During World War II, Frank Capra produced a series of documentary
shorts intended to boost the war cause, titled Why We Fight. Now,
more than 50 years after the last shot was fired, two of Americas
best directors have given us their own modern take on that theme.
It would be ridiculous to suggest that Terence Malicks The Thin
Red Line wont suffer in comparison to Steven Spielbergs Saving
Private Ryan, which preceded it by a good six months. Spielberg,
after all, is Hollywoods most celebrated director, and his tale,
set against the backdrop of D-Day, the single most dramatic event
of the war, definitely delivers the bang for the buck its creator
is known for. Plus, he had the extremely likable and bankable
Tom Hanks in the lead.
Malicks film, on the other hand, features a handful of unknowns
and two of our least bankable if, undoubtedly, best stars
at the top of the bill. His story revolves around the American
invasion of Guadalcanal, one of the fiercest and most important
battles of the Pacific campaign but one audiences of today know
precious little about. And unlike Ryan, which is made extremely
accessible by remaining little more than a thoughtful (and stylish)
take on a traditional genre, The Thin Red Line is a difficult,
often contradictory, and certainly challenging work, more a lengthy
tone poem on the nature of war and violence than a traditional
As has been widely reported, this is only Malicks third directing
job and his first in 20 years. Following his stunning debut Badlands
(1973), and its follow-up Days of Heaven (1978), Malick went into
seclusion, like a cinematic J.D. Salinger. For his return to film,
he chose to adapt a novel by noted author James Jones (From Here
To Eternity, The Longest Day). The Thin Red Line had been filmed
once before in 1962, starring Keir Dullea of 2001: A Space Odyssey
Its 1942 and Charlie Company is getting ready to storm the beaches
of Guadalcanal. Relieving the Marines who led the charge, the
companys objective is to fight their way inland and capture the
vital air strip the Japanese have built there, a launching pad
for the taking of the rest of the Pacific theatre.
Leading Charlie Company into battle is the driven Colonel Tall,
played by Nick Nolte. A career Army officer fighting his first
war, Tall feels the need to prove himself through victory. As
if he sees himself in them, Tall is uncommonly devoted to his
junior officers, always mindful of their careers and quick to
offer a decoration. Nolte is in fine form here, bringing his trademark
rough-and-gruff intensity to the role. Recalling Burt Lancaster
and Lee Marvin, Nolte is perhaps the only actor today who can
pull off this sort of hardened common man convincingly. He can
be a maddeningly inconsistent actor (see Blue Chips, I Love Trouble),
often going through slumps like a ballplayer, but with his performance
here and in the recently released Affliction, he is again at the
top of his game.
Colonel Talls affinity, however, does not appear to sift down
to the GIs under his command, the men who will do most of the
dying in his campaign. Their champion is Captain Staros, who confounds
his C.O. by continually placing the lives of his men over their
objective. Elias Koteas gives the films most award-worthy performance.
His Staros wrestles with the burden of command like no movie officer
The always fine Sean Penn is Sergeant Welsh, the cynic who has
a soft spot for the dreamy-eyed Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), the
emotional core of the film. Witt despises the world of war but
dearly loves his comrades in Charlie Company. A perpetual AWOL,
he returns to his unit only to watch over them, including Private
Bell (Ben Chaplin), who sustains himself with the thought of going
home to his beloved wife, and Private Doll (Dash Mihok), who careens
between fear and heroism.
As for all the other big names in the cast John Travolta, Woody
Harrelson, John Cusack, George Clooney they are most relegated
to cameo roles.
One commonly heard knock against The Thin Red Line has been that
it is not emotionally involving, which is sheer poppycock. In
fact, part of the films genius is that despite its large cast
and the distraction of star walk-ons, it makes you care for a
number of characters. And, though not always completely drawn,
they are complex and three-dimensional. For the most part, Spielberg
relied on cliches and star power to flesh out his Army unit. Malicks
soldiers reveal themselves largely through interior monologues,
often vague, always questioning as one would imagine frightened,
confused soldiers to be.
In his film, Spielberg answered the query as to why we fight by
illuminating the strange social contract a people have with their
soldiers, the ones who die so that others might live, and the
huge obligation that entails.
But Malicks investigation is more fundamental. His film is a
metaphysical rumination on violence. Is it an inherent part of
nature? In Charlie Companys first encounter with the enemy, the
Japanese are entrenched on a hill covered with high, thick grass,
and it appears that the landscape itself is firing upon the company.
But as they work their way inland, they discover an enemy very
much like themselves.
Or is violence something other, a disease preying upon basically
good creatures? This seems to be Private Witts view. He claims
to have seen a better place, a place of tranquility. But is that
Malick never flat-out states his position, as Spielberg does to
maddening effect at the end of Ryan. His film is more impressionistic.
He just lets his characters and his beautiful and violent images
compound until a picture forms in the viewers minds. Ryan combines
its points with a strong, well-told narrative. The Thin Red Line
is virtually plotless, relying on the overriding dramatic impulse
to kill the other guy. And thats what it must have been like.
No weird mission to put everything in perspective, just men clawing
desperately through the wilderness, facing their enemy and themselves.