Saturday, March 23, 2013




          “The Thin Red Line” marked the long awaited return of director Terrence Malick after 20 years hiatus. His fame was such that a slew of actors wanted to be part of his new project. Curiously, he chose to adapt James Jones’ seminal WWII novel about fighting men on Guadalcanal. The cast is impressive, but Malick does not bring out the best in them. This becomes apparent early on with a robotic John Travolta doing a cameo as an Army general. This is bookended with a “look at me, I’m working for Malick” appearance by George Clooney at the end. In between we get either underplaying (Jim Caviezel as Witt or Elias Koteas as Staros) or scene chewing (Nick Nolte as Tall). Malick apparently instructed most of the supporting cast of GIs to play their closeups as though they were scared shitless. Much of the performances are embarrassing and some are laughable.

          “Merrill’s Marauders” has a B-List cast of vaguely familiar faces. Jeff Chandler (in his last role) is strong as Gen. Merrill. Ty Hardin gives able support as his “he’s like a son to me” Lt. Stockton. The members of Stockton’s squad are adequate and do the best they can considering they are benchwarmers. There is also a mule that performs better than most of the cast of “The Thin Red Line”.

The Thin Red Line 5
Merrill’s Marauders 7

          TRL is, of course, not a traditional combat unit narrative. Malick definitely plots outside the box. You do have a defined objective – the taking of a ridge. There is a character in need of redemption (Witt), but Malick dispenses with this arc in a cursory way that makes little sense (which means it fits the movie nicely). There is also the mail call scene which results in a Dear John letter to Bell that is shocking in its non-shocking revelation. It does have the conflict within the unit between Col. Tall and Capt. Staros, but it is resolved with the firing of Staros.

         MM would seem to be rife for clichés, but Samuel Fuller keeps that from happening. The basic framework is there. A unit of men, led by a hero, undertake a mission that involves movement to a defined objective. There is the typical action/hiking alternating with resting/talking. There is no redemption figure and only a modest group conflict involving a jerk named “Chowhound” which is not resolved through a hug, but instead by a Japanese bullet. The command disagreement between Merrill and Stockton is similar to the one in TTRL, but its resolution is more clicheish.

The Thin Red Line 12
Merrill’s Marauders 14
          TRL has a linear plot starting with arrival on the island through to departure. In between is the assault on the ridge followed by R&R and then a mission to get Witt killed. In between are numerous flashbacks to Bell’s flat-chested wife and to Witt’s idyllic AWOL with the natives. Throw in numerous “high as a hippie” voiceovers by “who the Hell is talking now” and you get Malick’s script. Much of the plot is head-scratching and some of the characters behave bizarrely. Just one example, the tough guy Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) abandons his squad pre-suicide attack to escort an obvious malingerer back to safety and then next time we see him he is sprinting through a hail of bullets to over-syrette a wounded GI. The whole man versus nature theme is ridiculous to anyone who has knowledge of how horrific nature actually was on the tropical “opposite of a paradise” that was Guadalcanal.

          MM is surprisingly standard in plotting. This is surprising considering it is a Fuller film. The unit is sent on a long-range penetration into Japanese territory to capture a key town. After capturing each “last objective before returning home”, the unit is “volunteered” to push on one last time. The plot alternates between treks through swamps or over mountains and intense bouts of combat. It concentrates on Stock’s intelligence and reconnaissance platoon. The other subplot is over Merrill’s heart problems. One theme is the role of leadership to get men to preform beyond their limits. This is realistically portrayed.

The Thin Red Line 18
Merrill’s Marauders 21

          Some fans of TTRL excuse the other flaws by playing up the excellent combat scenes. Although the combat scenes do tend to serve the purpose of waking up the slumbering audience, they are not special. The first charge up the hill through tall grass has some frenzy to it with explosions trampolining soldiers through the air and victims being stitched with machine gun bullets. It is such that it is hard to see how anyone in the company could still be alive. The second scene is the taking of some bunkers by a seven man squad. Lucky for combat fans, the Japanese inexplicably come out of the bunkers to allow themselves to be killed in the open. This progresses into a full unit attack on a Japanese camp that begins with the Japanese meeting the American charge and suddenly has the Japanese running with the Yanks blitzing through the camp like hounds after foxes. Either Malick had access to some revisionist facts about the chicken-hearted nature of Japanese warriors on Guadalcanal, much of his combat is unrealistic. Did you know that Japanese in spider-holes would just let you walk up and throw a grenade in?

