Published January 1, 1999
The Thin Red Line, adapted from James Jones’s novel of Guadalcanal by the “legendary” Terrence Malick, director of Badlands and Days of Heaven, represents an “historic” return to movies for its director after a 20 year layoff. It is a mess — a classic case of what happens when you work on something for too long. Yet Malick probably would have made a mess of this movie even if he had made it with more dispatch, since he begins from the premiss that World War II-era soldiers thought like Vietnam era protestors — that is to say, he shows them as constantly agonizing about the war and their role in it and belonging emphatically not among the citizen soldiers who actually won the war but to the post-60s aristocracy of feeling which may yet make the winning of any wars in the future impossible.
For all the film’s vaporing about metaphysics and belief there is not so much as a mention of any traditional religion. These are 60s kids, cut adrift from traditional faith and spending far too much time examining their own feelings. Even the tough Sgt Welsh (Sean Penn) concludes that a man should “find something that’s his and make an island for himself.” Malick seems to take all the philosophizing about war out of the novel’s narrative voice and put it in the mouths of ordinary soldiers, from whom it just sounds ridiculous. Thus he has one soldier telling another that it’s all “a matter of luck” who lives and dies once the bullets start flying. “If you’re in the wrong spot at the wrong time, you’re going to get it.” That might be something that an audience of civilians needs to be told, like “Do you imagine your sufferings will be less because you loved goodness and truth?” But soldiers already know it.
He also manages to leave out one of the most important elements of war, the black comedy. These soldiers never laugh, even when Sergeant Keck (Woody Harrelson) forgets that he has pulled the pin of a grenade, stands up with just the pin in his hand, desperately tries to retrieve it, then cries, after the inevitable explosion, “I blew my butt off!” Or when the obviously psycho McCron wanders about the battlefield muttering to himself. These are both supposed to be only pathetic cases, not funny as they would also have been to men inured to the sight of death and mutilation. Instead, these are sensitive, post-feminist men, constantly grimacing and contorting their features into masks of pain and deep feeling. Sergeant Welsh talks regretfully about being emotionally “frozen up” while the sensitive free spirit, Private Witt (James Caviezel), says to him, “You care about me, don’t you Sarge?. . .Why do you always make yourself out like a rock?. . .”
In real life he might just have got “care about me” out of his mouth before getting his teeth knocked down his throat, but here it is just one of many long, lingering moments on camera as one soldier gazes feelingly into another’s eyes or lugubrious voiceovers and solemn music explore What It’s All About. “Where was it that we were together. Who were you that I walked with, the brother, the friend?” True, it is an exercise in humanizing war — or perhaps animalizing it, given the large numbers of exotic tropical fauna, including crocodiles, parrots, buzzards, lizards, bats, and wild dogs, featured in between battle scenes. But war has been humanized so many times by now that it seems we are in danger of forgetting some of its inhuman glories.
Mass killing is just not inherently tragic, however hard someone like Malick tries to make it look so with his grimacing actors and orchestral crescendos and portentous voiceovers about where war — or love or death or name your own mystery — comes from. Our emotional centers are just not capacious enough to take it in. Death, even cinematic death, can only really make an impact on us locally, by ones and twos, among those we have already taught ourselves to care about. From anything more than that, or more anonymous than that (and the characters in this film are pretty anonymous; few are even known by name except in the credits) we must detach ourselves, as soldiers in battle must, in order to continue to function, and part of that detachment is accomplished by humor.
There are also some serious anachronisms, the worst of which has Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) proclaiming openly to men under his command that the reason he is ordering them to undertake a very dangerous mission, and without the certainty of having enough water, is that “I’ve waited all my life for this; I’ve worked, I’ve slaved, I’ve eaten untold buckets of s*** to get this opportunity, and I’m not passing it up now!” Then he says to Capt Staros (Elias Koteas), “You don’t know what it’s like to be passed over. . .” It’s not that no U.S. Army colonel ever thought such a thing, but I seriously doubt that any has ever been so totally lacking in self-protective instincts (to say nothing of tact and feeling) as to have said it out loud under such circumstances. Having a senior officer say, in effect, “You men are just going to have to risk your lives for my career” is a mere travesty of military honor, and, like so much else in this film, it bears the stamp of the fatally self-righteous 1960s.