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Unconventional Conflict

War films get redefined by the complex Thin Red Line

Writer-director Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, the filmmaker's adaptation of James Jones's 1962 bestseller about the World War II battle for Guadalcanal, arrives in theaters with an almost unbearable weight of expectation.

After graduating in the first class at AFI's Advanced Film Studies program and working briefly as a screenwriter, Malick directed two hugely respected films -- Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978) -- and then seemed to disappear for 20 years before re-emerging for this new project. (Like clockwork, articles asking "Where the hell is Terry Malick?" popped up every few years in film magazines.) His absence only magnified his reputation, so it's not surprising that after working with such relative unknowns (at the time) as Sissy Spacek, Richard Gere and Sam Shepard in his first two films, he has now been able to attract the participation of genuine stars such as Sean Penn, John Travolta, George Clooney, Nick Nolte, John Cusack and Woody Harrelson.

For better or worse the film also arrives in the wake of Steven Spielberg's critical and commercial blockbuster Saving Private Ryan, with which it shares surface similarities. Rest assured that those similarities do not extend far beneath the surface. It is hard to imagine two filmmakers with more disparate sensibilities than Malick and Spielberg. Back in the seventies the pair attracted attention almost simultaneously with estimable films that, again, were at first glance strikingly similar. Malick, older by five years, made Badlands, a couple-on-the-run film, a year earlier than Spielberg's Sugarland Express (1974).

While the stories had common elements, the difference in tone between the two pictures was as striking as the difference between The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan. Despite being narrated by one of its protagonists, Badlands is stark, cold and ironic, observing its characters from a distance; Spielberg's is a crowd-pleaser -- light, emotionally engaging and accessible.

The contrast is valuable not simply for what it reveals about the filmmakers in particular, but also for its metaphor, without much distortion, for the battling forces that made the seventies the richest decade in American cinema since the thirties. On the one hand there was Malick, who told stories in new ways that suggested a faith in the audience's intelligence. On the other was Spielberg, who also told stories in new ways -- remember how innovative Jaws seemed in 1975? -- but whose overwhelming eagerness to please suggested a lack of faith in the audience and, perhaps, in his own talents. (To this day Spielberg's greatest fault is his insecurity. Like House Republicans, he can't resist self-defeating overkill. Until Schindler's List (1993) he never saw a lily he didn't want to gild. And even in that film he broke down near the end and pulled out precisely the sort of aesthetic sledgehammer he had so admirably eschewed for three hours.)

But the battle for the soul of American cinema wasn't merely aesthetic; questions of art and style were -- and continue to be -- inextricable from issues of technology and commerce. In terms of art and style, Malick was the more adventuresome, progressive figure. But on the film and commercial fronts, Spielberg was the poster boy for the future, while Malick was an anachronism, washed away by a tsunami of new, more broadly effective modes of production and distribution. We all know which side won.

It's not that Spielberg is a less talented filmmaker or even less of an artist. He remains brilliant and dazzling, one of the greatest natural-born filmmakers in a century of cinema. In fact, his talent is so wide-ranging that there are far more projects for which he makes sense than does Malick.

But now, as 25 years ago, Malick has a more complex approach to the world and to storytelling. He walks a thin line that separates complexity from confusion, subtlety from opacity, and within The Thin Red Line this other line nearly disappears. Make no mistake: This is not the Thin Red Line of 1964. Andrew Marton -- best known for directing the chariot sequence in Ben-Hur -- made an awkward and entirely conventional film version of the Jones book, with Jack Warden in the role now filled by Sean Penn. (How times and styles have changed!) It's not a very good film, condensing Jones's many plot threads into one. (And the new videotape reissue makes it worse: Apparently the masterminds at Simitar Video unsqueezed the CinemaScope image twice, making the actors look squat and fat -- except when they lie down and suddenly become long-limbed and emaciated.) Nor is this Saving Private Ryan 2.

If it were not for the fact that the new movie takes place among soldiers before, during and after Guadalcanal, it would be tempting to say that this is not a war film at all, but rather a meditation on the nature of life, God and mortality. In effect it is both, with precisely such a meditation set within the milieu of war, where these concerns are distilled to a blinding, white-hot intensity.

It's difficult to summarize the film's plot or even its underlying themes. In terms of the "right way" to do things -- that is, in film-school terms -- The Thin Red Line is a total mess. When I complained after a first viewing that it had no narrative structure to speak of, a colleague protested that, disregarding a ten-minute prologue, it had a classic three-act structure: the big battle, the recuperation after the battle and the final confrontation. While my friend is in some sense correct, he stretches the meaning of "act," given that these three acts consume 111 minutes, 22 minutes and 19 minutes, respectively.

