The Wars Within

The year's most enigmatic studio release, written and directed by one of the most puzzling figures in Hollywood, The Thin Red Lineprojects a sense of wounded diffidence. Terrence Malick's hugely ambitious, austerely hallucinated adaptation of James Jones's 1962 novel— a 500-page account of combat in Guadalcanal— is a metaphysical platoon movie in which battlefield confusion is melded with an Emersonian meditation on the nature of nature.

The first and costliest American victory in World War II's Pacific theater was a six-month assault on Japanese-held Guadalcanal, one of the Solomon Islands east of New Guinea. Malick's movie appears to concern a mop-up operation, late in the struggle, with a battalion of mainly green army recruits landing in relief of the marines who initiated the attack on the stronghold. I say "appears" because although The Thin Red Line gives a real— if necessarily idealized— sense of an American army in action, there is a sense in which Malick's movie is not so much about World War II as about a particular existential condition.

Saving Private Ryanopens, in a brutal tour de force that is Steven Spielberg's most visceral filmmaking since Jaws, with the GIs landing on Omaha beach. (As a way of conditioning audience response, it's as though Hitchcock began Psychowith the shower sequence.) Malick is considerably more contemplative. The Thin Red Linestarts with a leisurely immersion in a South Pacific paradise as filtered through the consciousness of the pensive Private Witt (Jim Caviezel). It's not too far from Malick's Days of Heaven, although the expulsion from this tropical Eden is an hour-plus attempt to storm a Japanese position.

Spirited campaign: Penn and his men in the enigmatic Thin Red Line
Merie W. Wallace
Spirited campaign: Penn and his men in the enigmatic Thin Red Line

Details

The Thin Red Line
Written and directed by Terrence Malick
From the novel by James Jones
A 20th Century Fox release
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Jones, who saw action and was wounded at Guadalcanal, devoted fully half of his novel to detailing the capture of Hill 209 and so it seems here. Malick orchestrates what could be the longest battle scene in movie history, and one in which shock and hysteria are pervasive. Charging head-on uphill toward an unseen foe, the men drop at random, often from friendly fire. Everybody, with the exception of an almost frighteningly cool captain (John Cusack) is either terrified or crazed.

In essence, this epic battle scene concerns the stripping away of each soldier's self (or its obliteration) and, in the midst of this operation, a philosophical argument breaks out. Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) screams orders to launch a suicide attack that his subordinate, Captain Staros (Elias Koteas), stuck on a ridge without shelter, refuses to obey. Nor is the debate restricted to strategy or even words. Abetted by Hans Zimmer's brooding score, the entire sequence has the aspect of an extended reverie. Repeatedly, Malick cuts away from the carnage to the image of a young woman— Private Bell (Ben Chaplin) imagining his wife as a battlefield angel— or, even more outrageously, to the light as it changes on the tall grass in the wind.

Guadalcanal, at least as it was portrayed in the 1944 Guadalcanal Diary(the key World War II movie released during the war), was the crucible that, more fiery than any urban melting pot, forged the American fighting spirit. The Thin Red Lineis no less an ensemble film, although its sense of spirit is more expanded. The archetypes are in place— the sensitive mystic (Caviezel) and the cynical sergeant (Sean Penn in a tremendously concentrated performance), the blowhard warrior Colonel Tall and his tender-hearted adversary (Koteas), the efficient good soldier (Cusack) and the fear-crazed survivor (Adrien Brody), to name only a few. But, if battle-heightened awareness imbues these soldiers with a undeniable, albeit transitory, uebermenschquality, The Thin Red Lineis scarcely waving the flag. And if the Japanese— most extensively seen as the wounded, freaked-out, praying denizens of an overrun camp— are hardly individuated and never granted the slightest subjectivity, it is clear that Malick himself is consciously striving for what might be termed a "Japanese" quality of stillness and emptiness in the midst of hell.

For all its documentary detail, Jones's novel was born old-fashioned. It was published a year after Joseph Heller's Catch-22initiated a vast shift in American attitudes; Allied Artists' quickie movie version was distinguished mainly for having been released on a double bill with Sam Fuller's The Naked Kiss. Malick's version— which unavoidably references the great, flawed Vietnam visions of Apocalypse Nowand (especially) Platoon— is, however, anachronistic in a different way. Not exactly timeless and not primarily a narrative, it's a head movie about death and dying.

The Thin Red Linemeanders from Witt's consciousness into Bell's and even briefly Tall's, as if to suggest that they are all one. Tall may instruct the humanist Staros in the cruelty of nature but even that, Malick insists, is in the mind. (It takes only a single communication from the outside world for a previously idyllic Melanesian village to deliquesce into a miasma of fear, conflict, disease, and death.) When, in one crucial scene, the Japanese appear out of the jungle to surround Witt, they appear as woodland spirits. Their helmets are garnished with tree branches; the scene is shot like a ritual. Witt, who has been living inside his head all movie long, can't believe it; he doesn't even think to drop his weapon.

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