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At War In Eden

[whitespace] The Thin Red Line
Merie Wallace

Face of Fear: Woody Harrelson confronts the terror of jungle warfare in Terrence Malick's 'The Thin Red Line.'

Terrence Malick turns James Jones' 'The Thin Red Line' into a reverie on nature defiled

By Richard von Busack

NINE OUT OF 10 PEOPLE today wouldn't know that Guadalcanal wasn't actually a canal somewhere. As author and World War II veteran Herman Wouk put it, Guadalcanal "was and remains 'that fucking island.' "

Ten degrees below the equator and the size of Long Island, Guadalcanal was the site of a six-month-long battle in 1942 and '43. The heavily laden soldiers of the U.S. Marines and Army marched into a rainy, malignant jungle alive with enemy troops and snakes, with tree leeches and malaria-bearing mosquitoes. Out of the mud, the soldiers fought their way up a fortified 8,000-foot peak honeycombed with machine-gun nests. A bad time was had by all.

Here's one fact from Goodbye, Darkness, a highly recommended memoir by twice-wounded Marine sergeant and journalist William Manchester. As the author notes, Guadalcanal was a plantation, farmed by a soap company for coconut oil. According to Manchester, after the war, the U.S. government paid $7 million to Lever Brothers for damages to their coconut palms. There is no glory in battle; stockholding, however, has its moments of grandeur.

The Thin Red Line is Terrence Malick's adaptation of James (From Here to Eternity) Jones' bestselling 1962 novel about Guadalcanal. The film marks Malick's return to directing after two of the most highly regarded movies of the 1970s: Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978).

This grand, transcendental and ultimately inchoate film shows signs of Kubrick's Syndrome: the attempt of a reclusive and visionary filmmaker to make a movie that's the last word on its subject.

Jones' novel is very practical, meant to show the depersonalization caused by the Army. The book has dozens of characters, including scads of privates with percussive, one-syllable names. Most are distinguishable only by the types of wounds they receive, the types of deaths they die. The soldiers' simple names are almost as anonymous as the enemy, the one-syllabled "Jap" (a word like "dog," "cat" or "rat").

Jones was seeking the effect of impersonal chaos; you never get to know most of the characters before they're killed. Malick has upped Jones' ante. It's nearly impossible to tell one character from another in his film.

Malick really seems to identify not with the men but with the landscape. Because the real Guadalcanal is still malarial, Malick had to construct most of his version of the island along a stretch of the Australian coastline. His locations are a paradise of lagoons and blue water. Here's visionary filmmaking at its most perverse: the director took hell and changed it into Eden.

Certainly, The Thin Red Line is visually beautiful. Moments of weird, heightened reality emerge throughout. Vivid, glittering images of warfare bubble up to the film's surface, such as a compact sequence of the storming of a machine-gun nest in chest-high grass, each blade distinct and golden as tiger's fur in the sun. The jingle-bell ring of grenade pins and the scarlet parrots in the jungle all seem like the impressions of a man trying to take in everything before the last fatal minute.

This sort of terrible beauty is a part of war even when matter-of-fact accounts have to list a butcher's bill of dead and wounded men. Richard Tregaskis, the war correspondent who wrote Guadalcanal Diary (1943), observed, "I was surprised that enemy aircraft, flying overhead with the obvious intention of dropping high explosives upon us, could be so beautiful."

THE SENSUOUSNESS of Malick's Guadalcanal is complemented by the acting, as if almost all the actors had been chosen for their warmheartedness and humanity. Nick Nolte's gruff Lt. Col. Tall is softened with voice-overs featuring his own careerist resentments and doubts.

I enjoyed Nolte's strongly underplayed scene in which he replaces an officer whom he considers overcautious--an officer named Capt. "Bugger" Staros (Elias Koteas). You never see this kind of scene played at low volume; the quietness of it is copied faithfully from the book.

But Malick has changed Koteas' character to a warm ethnic from the novel's Regular Army New Englander Capt. Stein (nicknamed "Bugger" Stein because he strutted as if he had a corn cob up his rump). It was Malick's way of warming the material up. Jones, needless to say, had the enlisted man's view of officers. Ever since Sam Fuller retired, directors, who always consider themselves honorary generals, make an effort to humanize the brass in their war movies.