           MM has several combat scenes. The first is a simplistic assault on an artillery battery. Grenades and gunfire. The big set piece is the taking of the railroad station that is highlighted by a big fight in a maze of concrete blocks (don’t ask) that results in lots of old school deaths with men throwing their arms in the air. Finally there is the fight for the water hole straight from a typical Western. Don’t ask why the Japanese don’t use the high ground to rain death on our heroes. It’s much more entertaining to see them charging in the open to get mowed down. There is nothing you haven’t seen before, but the combat is staged fairly competently. Don’t look for much blood.

The Thin Red Line    25
Merrill’s Marauders  28
COLOR ANALYSIS: This match-up was a weak one. TTRL was obviously overrated at #4. It appears the selection committee (Rotten Tomatoes) was more impressed with its director than with the finished product. Also, you might have expected with that kind of starting line-up, the performances would have been stronger. Travolta and Clooney hardly played and the rest were mostly off their games. There were a lot of air balls. On the other hand, MM was the scrappy underdog that got lucky with who they got to face in the opening round. It’s old school grind- it-out style was able to overcome the flashy but confused Neo-Realism of Malick.


  1. Audiences exiting theaters after seeing TRL were often grumbling, "No wonder that Malick guy hadn't directed a movie in twenty years." Penn, Clooney, and the rest of the elitists in Hollywood were probably disgusted that the masses could not see emperor Malick's new clothes. "Merrill's Marauders" is corny by today's standards, but at least it was not pretentious. Its B-list cast included the usual suspects, that is, Warner Brothers contract players, some of whom were popular in TV Westerns at the time. Warners apparently remembered the controversy over "Objective Burma," so MM has a prolog mentioning the British units. The original ending had Merrill regaining consciousness after his heart attack and being told by the doctor that the mission succeeded, but with heavy casualties. The producer (and maybe Army brass) wanted a more upbeat ending, so we have that narration saying that the Rangers and Special Forces carry on the tradition. BTW, the unit shown on screen at the end appears to be the 101 Airborne Division, not the Rangers or SF.

  2. Good comments. I almost used that "emperor's new clothes" analogy. It is totally spot on. Agree with your comments about MM. In fact, I can remember watching "Bronco Layne' - a TV Western starring Ty Hardin.

    I didn't mention an oddity about the end of MM. Merrill collapses from a heart attack and noone bothers to check on him. He just lays there. It was weird.

    I don't remember the audiences response to TRL, but I do remember my wife sighing throughout the movie.

  3. After watching Thin Red Line I figured that Malick would return to obscurity and never be given another film, so I was stunned that stars like Brad Pitt, Ben Affleck and Christian Bale are eager to work with Malick and studios will still bankroll his projects. Like you, I thought that Malick must have been on drugs when filming the voice over scenes, they were seriously weird. Plus the idea that Japanese would surrender in large numbers is laughable. Yet it has a pretty high rating on IMDB-7.6. Everything about the movie is a head-scratcher.

  4. I don't really have a problem with Malick playing the auteur and wonderstruck celebrities buying into this. I would never see a bloated piece of crap like "The Tree of Life" and enjoy reading fawning critic reviews and then watching the box office totals tank. What infuriates me is that I have to wait months for each new war movie and so often they suck. In this case a major studio threw cash at a director to film one of the great war novels and he decides to do it "his way". He wastes a great story and a talented cast. And then many people praise him for it?! AYFKM

    You can tell a lot about a person if they think TRL is better than Saving Private Ryan. Not to mention if they think Shakespeare in Love is better than SPR. It just dawned on me that the most egregious Oscar decision in history may be explained by Academy voters splitting their votes between the two war films! Another question to ask when I get to Heaven and then if the answer is yes, can you punch faces in Heaven?


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.