BACK STORY: “The Thin Red Line” came out in 1998 (the same year as “Saving Private Ryan”). It is based on the acclaimed novel by James Jones and is a fictional account set in the Battle of Guadalcanal. The film marked the return of legendary director Terence Malick after a twenty year hiatus. He had previously made “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven”, both of which were highly thought of in Hollywood. Many A-list actors were interested in being directed by Malick in whatever movie he made his comeback with. In fact, several major actors worked on the movie and were left on the cutting room floor (e.g. Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman ). The movie did not do well at the box office, but did garner seven Oscar nominations ( including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Cinematography ). It won none.
OPENING SCENE: The movie opens with an idyllic scene in a native village where two AWOL soldiers are living in peaceful paradise. We listen to the first installment of the “voiceover” as a disembodied voice comments about nature. Later in the scene, the main character (Witt) sees an American warship off the coast and next thing you know – he’s in the brig.
SUMMARY: We meet most of the characters on board a troop ship headed for Guadalcanal. A pompous general (cameoed woodenly by John Travolta) implies to Col. Tell ( Nick Nolte ) that this is his chance to advance his stagnant career. Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) meets with Witt and implies he disagrees with his anti-war philosophy and his going AWOL, but he still likes him. Witt is going to be put in a discipline battalion where he will be a stretcher-bearer. Meanwhile below decks, the soldiers are doing the typical before a landing clichés like complaining about how their officer (Staros) is not a warrior and they always get the shit details. It is this scene that signals the first flaw in the movie. This is supposed to be August in the South Pacific and below deck in a poorly ventilated troop ship and yet no one is sweating! (I will come back to this theme of how the characters react to the environment in future movie reviews. Or more simply, are they sweating when they should be?)
The landing via Higgins boats is unopposed and the men head inland. Here the viewer becomes aware that Malick is very interested in shots of nature and we will have to put up with the pretentious and sometimes indecipherable voiceover throughout the movie. The men are still not sweating!
The core of the movie involves an assault on a hill that has several hidden bunkers that have clear fields of fire. The first attempt ends up with the unit being pinned down after suffering severe casualties. The assault is shown with appropriate graphic violence and realistically portrays the “fog of war”. Malick develops the theme that war causes men to crack and do things that violate humanity. He also does a good job depicting the randomness of war as some men are hit and others are not. Sgt. Keck pulls the pin on a grenade then accidentally drops it and is mortally wounded.
|See that grenade - do not accidentally pull the pin!|
There is a command crisis as Tell insists on taking the hill immediately at any cost while the company commander Staros insists it’s a suicide mission and refuses to order the attack. Tell backs down and allows a flanking attack. A patrol of volunteers ( including the deserter Witt who has begged to return to the unit ) goes after the main bunker. The tactics portrayed are realistic with artillery fire called in first and then grenades thrown through sight holes. Americans kill prisoners (which definitely happens in combat especially when there is racism involved).
Tell arrives and is excited about the victory, but wants more and insists on pushing on even after being informed that the men are suffering from lack of water. At one point Tell says “The only time to worry about a soldier is when he stops bitching”. The audience is meant to feel that Tell is an insensitive jerk, but if you think about it he is right. You should not give up the momentum and it’s a leader’s job to insist on doing the right thing even if the men want to rest.
The attack reaches the Japanese camp where at first the Japanese meet it with a frontal attack which inexplicably quickly turns into the Japanese running away. The Americans rampage through the camp with the Japanese putting up little fight. Most of them are so delirious they cannot even commit suicide. This flies in the face of the standard view of the fanatical Japanese soldiers.
After the battle, Tell relieves Staros from command because he is too soft and cares about his men too much. Again, we sympathize with Staros, but have to admit Tell is right. The men are enjoying R and R including booze in bottles ( no “jungle juice” for them ) and the amazing absence of critters like mosquitoes. Malick’s Guadalcanal is a tropical paradise with no rain where you can snooze in the lush grass.
