the final credits roll -- this is as close to mysticism as you get in this film.

While Malick chooses to leave the title a vague, unattached metaphor, the original film quickly finds time to explain it. "I remember an old mid-west saying," says Captain Stone ("Staros"), "'There's only a thin red line between the sane and the mad.'"

Malick lifts some scenes verbatim from the Marton version but others are reinterpreted. The moral lesson of the booby-trapped body becomes wordless, and you witness the imprudence of the American who lies dead and legless beside the trophy and the detonation wire in the cane field. And the ambush in the swamp becomes a firefight in the river.

While the B-production values of the 1964 version aren't on a par with the Malick version, occasional incidents and details exclusive to the original are very good i.e. Doll's killing of the Japanese soldier as a simulated sex act, the tagging of the bodies, the assault on the caves. But the narrative concept suffers from a Western adventure mentality which, of course, might be closer to the truth than the undoubted revisionism of Malick's film. Malick's world-view is New Age and his idea of war is based in his generation's experience with Vietnam.

Director Andrew Marton's and scenarist Bernard Gordon's story is classically simple: two men, two expressions of madness, survival, and a final act of sacrifice.

The idea of a paradise as something desecrated and lost is Malick's opening. Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel) has gone AWOL and is living and playing with the natives in one of their coastal villages on an island untouched by the war. He's picked up by a navy patrol and thrown in the brig where his punishment is delivered to him by Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn). He will serve as a stretcher bearer. Malick's Welsh is a gentle cynic who clearly admires the idealistic Witt. Witt's mysticism really expresses Malick's photo-essay on Nature. It's too bad that his character is easily confused with that of Pvt Bell (Ben Chaplin) whose memories are frequently montaged as mystical hymns to love. This confusion obscures the ending as you're not sure exactly which mystic makes the sacrifice, which in turn influences the thematic through-line.

There are too many characters, and while they make sense visually (mostly), they often make no sense within panorama. Pvt. Doll (Dash Mihok) steals a pistol for which there are no consequences, only an obvious dividend -- pistols are good for mano o mano combat. Sgt. Keck bungles a grenade toss, blows his "ass off", but just exactly what happens here is ambiguous. Perhaps it's meant to be. Perhaps combat is like that -- a series of ambiguous actions with ambiguous results.

When C-Company overruns Hill 210, the drama is outstanding. Hand to hand combat on the scorched earth among the burning trees and huts, as the Japanese crawl from their bunkers or simply sit like Zen idols waiting to be shot or bayoneted or immolated. As the vultures circle overhead, an American waits for a Japanese to die, a pair of pliers in his hand in anticipation of the gold he will extract from his enemy's teeth. Meanwhile Witt the mystic consoles a dying prisoner. Good and evil -- the duality within us.

The film never regains the same momentum afterwards and is saved only because of the powerful atmosphere of the cinematography. The action advances in single file, like a funeral procession towards the grave. It's serious business, and those sermons with their metaphysics and their free verse poetry reinforce the fear and loathing. The sense of being in the action is excellent. The plurality of the point-of-view and the shock imagery (the legless torso, the face in the ground) force you into participation even if you miss the logic. Once again the documentary effect of film carries the fiction even when the fiction is weak.

While Malick assumes too much, maybe his editor assumes even more. Continuity becomes problematic, Time disjunctive. It's the postmodern dilemma of the remake. Motivation becomes irrelevant, only Death matters. Renovate the cliche? Certainly. But the scenes between Welsh and Witt -- charming and beautifully photographed as they are -- seem like a social worker dealing with a junkie, not a World War II American sergeant and his lippy hardheaded private. As we recreate the past, we forget to remove the current fantasy of ourselves. Thus History becomes Science Fiction, speculation of where we have yet to go.

Private Ryan gives us reality and sentimentality, a sense that WW II was not fought in vain. As a discourse, it's entirely political. Death is merely an inconvenience, like failing an exam, a postponement of a career. The Thin Red Line is existential, posits nihilism against spiritual redemption, dramatizes the struggle within Nature and the duality of Love and Death. It ends with the symbolism of the captured crocodile -- that prehistoric survivor who reminds us of our ancestors -- roped and bound and at the mercy of the smiling victors of Charlie Company.

© LR 23/7/99


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