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The Thin Red Line

Review by Carrie Gorringe
Posted 15 January 1999

  Directed by and Screenplay by Terrence Malick

Starring Sean Penn, Adrian Brody,
Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, George Clooney,
John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas,
Nick Nolte, John C. Reilly, Arie Verveen,
Dash Minok and John Savage

Once upon a time, there was a filmmaker named Terrence Malick, who went from Harvard and a Rhodes Scholarship, to admission to the inaugural filmmaking class of the American Film Institute, to an illustrious and enduring critical reputation based solely upon two films made during the 1970s. The first film, Badlands (1973), based upon the Charles Starkweather spree-killings, was the closest one could get to a lyrical treatment of serial murder. It established the reputations of Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen (giving the latter, arguably, the best role of his career). The second film, Days of Heaven (1978), was a mediocre love triangle gussied up with cinematography so exquisite that the eyes waited eagerly for each new glowing composition and the brain went on a two-hour vacation. Unfortunately, Malick did a disappearing act from Hollywood soon afterward and turned his on-hold career into a parlor game; predictions of when Malick would return to the directorial fold rose up every now and then over the past generation, much like the occasional sightings of Elvis, and contained as much credibility.

Naturally, when Malick indicated his intention to assume filmmaking, there would be an avalanche of actors ready and willing to follow him anywhere; given his track record (sparse though it was) and his intellectual pedigree, the risk of catching critical acclaim was too great to avoid. And Malick appears to have been eager to please in this regard. There are more recognizable "names" shoehorned into The Thin Red Line than teenagers in a Volkswagen Beetle. The entire enterprise is reminiscent of that other cast-of-thousands war film, Darryl Zanuck’s The Longest Day (1962), in which John Wayne, Robert Mitchum and the rest pop in and out before any memory of their appearances have a chance to stick. It’s rather difficult to discuss performances under the circumstances when a "take-a-number" approach to casting is prevalent (suffice it to say at this point that any resemblance between Malick’s film and Jones’ novel, save for the borrowing of a few names and personalities, is coincidental in the extreme).

The difference between the two films, however, goes straight to the heart of the deep flaws that mortally mar Malick’s film, most of them occurring at the very core -- the script and the mentality that informs it. Instead of the complex philosophical meditations on war that one might expect of a filmmaker of Malick’s intellectual stature, the audience is obligated to endure a risibly simplistic and deeply flawed metaphorical contrast between the evil American soldiers and the gentle, good indigenous peoples of Guadalcanal. Not only is this putatively generous mindset inherently racist (obviously, the natives are too mentally pure -- read: childlike -- to be capable of the cruelty of industrialized peoples), but it’s woefully inaccurate (we are back in the land of Margaret Mead and Samoa, and it’s no more accurate the second time around). Obviously, Malick has spent too much time with Rousseau, and not enough with Hobbes; some Nietzsche wouldn’t have done the filmmaker’s points of view any harm, either. Then there’s the romantic flashbacks, replete with enough gooeyness to make the bile rise in your throat; if this tripe had been offered up by anyone other than a director with Malick’s background, it would have been laughed off the screen forthwith. By contrast, in The Longest Day, producer Darryl Zanuck hewed to a very straightforward depiction of the preparations for battle, and the high costs that accompany it. There was (and is) no time to waste on pseudo-intellectual and inaccurate metaphorical fluff which reflects the ego of the filmmaker far more than it serves as valuable ruminations on the ambiguities that permeate warfare. And, as a final aside, it should be noted that the existence of ambiguities, vicious warfare and self-serving behavior does not automatically result in the annihilation of any heroic potential, in either men or missions. Even Spielberg, a filmmaker for whom the term "manichean" has become more of a filmmaking style understood this essential fact in Saving Private Ryan, and gave the audience both tragedy and triumph, most often in the same frame. An observer of any historical event has to weigh each aspect in turn and may possibly end up with a less-than-satisfactory result, rather than applying a nakedly ideological framework that soothes and reinforces one’s prejudices and then stomping off like a child who’s been told there’s no tooth fairy.

