“The Thin Red Line” was the first filming of James Jones’ novel. It was directed by Andrew Marton (“Men of the Fighting Lady”). It was filmed in Spain which was seemingly an odd choice for representing Guadalcanal. The movie is not particularly well known and many think Terence Malick was the first to take on the novel. Let’s see if the earlier movie was as bad as the new one.
The movie opens with an Army unit on a transport off “the island”. Sgt. Welsh (Jack Warden) is a hard-ass whose philosophy is that he needs to prepare his men for the insanity of war by modeling insanity. “If it’s insanity they are going to face, get them ready for it now.... There is only a thin red line between the sane and the insane.” Capt. Stone (Ray Daley) disagrees with this mantra,but is not sure if Welsh might not be right. The movie’s plot will center around the dysfunctional relationship between Welsh and a private named Doll (Keir Dullea). Doll is a soldier whose first priority is survival. To that end, he steals a pistol while below deck on the ship. This purloining gets Doll deeper into Welsh’s dog house. For some reason, Welsh hates Doll. Meanwhile, the other dynamic involves Lt. Col. Tall (James Philbrook – are you getting the impression that this movie’s cast does not rival the 1998 version?) questioning Stone’s toughness. Tall feels Stone coddles his men. He is perturbed that Stone is not enthusiastic about a suicide attack against “The Elephant” (think “Ant Hill” from “Paths of Glory”). The attack will include a trek through “The Bowling Alley” which is a mine-infested ravine. Tall feels losing men is part of the effort. Stone wonders why it has to be his men. The rest of the movie deals with the attack and the evolution of the Welsh-Doll and Stone/Tall relationships.
“The Thin Red Line” is a strange movie, but not in the same way as Malick’s opus. Malick’s movie was marred by its pretentiousness, Marton’s is off-kilter because of its flawed character development. Welsh just shows flashes of insanity, otherwise he’s just a jerk. Doll never shows his survive at all costs mentality. His transformation into the best warrior in the unit is not believable. On the other side of the coin, Tall goes from Patton to Montgomery by the end of the movie. The two character pairs don’t work and it does not help that the actors are not up to it anyhow. Warden is the only one who acquits himself well, but he is not helped by the inconsistency of his character. Dullea chews scenery and this is amplified by the fact that little of what Doll does makes sense. Doll has a best friend named Fife (Bob Kanter). In the novel, Fife was famously gay, but in a 1964 movie the closest they could come to that was having Fife dress up in some women’s clothing they find in a village. Don’t ask. The rest of the cast is low-rent and it shows. Fortunately, the movie has lots of action to balance its philosophizing. There are several combat scenes and they are all above average for a black and white WWII film. One of them (after they capture a Japanese village, the enemy ambush them) is balls to the wall ridiculous, but fun and unique. Naturally, the percent of dead to wounded is very high, but that’s par for the course in movies of this generation. Needless to say, there is no blood or bullet holes. We also get the usual touchdown signaling deaths. The score is intrusive in its mood-setting sincerity.
I don’t think we will ever get a good rendering of Jones’ novel. “The Thin Red Line” in print is the story of a unit of soldiers. Both movies have concentrated on just a few characters and ladled the philosophy on thick. I prefer the 1964 version, not because it is a superior movie, but because it does not take itself seriously. I hope not, anyway. There are some bizarre scenes, so being a little drunk would enhance your viewing. For example, at one point, the unit sends in a flaming jeep full of explosives to lead off an attack! Just like what really happened on Guadalcanal! So don’t watch this movie (or the other one) as a tutorial on the campaign. Jones fought on the island and his book is semi-autobiographical, but little of that made it into the movies. We still need a good movie on that campaign. And how about covering the Navy effort as well. I guess we’ll need a miniseries.
GRADE = C+