The other stars of The Thin Red Line are bait and switch: blink and you miss John Travolta and George Clooney. No amount of blinking obscures Sean Penn's nihilistic First Sgt. Welsh, who seems to have time-traveled back from Vietnam. As he ages, Penn's coolness is freezing over, and I've come to dread him. The humor, lightness and self-deprecation that kept Robert Mitchum cool into old age are qualities that the painfully professional Penn could well emulate.

By contrast, Woody Harrelson, who has a fine death scene, keeps getting better on screen. But these stars are a small part of the film. In The Thin Red Line, the younger, more inexperienced actors carry the action.

Both the novel and the film emphasize the memories of Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin). Bell once quit a coveted military assignment to stay with his wife, Marty, who he feared could not be faithful while he was away. Malick cuts to an idealized version of the Bells' time together, glowing in orange sunsets on swing sets.

Jones was, as usual, more direct and common-sensical. What Bell missed in the novel was Marty's "sweet etcetera" (to use e.e. cummings' euphemism from the poet's verse about a soldier in the same lonely position as Bell). Bell's memories, as soft focus as a farm in a butter commercial, encapsulate the vast fuzziness of Malick's film.

JONES' THEME was war's crunching of humanity. Malick's theme is man's inhumanity to nature--the wrongness of strife when all men are brothers. (The voice-overs become Buscaglia-esque: "Love: Where does it come from?" wonders one soldier in the field).

Mostly, Malick is fascinated by his tropical paradise and how it was changed by the arrival of war. By the ninth or 10th pan up to the sun peeping through the forest canopy, The Thin Red Line seems to have transformed from war movie to fruit-bat documentary on the Nature Channel.

When Malick isn't mesmerized by the jungle, he's considering the camaraderie that develops among the soldiers. Although brotherhood at arms was near-religious during the war, it was balanced in Jones' novel by the fierce competition between men for souvenirs, weapons and advantage. The film doesn't stress this base fact, nor does it stress the drinking of the troops: their "swipe" (fermented fruit juice), their Australian scotch and--even grosser than Kangaroo whiskey--Aqua Velva. (The after-shave lotion can apparently be mixed with grapefruit juice, like a Tom Collins.)

It may be that Jones' Guadalcanal was an exaggeration; indeed, Jones was so wary of being called out on his facts that he invented fictional skirmishes for his fictional troops to participate in. (The last line of the novel is "None of them would believe it, because none of them would remember it that way.")

But by making Guadalcanal a transcendental experience, in blending the men with the peaceful Melanesian children and the flora and fauna of the island, Malick has created a different sort of fictionalization--a fiction that doesn't convince. The Thin Red Line is sketchy and shapeless, as if it were completed under fierce deadline pressure. (The pressure for Oscar qualification has injured dozens of films this way.)

Audiences at the San Francisco first run of The Thin Red Line were still being given opinion cards as if recutting were still considered possible. Certainly, The Thin Red Line has the fragmented quality of a very long movie edited down to a still long, but less cohesive, version.

Since The Thin Red Line doesn't have the engineered plot of Saving Private Ryan, it will be compared unfavorably to the Steven Spielberg film. And that is unfair. James Jones writes of Pvt. Bell, thinking about a battle, "When the attack came in a film or a novel, it would be satisfying. It would decide something. It would have a semblance of meaning and a semblance of emotion. And immediately after, it would be over. The audience would go home and think about that semblance of meaning and feel that semblance of emotion. Even if the hero got killed, it would still make sense." Bell's reverie describes exactly the problem with Saving Private Ryan, once past the opening D-Day invasion sequence.

The stream-of-consciousness storytelling of The Thin Red Line acknowledges the nonordinary reality of war, the difficulty of comprehending it, its unfairness. Whatever he failed to do to make Guadalcanal real, Malick didn't try--as Spielberg did--to make his tale of bloodshed a positive story, justified by the necessity of the war.


The Thin Red Line (R; 170 min.), directed by Terrence Malick, based on the novel by James Jones, photographed by John Toll and starring Sean Penn, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte and George Clooney.

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From the January 7-13, 1999 issue of Metro.

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