Bayonets In Paradise

Film still for Bayonets In Paradise

Terrence Malick's preference for nature and myth over history tarnishes his rich come-back epic The Thin Red Line, argues Colin MacCabe

It may be that a suburban mall in Pittsburgh during a blizzard is not the ideal venue to see Terrence Malick's long-awaited third movie The Thin Red Line. Twenty years since Days of Heaven, Malick's $55 million three-hour epic about the World War II battle of Guadalcanal obviously posed the marketing executives a problem. Full of stars, the film is nonetheless unashamedly, indeed embarrassingly, determined to press its claim as an art movie - its meditations on war and violence make the voiceover in Apocalypse Now look like an exercise in downmarket accessibility. Fox's solution was to open in only five cinemas in New York and Los Angeles and to try to build word of mouth through selected audiences at special screenings. But if Pittsburgh is anything to go by, the strategy is doomed to failure. As the movie wound down for its final undramatic hour the audience became openly restive and derisive. As we exited the cinema one patron remarked, "Well that was very deep... and very long." Her companion responded, "That's going to win Academy awards - Jeez - never."

It was the promise of seeing an Academy award-winning movie that had tempted the audience to venture out; it must have been the thought of Academy awards that lured the finest roster of acting talent to be assembled in a single film for a generation; and it is only the promise of Oscars that explains why Fox wrote a very big cheque after Sony had balked at funding a movie that breaks most commercial rules about narrative and drama. It would be surprising, despite the reservations of the Pittsburgh spectators, if the film does not figure in the awards ceremony in March. As a visual spectacle The Thin Red Line lives up to the expectations created by Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven. There can be no question that Malick's ability to inscribe images with depth and texture is unrivalled in contemporary Hollywood. Guadalcanal (doubled here by the tropical rainforest of Queensland, where almost all the film was shot) is presented as an idyllic paradise into which the serpent of war creeps - and at no point are you allowed to forget the beauty of these killing fields. If John Toll's superb cinematography never quite matches Nestor Almendros' haunting images of the cornfields of America in Days of Heaven, it must be odds on that like Almendros he will walk away with the Oscar for cinematography. And the soundtrack is equally accomplished, mixing music, effects and dialogue in a constantly complex pattern.

Above all the acting is, quite simply, superb. Nick Nolte as the repellent Lt. Colonel Tall determined finally to get the recognition his life of shit-eating deserves, Sean Penn as the ultimately cynical Sergeant Welsh, Elias Koteas as Captain Staros, refusing Tall's orders to make a suicidal frontal attack, are all excellent. And most of the cameos work too. John Travolta is attractively repulsive as a worldly-wise general. Woody Harrelson is convincing as a sergeant who sacrifices himself having endangered his squad through the act of a frightened novice. But among a torrent of talent John Cusack is outstanding. The scene where he stands silent as Nolte pours out shame and resentment is a magisterial demonstration of the truth that in film acting, less is more.

But The Thin Red Line is badly let down by a script that buries an excellent 90-minute war movie in a stream of pretentious, portentous and sententious verbiage which, at least on first hearing, is nothing more than a mishmash of recycled clichés about nature and violence, death and sacrifice. Narrative drive has never been Malick's strong point, but in the first two films this weakness was compensated for by extraordinarily dense voiceovers. The same technique is used in The Thin Red Line, but whereas in Badlands and Days of Heaven the voiceover was that of a naïve adolescent girl and the films gained much of their power from the distance between voiceover and image, in The Thin Red Line the voiceover is that of adult males, and time and again the film invites us to take their statements as defining the images we are seeing. The results are catastrophic in a film that is otherwise a magnificent achievement.

Walking into myth

For many this was a movie that was never going to get made. By the time Malick finished Days of Heaven in 1978 after nearly two years in the cutting room he was already famous as a meticulous perfectionist who would brook no arguments. His fights with Richard Gere and the producers of Days of Heaven are legendary. When that film finished he was offered a dream deal by Charles Bluhdorn, head of Paramount's parent company Gulf and Western, which allowed him almost unlimited resources to develop his next film. For four years, mainly from his base in Paris, Malick worked on the prologue of his new movie; a prologue that would dramatise the origins of life. With a small crew including cameraman Paul Ryan, who had shot second unit on Days of Heaven, and special-effects consultant Richard Taylor, Malick assembled footage from all over the world: micro jellyfish on the Great Barrier reef, ice shelves breaking off from Antarctica - neither time nor space was allowed to prevent the gathering of material. When Paramount got restless he would send in portions of a script which was always prolonged passages of visual description with little narrative or dialogue. Finally, in 1983, he walked away from the project and into the world of myth. There was much gossip and rumour, but none of it suggested that Malick would ever return - still less bring in a multi-million dollar movie on schedule and to budget.

