THE THIN RED LINE

Alleva, Richard

SCREEN Richard Allev a GOD'S SARCASM 'The Thin Red Line' Home writer was once described as being long on genius but short on talent. Terence Malick, who wrote and directed The Thin Red...

...Otherwise, in scenes of combat where darkness, filth, and fast confusing action obscure the identities of all but the instantly recognizable, the audience is going to lose track of what is happening to whom, and this breeds irritation and lack of empathy for the suffering men...
...We can't know because we don't know this character...
...Is this simply a normal man shocked by his first kill or the possible genesis of a criminal...
...But a war film that takes on an entire company as a sort of group protagonist requires that a filmmaker define each soldier quickly by focussing on a few defining gestures or traits...
...Malick broods just as much over man's capacity for tenderness...
...Or is the way of Witt's enemy/friend, Welsh (Sean Penn), preferable, who maintains a philosophy of absolute nihilism...
...And is nature itself at war with nature...
...But though I'm eager for those other Red Lines if they exist, that doesn't mitigate my frustration with the current version or keep me from wishing that Malick had sharpened his focus on the characters of Colonel Tall, Captain Staros, Sergeant Welsh, and Private Witt, since it is these four who carry the movie's themes...
...The very second after several G.I.s are shot down on a hillock and their bodies drop down into the long, waving grass, the sun lights everything up in glory...
...It's like God practicing sarcasm...
...Does Malick share Witt's intuition that all humans are just so many pieces of coal flung from one huge fire...
...Granted, this solution lends itself all too easily to caricature...
...Playing a macho redneck sergeant who accidentally blows himself up with a grenade, Harrelson seems to subside into a child as death seeps into him...
...Why can't we just reach out and touch the glory...
...Commonweal 1 5 March 12,1999 And given the genre and scope of this movie, Terence Malick was exactly the wrong man to make it...
...Look at the death scene he gives Woody Harrelson...
...The Thin Red Line is a slow-release capsule for the mind...
...Moreover, he's just too humane to regard humans as pawns fit for sacrifice...
...The G.I.s seem to hear the buried corpse's voice warning them that he once felt as much life as they do now, and that soon they will be as dead as he is...
...Conversely, why is life so beautiful both in its physical aspect (this is emphasized by the beauty of Guadalcanal itself) and in the human capacity for tenderness, loving sexuality, compassion...
...Which man is right...
...The Thin Red Line meanders, runs into fog, has moments of inanity, even downright goofiness...
...Later, Tall says that he feels toward Cusack like a father...
...Since we never find out, why was the scene left in...
...And, in light of the yoked bestiality and tenderness resident in men, how does a leader lead...
...Terence Malick, who wrote and directed The Thin Red Line, actually has plenty of both, and his masterpieces of the 70s, Badlands and Days of Heaven, exist to prove it...
...The physical similarity is unfortunate because their inner lives are so different: Bell's love is erotic, fixed on one woman, while Witt's agape is for the entire human race and includes the enemy...
...Aided by cinematographer John Toll, Malick uses the beauty of nature to emphasize rather than mitigate the horror of death...
...But the peculiar exigencies of making a World War II combat movie have discombobulated his talent without obliterating his genius...
...I stand in line for yet another movie, something I won't remember two hours or even two minutes after seeing it, and the sight of Sean Penn as Welsh kneeling at the grave of Witt comes back to me, and the way Penn asks, with a touch of scorn and with infinite love, "Where's your spark now...
...There is a scene in which a dying Japanese soldier seems to plead with a G.I...
...The story takes the audience with the U.S...
...What becomes of the thief and the pistol...
...Spielberg's film drives forward ruthlessly to its climax with the force of great, brutal, unshaded art...
...If so, did this subtly undermine the dramatist's task of keeping characterizations distinct...
...When a soldier kills one of the enemy for the first time, his inner voice, heard on the soundtrack, expresses both shock and exultation...
...The new film stumbles time and again, but a vision of war as Original Sin, the canker in the rose of life, shines steadily through...
...Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) is determined to keep his agenda on track, no matter how many of his men die...
...Full of a hate oddly gentled by fascination with impending death, the American, wagging his finger tic-toe like a metronome, kills the prisoner's hope of comfort and indicates that the world wants no more of his existence...
...Perhaps we will see them in alternative-version video cassettes...
