Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Why We Fight

By Mark Jordan

JANUARY 25, 1999:  During World War II, Frank Capra produced a series of documentary shorts intended to boost the war cause, titled Why We Fight. Now, more than 50 years after the last shot was fired, two of America’s best directors have given us their own modern take on that theme.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line won’t suffer in comparison to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which preceded it by a good six months. Spielberg, after all, is Hollywood’s most celebrated director, and his tale, set against the backdrop of D-Day, the single most dramatic event of the war, definitely delivers the bang for the buck its creator is known for. Plus, he had the extremely likable and bankable Tom Hanks in the lead.

Malick’s film, on the other hand, features a handful of unknowns and two of our least bankable – if, undoubtedly, best – stars at the top of the bill. His story revolves around the American invasion of Guadalcanal, one of the fiercest and most important battles of the Pacific campaign but one audiences of today know precious little about. And unlike Ryan, which is made extremely accessible by remaining little more than a thoughtful (and stylish) take on a traditional genre, The Thin Red Line is a difficult, often contradictory, and certainly challenging work, more a lengthy tone poem on the nature of war and violence than a traditional action flick.

As has been widely reported, this is only Malick’s third directing job and his first in 20 years. Following his stunning debut Badlands (1973), and its follow-up Days of Heaven (1978), Malick went into seclusion, like a cinematic J.D. Salinger. For his return to film, he chose to adapt a novel by noted author James Jones (From Here To Eternity, The Longest Day). The Thin Red Line had been filmed once before in 1962, starring Keir Dullea of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame.

It’s 1942 and Charlie Company is getting ready to storm the beaches of Guadalcanal. Relieving the Marines who led the charge, the company’s objective is to fight their way inland and capture the vital air strip the Japanese have built there, a launching pad for the taking of the rest of the Pacific theatre.

Leading Charlie Company into battle is the driven Colonel Tall, played by Nick Nolte. A career Army officer fighting his first war, Tall feels the need to prove himself through victory. As if he sees himself in them, Tall is uncommonly devoted to his junior officers, always mindful of their careers and quick to offer a decoration. Nolte is in fine form here, bringing his trademark rough-and-gruff intensity to the role. Recalling Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin, Nolte is perhaps the only actor today who can pull off this sort of hardened common man convincingly. He can be a maddeningly inconsistent actor (see Blue Chips, I Love Trouble), often going through slumps like a ballplayer, but with his performance here and in the recently released Affliction, he is again at the top of his game.

Colonel Tall’s affinity, however, does not appear to sift down to the GIs under his command, the men who will do most of the dying in his campaign. Their champion is Captain Staros, who confounds his C.O. by continually placing the lives of his men over their objective. Elias Koteas gives the film’s most award-worthy performance. His Staros wrestles with the burden of command like no movie officer before him.

The always fine Sean Penn is Sergeant Welsh, the cynic who has a soft spot for the dreamy-eyed Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), the emotional core of the film. Witt despises the world of war but dearly loves his comrades in Charlie Company. A perpetual AWOL, he returns to his unit only to watch over them, including Private Bell (Ben Chaplin), who sustains himself with the thought of going home to his beloved wife, and Private Doll (Dash Mihok), who careens between fear and heroism.

As for all the other big names in the cast – John Travolta, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack, George Clooney – they are most relegated to cameo roles.

One commonly heard knock against The Thin Red Line has been that it is not emotionally involving, which is sheer poppycock. In fact, part of the film’s genius is that despite its large cast and the distraction of star walk-ons, it makes you care for a number of characters. And, though not always completely drawn, they are complex and three-dimensional. For the most part, Spielberg relied on cliches and star power to flesh out his Army unit. Malick’s soldiers reveal themselves largely through interior monologues, often vague, always questioning as one would imagine frightened, confused soldiers to be.

In his film, Spielberg answered the query as to why we fight by illuminating the strange social contract a people have with their soldiers, the ones who die so that others might live, and the huge obligation that entails.

But Malick’s investigation is more fundamental. His film is a metaphysical rumination on violence. Is it an inherent part of nature? In Charlie Company’s first encounter with the enemy, the Japanese are entrenched on a hill covered with high, thick grass, and it appears that the landscape itself is firing upon the company. But as they work their way inland, they discover an enemy very much like themselves.

Or is violence something other, a disease preying upon basically good creatures? This seems to be Private Witt’s view. He claims to have seen a better place, a place of tranquility. But is that real?

Malick never flat-out states his position, as Spielberg does to maddening effect at the end of Ryan. His film is more impressionistic. He just lets his characters and his beautiful and violent images compound until a picture forms in the viewers’ minds. Ryan combines its points with a strong, well-told narrative. The Thin Red Line is virtually plotless, relying on the overriding dramatic impulse to kill the other guy. And that’s what it must have been like. No weird mission to put everything in perspective, just men clawing desperately through the wilderness, facing their enemy and themselves.

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