THE THIN RED LINE (1998) ***
The title of the autobiographical source book for TRL comes from novelist James Jones' saying that sanity and insanity are separated by a thin red line. It applies perfectly to wars, of any kind, and here, specifically to the battle of the South Pacific island of Guadalcanal , the largest of the Solomon Islands (August 1942-February 1943), one of the bloodiest confrontations of World War II.
The film is bloody, all right, but as a war movie, something of a maverick, complex, introspective work that is unlike anything else in the genre. Its central part follows the Army rifle group Charlie Company (I wonder why it is always "Charlie" in movies?) that disembarks in Guadalcanal after the initial American attack. They wait, fight, lose men, capture a lethal Japanese bunker on a hilltop, mop up, leave --though the film still goes on after their departure.
But there's another side to this, a sort of first in war movies, something that may jar the audience and make it wonder what it's all about, or, contrariwise, fill some hard-core Malick aficionados with wonder. This is the voice-over narration by many of the soldiers. In his previous two movies too, Malick had resorted to voice-overs, quite successfully. Here, however, it is not the description of the acts that is related, like the familiar "...we were all still licking our wounds from the attack when the captain issued the order to...," but a series of introspections, psychological/philosophical/mystical thoughts by the men. It's all in their heads, and much of the time it is well nigh impossible to determine who is thinking those thoughts.
This is made even more complex by the fact that Malick has cast three different categories of actors : familiar ones, semi-familiar, and unknown, many of them looking enough alike to confuse the audience.
Unlike all war films (both formulaic and original) there are few clear-cut types, whether in physical appearance, characteristic behavior, ethnic provenance : the Italian-American, the Jew, the drawling Southerner, the tough-but-great sergeant, the intellectual, the Brooklyn boy who dreams of a big juicy steak when --never "if"-- he'll get home, etc.)
Malick's "military facelessness" and de-personalization are more true to wartime than the standard way of having individuals stand out, but the process is carried too systematically, too far. There are exceptions, such as the top man, Colonel Nick Nolte, a career officer whose purpose, it would seem, is less patriotic duty or hate of the enemy than self-advancement. "This is my first war " he says, and intends to make the most of it. Or Captain Elias Koteas, who is humane and ironically a lawyer by profession. (By coincidence, this is the second, very recent humanization of lawyers, after Travolta's in A Civil Case. Travolta, in an unbilled cameo, plays a General in TRL. Clooney is billed but makes merely a microscopic appearance).
At times, the para-Hamletian or Oriental guru-like soliloquies of the men may make a number of points, but I'd have to see the film again to sort them out. There seems, however, to be a disconnection between the soldiers and the nature of their thoughts. One case, clearer than most, is that of Pvt. Bell ( Ben Chaplin) who is haunted -- in arty visual flashbacks too-- by his young, adored wife. But then this is spoiled by his quoting himself telling her " If I go first I'll wait for you on the other side of the dark waters." Were the men at war as poetic as all that??? In fact, did they ever cogitate in the abstract rather than think numbly of their pains and troubles?
The simple answer is that there is a single thinker, Harvard graduate and Rhodes scholar Malick who has parceled out his would-be philosophical, poetic ramblings to a number of characters. Putting thoughts in the soldiers' heads is no more than a literary conceit.
The film opens with bucolic (not literally, as their are no cattle) vistas of a smaller island where two GIs have gone AWOL. From this romantic paradise (a la Jean-Jacques Rousseau the writer and Douanier Rousseau the painter), the two men are taken to the ship that's carrying Charlie Company to Guadalcanal.
This section is for me the best of the film, especially the sequences where, in the vessel's very cramped innards, we see the mass of soldiers, near-silent, worried, puzzled, fearful, sailing toward a future that's unknown except for the fact that things will be bad. On land, much of this is very well shown too. But I will not get into the critical cliche of "you feel you are there." No film viewer has ever felt in his/her seat, even remotely, what it is like to be in combat, in a death camp, a prison's work-gang, a landing craft, and on and on.
What we really feel like is that we know nothing of the way the men feel like, what the smells, the itches, the normal pains and the pains from wounds, the fears, the thoughts of any individual are like, and the confusion of all, at all times.
The interior monologues have a visual counterpart in the stylization of nature. As an incurable history buff, I have looked at endless footage by combat cameramen. The Guadalcanal I've seen often makes Malick's island seem arty. (He shot about four fifths of it in Australia and one-fifth in the Solomons). He has depicted much of the land in esthetic ways in order, I suppose, to contrast the inhumanity of humans and of the animals' survival of the species to the beauty of nature. Nothing wrong with this, but over-underlining it can be counter-productive and distracting.
People in the know, too, may wonder about the absence of mosquitoes. At Guadalcanal there were 24,000 Japanese killed, and 1,600 Americans, but there were many more thousands who died of malaria and other tropical diseases.
This romanticism, however, is counterbalanced by combat scenes that are mercilessly naturalistic and impart a feeling of "real time." The piece-de-resistance attack on the Japanese bunker is splendidly choreographed and shot. Notable too is the fact that unlike other movies, the enemy are not "them dirty Japs" but anonymous human beings who, when vanquished, become pitiful in their terror. Excellent too is the score by the ever-original Hans Zimmer. Production designer Jack Fisk (Sissy Spacek's husband) had also designed the sets for the other two Malick films.
Seesawing between realism and surrealism, cold facts and nebulous thoughts where one cannot separate wheat from chaff, the movie may appear to be suffering from personality disorders. In fact, it does. Beginning about ten years ago, the genesis, preparation and realization of TRL have been an epic mess. For his casting, Malick approached a Who's Who of performers, sent many of them the script, had many read for him. The cast kept changing, actors engaged were dismissed, replacement actors also were canceled, texts constantly modified, parts modified or cut. During filming, changes seem to have occurred by the hour. After certain ( many!) scenes and sequences were done, Malick re-did them, often with major parts getting reduced to near-zero. The actors were driven batty. And in the editing stages, Malick re-re-remade his film in the cutting room.
The red line that separates sanity from madness was, indeed, very thin
in the making of this picture. It's a wonder that the end result, with
all its chaotic peculiarities, is nonetheless, memorable. And it does have
one happy aspect: the soldiers, who worry about everything, do not worry
about getting killed by their chain-smoking cigarettes.