Nor, despite its wealth of reflection, can The Thin Red Line be said to have any recognizable thematic development or any consistent connection between action and idea. In most great narratives the action represents -- or, at best, is even congruent with -- a synthesis of conflicting ideas, generally as perceived through the eyes of a protagonist. But no one learns much of anything in The Thin Red Line. And there is no protagonist. (The former can be said, of course, of all of Stanley Kubrick's masterpieces.)

One of the film's most off-putting characteristics is its rambling point of view. As in Badlands and Days of Heaven, the story is held together by voice-over narration. But while in his earlier films Malick told his stories through the voice of one character, this time around he mixes the musings of more than a half-dozen narrators. The one closest to being a protagonist is Witt (Jim Caviezel), a likable private with twin propensities for philosophical speculation and going AWOL. It is Witt whom we meet during the Edenic prologue, hiding out on a small island in the South Pacific, where he basks in the beauty of nature and the unspoiled kindness of the natives.

But like all Edens, this one is temporary: When an American ship happens by, Witt is arrested and put in the custody of his longtime friend-nemesis Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn), who reassigns him as a stretcher-bearer for the upcoming assault on the Japanese positions at Guadalcanal. After a brief stay in the purgatory of the ship's brig, Witt finds himself forced into the hell of battle.

The mission is commanded by a general (John Travolta) and a bitter, older West Pointer, Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), who sees it as his last chance for glory. (Travolta, appropriately, does not receive star billing; he's present for one or two scenes, totaling no more than four minutes. This is a veritable lead role, however, compared to George Clooney's Captain Bosche. Clooney, who does get star billing alongside Nolte, Caviezel, Penn and several others, is on-screen for a single, undemanding two-minute scene.)

Witt is the most frequent narrator, but Malick also gives time to Welsh, Tall, Captain Staros (Elias Koteas), Private Bell (Ben Chaplin) and three or four others. Often as not, the device is confusing: We don't always see who's speaking, and several characters seem to have identical voices, prose styles and deliveries. Malick may want to emphasize the internal commonality of humans -- which is one of the themes the voice-overs repeatedly address -- but this uniformity is nonetheless irritating. Even if the device is supposed to reflect that we are all simply different manifestations of the One Great Human Consciousness, its practical effect is to undercut clarity and narrative momentum.

Indeed, the archly poetic stream of consciousness of these narrators is frequently annoying. In the midst of an apparent war film it is disorienting to hear Bell's thoughts of his absent wife: "We together ... one being ... flow together like water till I can't tell you from me ... I'd drink you ..." or Welsh's "Darkness and light, strife and love: Are they the workings of one mind, the feature of the same face? O my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made, all things shining."

And yet these flaws are ones of ambition. Unlike Spielberg, who could, of course, much better afford to take such risks, Malick is willing to try something utterly different. To be fair, the brilliant, you-are-there brutality of Private Ryan's initial combat scene was just such a risk, but the rest of the film effectively but comfortably fits our genre expectations. Malick undercuts these expectations at every turn, potentially alienating his audience.

Indeed, the first industry screening of The Thin Red Line left many viewers grumbling and baffled. For me, the film worked infinitely better on second viewing -- primarily because, being familiar with its pace and structure, I was able to relax and simply absorb the experience of the film.

Any movie that is incomprehensible on one viewing is commercially doomed and perhaps even aesthetically suspect. But that's not an accurate characterization of The Thin Red Line; this is a film that's incomprehensible on one cold viewing. It's not so much a matter of knowing what to expect but of knowing what not to expect. If ever there was a work of art that justified the existence of critics, this is it.

So you have been warned. What Malick has fashioned here is less a conventional narrative than an impressionistic mosaic of our common yet varied experience of life and death, as focused and clarified through the relentless lens of war.

Yes, The Thin Red Line has thrilling battle scenes; just don't expect the usual pace of an action film. Yes, it has significant thematic content at its core; just don't expect the usual clean resolution of these ideas. And, yes, it allows us to identify with the characters' inner lives; just don't expect any reassuring neatness or catharsis as each (with us in tow) meets his apparently random fate.

The Thin Red Line.
Rated R.
Written and directed by Terrence Malick. With Jim Caviezel, Elias Koteas, Ben Chaplin, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, John Cusack, John Savage, Woody Harrelson, Arie Verveen and Dash Mihok.

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