By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
The story proper starts after Witt and his buddy are snatched up by a patrol boat. On board, Witt is interrogated by his nemesis, Welsh (Sean Penn), the first sergeant who runs C-for-Charlie company, the outfit Witt has fled yet continues to love. The two men talk, though what they say has nothing to do with the interrogation and everything to do with the argument at the heart of the film. "In this world," says Welsh, "a man himself is nothing. And there ain’t no world but this one." To which Witt replies, "You’re wrong. I’ve seen another world." For Witt, that other world is glimpsed in his flashback of a boy in overalls (perhaps the private as a child) laughing in the sun. It’s seen in the Melanesian village, and in the countless images of the natural world woven through the film — dazzling birds, mysterious reptiles, sad-eyed marsupials, exotic trees. It is revealed as well in the image of a young girl in an antique lace dress who hugs Witt’s dying mother, a young girl who may be the dying woman herself, or even death. There are other worlds, too, the most important of which belongs to Private Bell (Ben Chaplin), a C-for-Charlie grunt haunted by shimmering visions of the wife he left back home.
These are Witt’s worlds, and Bell’s, and, no doubt, Malick’s. The world that Welsh recognizes is the here and now, which in The Thin Red Line translates as the trenches, the bombed-out fields, the lunatic army hierarchy, the blood and the mud. This is the world James Jones wrote about in his great, dry-eyed and startlingly earthy book, and it’s one that Malick can barely stand to look at. When he does — as in a brilliantly choreographed, starkly terrifying battle scene in which the Americans rout a Japanese base camp — he keeps his gaze as focused on the edges of battle as on the white heat of its violence. What jumps out at you in this extraordinary scene is the way a Japanese soldier pathetically brandishes a bayonet blade to protect an injured friend, or the way a soldier’s feet relax into a posture of death. Malick can do action (it’s almost a shock), and there’s a stunning blink-of-an-eye moment in which an American soldier is shot by a Japanese soldier who is in turn felled by another American. But Malick, unlike most directors (and some of Jones’ characters), doesn’t get turned on by violence. The central event in the film is the taking of a hill held by the Japanese, an offensive that in the director’s logic is as fundamentally hopeless and sorrowful as the war and the men who wage it.
Jones was a cynic who earned the right to that attitude by surviving World War II, including a stint on Guadalcanal. (In the book he’s Corporal Fife, a forward-echelon clerk he paints as both unlikable and a coward; in the film, in a part that has been all but cut, he’s played by the ferrety Adrian Brody.) Jones’ dedication to The Thin Red Line is worth repeating, capital letters and all, because it succinctly gets at the fury and humor of his novel: "This book is cheerfully dedicated to those greatest and most heroic of all human endeavors, WAR and WARFARE; may they never cease to give us the pleasure, excitement and adrenal stimulation that we need, or provide us with the heroes, the presidents and leaders, the monuments and museums which we erect to them in the name of PEACE."
Malick isn’t cynical about war and warfare; he’s too in thrall to his own romanticism to see that far or that deep into the world. The first words in the film — "What’s this war in the heart of nature?" — are the tip-off. Malick wants to make love, not war, which is easy when you believe war somehow "natural" and you don’t believe in enemies, just some terrible, mysterious negative force. At the end of the film, when one of the soldiers speaks in voice-over, he encapsulates a notion of love as, to quote Shelley, "the sanction which connects not only man with man but with everything that exists." Malick’s worldview adds the romantic’s contempt for reason to a sense of the transcendental to create a metaphysical pastiche in which, crudely put, love triumphs over hate, good triumphs over evil, and life and death are, ultimately, one and the same. It doesn’t have much to do with guts hanging out of a soldier’s belly. Nor does it have anything to do with World War II, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, National Socialism, Mussolini, bodies in ovens, bayonets through babies, or mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Malick is entitled to his mourning and melancholy and, finally, his pacifism, but it would go down far easier if he were more honest in the first place about why wars — and in particular this one — happen.The Thin Red Linehas been called the anti–Saving Private Ryan, as well as an anti-war movie, but it’s neither, because it isn’t against — much less for — anything. The film is devoid of politics; the only time the story references the real, material world is a scene in which Welsh quickly tosses the idea that the war is all "about property." And just as there are no politics in the film, neither are there any bad guys. In Malick’s universe, the Japanese soldiers, an American private who pries gold teeth from his victims, the monomaniacal Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte, all sputter and agitated neck cords), even the enraged American soldier who kills two Japanese prisoners in cold blood — are all the same. They’re men who are not bad themselves, but are forced to do bad things, men who invariably weep and keen over their horrendous actions. (Even the Japanese soldiers, whose words are left untranslated, seem overwhelmed by some unspeakable sorrow, and not because they’ve failed to plunge swords into their bellies.) Jones might agree, except he’d say the men are all the same because they’re meat. For Malick, they’re the same because they are part of an unbroken universe in which a blue butterfly flutters through the black haze of battle, a pink orchid is swallowed up in a fireball as a bamboo wind chime peals one last time. In this world, in which love conquers all and war is a sad but totally natural ocurrence, no one is to blame, no one is guilty, no one is responsible. Of all the remarkable things about The Thin Red Line, a film at once beautiful and utterly repulsive, the most remarkable is that Terrence Malick has made an amoral movie about one of the most deeply moral moments in modern history.
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