The Earth Trembles
Erik Syngle on The Thin Red Line
When we at Reverse Shot first considered hosting a symposium on war films, I immediately knew two things: 1) I would have to write about Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, a film that has never strayed far from my thoughts in the last four and a half years and which I paid to see around ten times during its initial theatrical release. 2) Unlike most of the other films likely to be discussed, I would have to argue whether it belongs in such a symposium at all, since it barely resembles most of the other classic examples of that genre as I understand it, and these elements have very little to do with why I and many others find it so endlessly fascinating and deeply moving. As things turned out, however, The Thin Red Line is the closest we have to a traditional WWII combat film (what always comes to mind when I think about “war films”) in this issue, and the only film that takes as its main subject an actual historic battle between two armies.
This unexpected context gives me pause to reconsider the film in a new light, to try and find in it meanings and contexts which I have previously ignored. Most discussions of The Thin Red Line have understandably focused on the film as an auterist entry in the brief but immensely important filmography of Malick—whose Badlands and Days of Heaven remain two of the great American films of the seventies—known for his breathtaking images of natural beauty, elliptical narrative constructions, and especially for his startling and unforgettable use of voiceover narration spoken in a distinctly American vernacular. All of these elements are of course present in even stronger doses than his previous films—as is Malick’s uniquely pantheistic version of spiritual transcendence—but for the moment let’s put them aside and try to remember that we are also watching a historical film about WWII.
Adapting his screenplay from James Jones’s 1962 novel of the same name, Malick remains far more faithful (at least for certain long stretches) to his source’s tone and content than most people originally gave him credit for. Because it presents us with a collective protagonist, Charlie Company, seen through the kaleidoscopic lens of a constantly shifting roundelay of characters, the novel doesn’t easily lend itself to cinematic treatment, but Malick bravely retains this structure at the expense of conventional character identification and respect for movie star performances. The novel is considered a minor classic of wartime psychological realism, particularly notable for daring to depict American soldiers as inexperienced, terrified, splintered, without strong convictions as to the war’s legitimacy, yet knowingly trapped within a military hierarchy more powerful than their ability to act on these fears—a sensibility that distinctly foreshadows the Vietnam era’s total breakdown of the old heroic wartime certainties. Sgt. Storm’s (John C. Reilly) fatalist monologue, delivered three quarters of the way through the film, just as Malick begins to branch off from the plot of the novel, stems from these concerns: “No matter how much training you got, how careful you are, it’s a matter of luck whether or not you get killed. Don’t make no difference who you are, or how tough a guy you might be—you’re in the wrong spot at the wrong time, you’re gonna get it.”
Yet Jones, like Malick, was also just as interested in the landscape of the island Guadalcanal, which many have claimed (for better or worse) to be the film’s most fully developed character. Viewers unfamiliar with the novel will miss just how carefully the film recreates the terrain that Jones described at great length. From the Dancing Elephant and Hill 210, where the majority of the film’s action takes place, to the fresh cemeteries being watered as the remnants of Charlie Company march out of Guadalcanal during the finale, the locations are all supremely vivid realizations of their prose counterparts, all the more surprising in that any reference to them by name from any of the characters has been eliminated. For those who felt the self-consciously poeticized use of voiceovers retreated too far from any material concerns (and there were many), I suggest seeing the film again in light of the novel. You may be reminded of Chris Marker’s description of Tarkovsky: “Nothing could be more earth-bound than the work of this reputedly mystical filmmaker.”
Amplifying and expanding on many of Jones’s concerns, Malick places the film in something of an historical vacuum, which has the paradoxical effect of both recreating the American soldiers’ original experience of the South Pacific theater in the early stages of the war and making the film speak to more contemporary understandings of combat. This does not necessarily make the film ahistorical, as some have tried to argue. It is, however, selectively historical at best. Unlike Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan (the other major Hollywood WWII picture released in 1998), with its universally derided framing episodes, Malick makes no self-important claims that these people form the bedrock on which American civilization currently rests. At least in terms of his characters’ immediate experiences, Malick views history through the right end of the telescope. To be able to do so requires that he drop them into a cultural vacuum as well. Except for an extremely brief mission overview delivered by General Quintard (John Travolta) about the strategic importance of Guadalcanal in the film’s first half hour, no other mention of the scope or progress of the rest of the war ever occurs. Words like “America,” “Pearl Harbor,” or “Roosevelt” are never uttered, nor anything relating to the European conflict, or even any hint that it exists.
