War Movies 1: The Thin Red Line.

When James Jones (1921-1977) enlisted in 1939 the Army shipped him to Schofield Barracks in the Hawaiian Islands.  He spent a couple of years getting to know the “Old Army” and witnessed Pearl Harbor.  A year later, in December 1942 and January 1943, he fought in the Battle of Mount Austen on Guadalcanal and was wounded there.  After the war, he wrote two of the great novels of military life based on his experiences: From Here to Eternity (1951) and The Thin Red Line (1962).  Both were made into movies, the second one twice.

The second, 1998, version of “The Thin Red Line” is the better-known of the two.  The idiosyncratic Terrence Malick[1] wrote the screen-play and directed.  Malick is famous for shooting miles of film with an enormous cast of stars, then cutting most of them out of the final print of the movie. Fair’s fair: I’m going to do the same thing to his version of “The Thin Red Line” by omitting all the philosophical goop.  (Is “philosophical goop” redundant?)

The men of Company C, 127th Infantry Regiment, 25th Division land on Guadalcanal in late 1942 to help finish off the Japanese forces on the island.[2]  Some of them are veteran soldiers, but none of them have been to war before.  The youthful General Quintard (John Travolta) patronizes the older, passed-over Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), who is desperate to make his life mean something by commanding men in battle.  Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) finds himself commanding Company C in a struggle in which Reason and Argument play no role. As a lawyer in civilian life, he finds this disconcerting to say the least.  Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn), who really runs the company, discovers that War is his element.  Private Witt (Jim Cazaviel) doesn’t like the Army or the War, but proves himself a brave soldier.

After pushing inland from the landing beach without encountering any opposition, Company C is ordered to attack a high ridge covered in tall grass defended by Japanese troops in bunkers that cannot be seen from below.  An artillery bombardment is just for show.  “It’ll buck up the men,” says Tall.  Men are shot down by the hidden Japanese.  The frontal attack up the ridge quickly stalls and Staros refuses an order from Tall to keep pushing.  A small party of volunteers goes forward to destroy the bunker.  A chaotic fight among a few men suddenly turns from defeat into victory.  Japanese resistance collapses, so Tall orders a general attack.

In this movie there is nothing of the loving attention to military minutiae that one sees in recent depictions of Americans at war (e.g. “Band of Brothers”; “Saving Private Ryan”; “Zero Dark Thirty”).  Instead, the artillery support never does any good and the rear echelons can’t get water to the fighting men in a tropical climate.  Soldiers crumple under the weight of fear and leave the battlefield or engage in acts of heroism just to get their dying over with.   A veteran sergeant grabs a grenade by the safety pin, a classic “rookie mistake” that kills him.  Ragged, starving Japanese prisoners are abused and murdered.  The essential humanity of Staros makes him a poor commander, while Tall’s egotism brings “victory.”

Later, Captain Staros is relieved of his command by Colonel Tall.  His replacement (George Clooney) mouths platitudes about the company as a “family.”  Witt, who has listened to Sergeant Welsh deride the significance of any one man “in this fucked-up world,” sacrifices himself to save a patrol during an encounter with a larger Japanese force.  The war grinds on.

[1] B.A., Philosophy, Harvard (1965); Rhodes Scholar (1965-67); M.I.T. philosophy instructor (1967-68); free-lance journalist; MFA (1969); directed “Badlands” (1973); “Days of Heaven” (1977); “The Thin Red Line” (1998); “The New World” (2005); “The Tree of Life” (2011); and “To the Wonder” (2013).  Two Best Director nominations.

[2] From August to November 1942 the First Marine Division held a chunk of the island against Japanese attacks.  Having broken the Japanese forces, they were relieved.  Fresh Army and Marine troops arrived to finish the job.

1 thought on “War Movies 1: The Thin Red Line.

  1. Pingback: The Thin Red Line (1998) | timneath

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