It is an interesting phenomenon that three of the most accomplished and interesting films of 1998 deal with World War II, each in a totally different way: Saving Private Ryan, a technically brilliant, essentially traditional exposition on the war in Europe has much to recommend it as it explores the moral quandaries of warfare, but falls short of greatness due to Spielberg’s ultimate lack of discipline as he once again panders to the mass market. Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautifuldaringly tells the story of a family that falls victim to the Nazi camps, using warmth and humor, humanizing their experience without trivializing it.
And now, as the year draws to a close, Terrence Malick’s A Thin Red Line elevates the genre to a new level entirely, in a challenging, emotionally riveting, exquisitely beautiful film that plumbs the depths of the soldier’s experience of war convincingly, in a style so fresh and original that it makes the subject seem new.
Based on the 1962 James Jones novel, we follow Charlie company landing on the beach at Guadalcanal, initially meeting no resistance. The Japanese have built an airfield inland, across a series of ridges which provide a powerful strategic advantage for the defending Japanese troops. The commanding officer of the operation, played intensely by Nick Nolte, pushes his men beyond reason, raising opposition by a field officer who perceives Nolte’s orders as suicidal. The extended, costly, and bloody assault proceeds, as grim as any on screen.
That description could be taken as nothing more than a Pacific variation on Spielberg’s D-Day landing. But where Spielberg focused on plot and situation, Malick wants to get under the surface to the emotional, spiritual core of the war experience, which he accomplishes in a variety of ways.
With his unfailing, aesthetically attuned eye, remembered so well from Days of Heaven, Malick’s camera (cinematographer John Toll – Legends of the Fall, Braveheart) captures the changing light as a cloud passes across the sun over a field of high grasses blowing in the wind. Light filtering down through the canopy of the jungle evokes a medieval cathedral. Brilliantly colored birds and other exotic wildlife add to a picture of geographic beauty, indifferent to, even as it is brutally assaulted by, the tools of war.
There are early shots of the aboriginal people of the island, living simply, in harmony with their surroundings; without overplaying the point, Jones suggests later that their lives now have been tainted as well.
Most centrally, Malick uses frequent voiceovers and occasional flashbacks to explore the emotional interiors of the individual soldiers as they witness or become victim to horrors of mutilation and death. Hand to hand combat has rarely been so wrenching, perhaps because, by the time the battle reaches that point, we have come to know these men profoundly; the voiceover monologues combined with the skillfully convincing performances have given these soldiers a humanity with which it would be impossible not to identify. Their circumstances vary; the differing emotional defenses they employ to cope with the intolerable hell of the battle grow out of their individual characters, histories, relationships, spirituality.
So much material is put before us so fast that it is sometimes difficult to keep track of each individual. It will take a second viewing in order to more completely absorb the riches here. The Thin Red Line commands your attention and demands your engagement. With the density of poetry, it needs to be worked through and thought out, turned around in the mind. For the first time since The Sweet Hereafter, CV wants to buy and read a screenplay.