Without the reassuring crutch of familiar names and events, we are as stranded in the terrifying here-and-now as any of The Thin Red Line’s characters. As Thomas Doherty pointed out in his book Projections of War, the men of Charlie Company have landed on Guadalcanal as if it were the surface of another planet, and any specific memories of their own planet (aside from the equally place-less flashbacks experienced by a few of the characters) seem to disappear with it. He argues that this is, in fact, highly representative of the experience of the first Americans in the South Pacific who, unlike their comrades fighting in the familiar capitals of the Old World, had never even heard of most of the places they were required to go—though I would add this has since become commonplace for the American veterans of dozens of Third World interventions of the last 30 years.
Malick manages to extend this unfamiliarity with the terrain further into an unbearably tense dramatic device by delaying the onset of violence and the appearance of the Japanese enemy within the film’s middle chapters. First expecting to be attacked on the beach as they land on Guadalcanal, Charlie Company is even more unsettled by the fact that nothing happens. Marching uphill to the front lines, past the decaying remains of mutilated bodies left from previous skirmishes only makes things worse. It is well over an hour into the film before the first shots are fired. Even then, the Japanese are but the hypothetical source of the machine gun bullets that seem to come from the very mountain itself to take down the company’s runners with godlike accuracy. Eventually the Japanese come close enough to be picked off as distant silhouettes, but another agonizing day passes before anyone gets close enough to actually look the enemy in the eye. It is only then that we realize that the dreaded Japanese are in fact barely alive—dressed in tattered rags, living in bamboo huts, eating rats, fighting to the last man.
Here a jarring shift in sympathy occurs for the viewer; despite whatever natural identification we have been forced to make with the men of Charlie Company, our human sense of compassion cannot help but make us pity their Japanese adversaries (though this must remain unspoken among the Americans). When Big Queen (David Harrod) begins brutalizing his disarmed POWs, we are shocked and angered. It may only be later we realize that this humanized enemy would have been unthinkable in the patriotic war films of WWII and even in subsequent decades. It’s only due to the reappraisal of warfare and the idea of the “enemy” and Third World “Other” spawned by Vietnam that this can happen. We also see this in Malick’s inclusion of the Melanesian natives (and most memorably, their music) that populate Guadalcanal and its neighboring islands, who are barely mentioned in the Jones novel. The film’s prologue, borrowing heavily from the imagery of Murnau/Flaherty’s Tabu (1931), shows Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) AWOL and living in a Melanesian village and observing, without a trace of condescension or cultural superiority, their idyllic, harmonious existence. Early on, an old man from one of these villages walks right by Charlie Company as if it didn’t exist. Later still, Witt finds a similar village on the island to be inhospitable to his gestures of curiosity and friendship. As in so many films about Vietnam, we find the noncombative native population to be either blissfully untouched by, willfully indifferent to, or corrupted by the disease of modern warfare that the invaders have brought with them.
In this sense, The Thin Red Line is very much an attempt to rethink the classical war film in the light of the Vietnam experience. It is, for that matter, very much a film of the American Seventies, made by one of that generation’s most talented auteurs who, for whatever reason, didn’t get around to making another film for 20 years. In the archetypal Hollywood films of WWII, like Howard Hawks’s Air Force, the fighting Group is always made up of diverse parts (Joe from Jersey, the Jewish kid, the hayseed, etc.) who are constantly coming together to form a cohesive whole, much like the country’s own collective response to the conflict. In the films of the Vietnam War, even highly unrealistic ones like Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, these groups are always falling apart or failing to cohere, as was the nation’s response to the war’s purpose and legitimacy. The Thin Red Line is the only film to combine these two models and insists, by way of its highly distanced voiceovers suggesting a considered reflection surely impossible in the heat of battle, that this cohesion was always a homefront illusion, that men are most alone when they fight together.