...Like Witt, who goes AWOL whenever the impulse to bask in nature and consort with islanders seizes him, but who also demonstrates devotion to his company when he returns to action...
...In hope of tipping the odds toward survival, another soldier steals an officer's pistol on the transport ship...
...The part of Bell, who yearns obsessively for his beautiful wife back home, is played by Ben Chaplin, who (at least in battle fatigues) bears a striking resemblance to Jim Caviezel's Witt...
...Much of this reaches us through the consciousness of Witt (Jim Caviezel), a country boy who seems to have read a surprising amount of Ralph Waldo Emerson, judging by his meditations heard on the soundtrack...
...Or was there a more familiar problem to which many filmmakers fall prey...
...Is that what's killing us...
...But Captain Staros (Elias Koteas in a particularly subtle performance), believing you can't win in war if you don't have the trust of your men, refuses to sacrifice them for the sake of strategy...
...There was no previous relationship between the two shown on screen...
...Badlands has two protagonists and Days of Heaven four (though both movies are rich in colorful minor roles...
...Despite minor glitches, it never swerves...
...Given the themes of this movie, Terence Malick was exactly the right man to make it...
...Is each person just part of one large soul...
...Matching this is a close-up of a Japanese face, seemingly petrified in an avalanche of earth and gazing out at the Americans like a bas-relief...
...How come...
...His men hover above him, sheepishly assuring him that: (a) he won't die, and that (b) he will die but not in vain...
...Malick uses James Jones's novel, laden with the minutiae of battle and of men getting on each other's nerves, to meditate on the nature of man and the nature of nature...
...This happens time and again in Red Line...
...First, let's get a comparison, not odious but inevitable, out of the way, for there's no denying that Malick's film dwells rather in the shadow of Saving Private Ryan...
...Ryan's battle scenes seek to engulf us with the terror felt by the soldiers, while Malick wants to give us a certain distance from the violence even as his camera plunges into ita Buddhistic calm strives to make itself felt amid the fury...
...Does it matter to the world at large, since the life-loving Witt kills in combat as any soldier must, while the seemingly lifedespising Welsh ("In this world a man's nothing...and there's no other world") can't help being generous and self-sacrificing, especially on Witt's behalf...
...He was the right man because, among American filmmakers, he is the supreme brooder over humanity's inexaustible talent for destroying itself...
...Humanity as tender and as atrocious as this seldom reaches the screen, even in good movies...
...a crawling soldier in a field singing with bullets suddenly swerving away from a gorgeous and malevolent-looking snake...
...You know those cold-relief capsules that supposedly release their pellets in your system for twelve hours after you swallow them...
...for a moment of understanding...
...Army's Charley Company into the invasion of Guadalcanal...
...Many scenes featuring one of them began confusingly for me because I thought I was looking at the other guy, a confusion prolonged by the fact that the two share no scenes...
...In an interview with PBS's Charlie Rose, Nolte remarked that there were at least two other versions of Red Line left on the cutting room floor that could have been released instead of the one that we have...
...Still...I stop at a red light and think of Nolte raking his scalp as Staros's voice defies him on the walkie-talkie...
...I stand at a grocery check-out line and remember the Japanese soldier pathetically waving a stick to keep the onrushing Americans away from the body of a fallen comrade, and the way the Americans throw him puzzled looks but run on without hurting him...
...he asks...
...But: Though Malick has an epic sense Subscribe, renew, give a gift on-line at: www.qmmonwealmagazina.org of physical space, his talent operates best with a small cast of characters...
...Like Prewitt and Sergeant Warden in From Here to Eternity, also by James Jones, the two men seem to reflect each other's possibilities, which may be why they both deplore and love each other...
...Then why does each particle of that soul try to destroy the others...
...Commonweal 1 6 March 12,1999...
...Though not a virtuoso director of action sequences like Spielberg, Malick nevertheless gets exactly what he needs: cross-hatchings of sporadic anguish and terror within the larger picture of overwhelming violence: Nolte's colonel spasmodically raking his fingers through his scalp as Captain Staros radios his refusal to obey orders...
...It's the worst thing you can do...nobody can touch me for it...
...Or is some synthesis possible...
...When a soldier played by John Cusack volunteers for a mission, Colonel Tall beams and says he expected such bravery from this particular man...
...And how must a man live his life...

Vol. 126 • March 1999 • No. 5


 
Developed by
Kanda Sofware
  Kanda Software, Inc.