Unfortunately, extremism in The Thin Red Line isn’t restricted to metaphor; Malick also has an unfortunate urge to indulge his Romantic streak (this time with a capital "R") to the extent of rewriting history. Malick can’t, in short, see the distinction between the liberation of Guadalcanal and the Vietnam War (an affliction not uncommon among some of those who came of age in the 1960s, and the 55-year-old Malick is young enough to have fallen under that pernicious influence). Malick would like the audience to believe that Japanese soldiers were sniveling cowards who were bullied into surrendering by mean ol’ swaggering Yankees (and, just in case the point isn’t obvious enough, an offscreen narration depicts this surrender as "this great evil" and wonders "where did it come from?"). It’s really quite difficult to reconcile this picture of the helpless Imperial Japanese soldiers depicted herein with the ones on, say, Okinawa, who couldn’t be removed from foxholes, even with liberal applications of flame throwers, the ones who saw surrender as a moral disgrace and who treated Allied soldiers who chose surrender over suicide with contempt (and torture). Does Malick know nothing about the insidious cult of Bushido that infested the upper levels of the Japanese military at that time (then trickled downward), or is he just taking advantage of widespread historical ignorance to peddle his own? As depicted herein, all battles, by extension, are the result of cynical manipulations of the powerless by the powerful. If Saving Private Ryan and The Longest Day resonate with the earnestness of searching for truth, Hollywood productions values notwithstanding, The Thin Red Line is the unabashed polar opposite. It’s the triumph of stylistics over substance, a disease that, in retrospect, also permeated his other films, but in this case, Malick doesn’t have fine actors or glorious cinematography to save him from himself.

Admittedly, Malick is correct, if he restricted his tacit hypothesis to Hitler and Mussolini, but the underlying assumption that Guadalcanal was an unnecessary battle permeates the entire film. Such an assumption is a gross historical error and a vile insult to those who gave their lives to stop the Japanese rape-and-plunder brigade then marching across the Pacific. Indisputably, the Guadalcanal campaign was the battle that decisively converted the American position in World War Two from defensive to offensive, but don’t expect Malick to treat this inconvenient fact with any degree of importance. How does Malick treat it? As if he were wiping his feet on it. The information concerning Guadalcanal’s strategic importance is doled out in the same offhand tone used to discuss the weather, and it is delivered by Nolte’s character -- the most viciously ambitious officer around -- effectively undercutting its relevance (the morally diminutive Lieutenant-Colonel Tall, with his ability to declare "This isn’t a court of law, this is war!" with a straight face, has definitely been crafted in the mold of the most egregious of Vietnam-era REMFs -- that’s Rear Echelon Mother F---kers -- even though he’s close to the line of fire, and no commander on Guadalcanal worthy of the title would have disregarded the information of an officer on the front lines as cavalierly as does Tall). One can’t help but wonder if, in the manner of those on the extreme left and right who send truth to hell in the name of good intentions, Malick wants a reward for his altruism, given the endless sanctimony of his proselytizing ; after all, he has just wasted his valuable time (and much of ours -- over two hours and fifty tedious minutes of it, to be exact) providing us with an earth-shattering hypothesis: War is hell (and it took him only slightly more than a hundred and twenty years or so after Sherman to come to the same conclusion). Rather belatedly, Malick does come around to acknowledging the tremendous sacrifice made by the Allied troops, but this change of heart comes too late to salvage his and the film’s credibility.

Nevertheless, he has received his due for these Herculean intellectual labors (and the film does possess the aroma of the residue from the Aegean stables for good measure): the New York Film Critics bestowed their Best Director award upon him for this mangy magnum opus. But, then again, taste, like truth, is relative these days. Despite such acclaim, it is this reviewer’s unrelenting opinion that The Thin Red Line is nothing more than an overly labored travelogue (complete with the requisite glossy images), laced with the odd bits of battle and larded with too many actors and too much fraudulent ideological claptrap of the sort favored by far too much of what passes these days for an intellectual elite.

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