One character gets to have flashbacks about his lovely wife. As though it’s not obvious enough what is going to happen, he even comments to a friend “I haven’t touched another woman”. Cliché/Spoiler Alert: guess what his wife has to tell him in her next letter?
Returning to battle, we find the unit wading in a river under the command of a new officer who is clearly in over his head ( not literally ). When there is suspicion that they might be wading into an ambush, Witt volunteers to scout ahead. Witt runs into a large Japanese force and proceeds to lead them away in scene similar to the “Platoon” scene where Elias is killed. Witt does not get to die Christ-like, however. Later, we see the obligatory burial scene with the stoical mates saying goodbye to the deserter/pacifist who had morphed into a heroic warrior.
THE FINAL SCENE: Malick bookends his stunt cameos with George Clooney arriving as the new Captain and giving your standard pep talk. The men re-embark and the battle is over for them and for us.
Realism – 5
Acting – 6 ( some embarrassing performances )
Action - 7 (some good combat scenes)
Accuracy – 5
Plot - 8 (it is based on a great novel)
Overall - 5
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?: My wife hated this movie. She sighed through the entire length and could not wait for it to end.
CRITIQUE: Most movie critics loved this movie when it came out. They had been waiting for twenty years for a Malick product and refused to be disappointed. It seems every male actor wanted in on the project and when Malick would tell them to wander around and gaze at the sea ( as he did with Travolta in his big scene ) they did not question the “genius”. The Oscar nominating committee must have been very impressed with cinematography that managed to make Guadalcanal into a tourist destination. Some lucky cameraman was paid to get numerous shots of flora and fauna, especially looking upward. And then there are the voice-overs which are sometimes character’s voices ( often unidentifiable ) and sometimes a more generic sentiment. This may be inspired film-making but it just looks and sounds pretentious to the average war movie buff.
The main fault of the movie ( and any bad war movie ) is lack of realism. Malick may be arguing that the Battle of Guadalcanal was evil man versus good environment, but any veteran of the campaign would support the view that the environment was almost as big a villain as the Japanese. To make a film set on a tropical island and not show the pests, the rain and mud, and the heat is laughable.
Several of the characters do not behave realistically. Witt goes from pacifist to gung-ho with no explanation why. Welsh is a tough guy, yet he volunteers to assist a malingerer back to the rear at a critical moment in the battle, but later he makes a suicidal dash into no man’s land to help a dying soldier.
The assault on the bunker is well done, but the following attack on the camp strains credulity as the Japanese behave against type. Is Malick being a revisionist? Nothing I have read suggests the fanaticism of Japanese soldiers has been inaccurately depicted by military historians.
This movie was not meant to be a documentary about the Battle of Guadalcanal, but since the movie-going public often gets its history from Hollywood it is a shame that the movie gives an inaccurate take on the battle. The unit arrives on the first day of the battle and moves into the interior to assault the hill. This is contrary to the flow of the actual battle. Guadalcanal was mainly a defensive battle in the early stages. The landing was unopposed, the Americans seized the airfield and then had to hold it against several banzai-type assaults. The movie plays loose with chronology by skipping the defensive phase and moving to the offensive.
Although we cannot demand that Malick teach the Battle of Guadalcanal through his film, we can demand that he get the soldiers’ experience right. The biggest flaw of the movie is to gloss over the terrible hardships the men went through. Guadalcanal was a tropical hell, not a tropical paradise. When men broke down on Guadalcanal it was usually due to the living conditions, not the combat. A famous phrase associated with the battle was “One more Marine reporting, St. Peter. I’ve served my term in Hell”.
CONCLUSION: Because I am in the opening stage of my journey through the greatest war movies, it is premature to offer an opinion on whether “The Thin Red Line” belongs on the list. I will be watching some movies that did not make the list as part of my “Should it have made the cut?” blogs which will basically come down to whether other movies are better than “The Thin Red Line”. However, I feel it is safe at this point to say that this movie is a dubious inclusion on the list. For instance, just off the top of my head, I would argue that “Enemy at the Gates” is a superior war film.
Next up: #99 - They Were Expendable