In fact, Malick's career was less eccentric than is often suggested. True, he left Hollywood. True, he didn't direct a movie for over a decade. But Hollywood of the 80s ate the directors of the 70s for breakfast, and sitting out that particular invitation was a smart move. And he did continue to work for Los Angeles, doing rewrites and among other projects adapting Larry McMurtry's Desert Rose for Barry Levinson.

At this stage it might have seemed Malick had made a decision never to direct again. Then in the late 80s he was approached by theatre producers Robert Geisler and John Roberdeau to write a script of D. M. Thomas' The White Hotel. He turned the offer down but told them he was willing to write two other scripts, one based on Molière's classic farce Tartuffe and the other on James Jones' World War II epic The Thin Red Line. The producers chose The Thin Red Line and when the script was finally delivered persuaded Malick he had to direct it. If a subsequent falling-out meant they appeared on the credits but not on the set, they probably deserve real plaudits for luring Malick back to film-making.

Citizen army

Jones' novel takes its title from Kipling's lines:

"Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that,

And Tommy, 'ow's your soul?

But it's 'Thin red line of 'eroes'

When the drums began to roll."

The idea of individual martial heroism so crucial to western culture from Homer to Shakespeare has had an increasingly hard time from a bourgeois culture that values life in terms of vocation and career. And from the French Revolution onwards the individual hero is replaced by the citizen army, the ordinary Joes and Tommies who in the heat of battle discover the qualities that make them a fighting unit which can both defend the nation and participate in the universal struggle for progress.

World War II was in many ways the culmination of this democratic heroism in both fact and fiction. In fact it combined the last great war of imperial expansion and national survival with the global struggle against fascism. In fiction it is represented by what Pauline Kael called "a 40s movie bomber crew cast" in which the diversity of America is celebrated as Ohio farmboy buddies up with New York Jew and Brooklyn Italian befriends lonely WASP. Jones' novel is perhaps the single best example of this fictional strategy. Based closely on his own combat experiences, it follows the story of C for Charlie company as they land on the island of Guadalcanal and are blooded in combat.

Malick worshipped Jones' novel and apparently had great difficulty in altering any of its details for his screenplay, asking the author's widow for leave to make the smallest changes. She finally gave him blanket permission to do as he liked, convinced he had entered the spirit of her husband's work. In one way this is true. From the landing on the island to the aftermath of the taking of the Japanese-defended hill, the film follows the book extremely closely. There is, however, one highly significant change, and it demonstrates how Malick's aim is very different from that of the conventional World War II movie which at one level he seems to be making. In the novel the captain of C for Charlie company, "Bugger" Stein, is a Jew. His con?ict with the WASP Lt. Colonel Tall is thus overlaid with implications of anti-Semitism that situate the novel centrally in the contradictions of the Second World War. But Malick makes his captain a Greek-American, a transformation that signals a move out of history. As if to underline the point, Tall quotes Homer in the Greek to Staros as they prepare for battle.

Malick is not concerned with the citizen army and its political con?icts representing the class and ethnic diversity of the nation; indeed, he has no interest in World War II. The Thin Red Line's C for Charlie company are engaged in a con?ict which is as old as time, which is simply a modern version of the Trojan War. This is evident in minor irritations like Sean Penn's hair, which luxuriates anachronistically. But it is also what provides the rationale for the other half of the movie: the opening 30 minutes which introduce us to the tropical paradise of Guadalcanal, the natural world which is to be the setting for the battle, and the final hour in which Witt (James Caviezel) transforms himself into the figure of the god sacrificed so that others can live - Christian symbolism seasoned with a hodgepodge of anthropological references which suggest Malick has spent more time than was good for him reading The Golden Bough.

It is the transformation of Witt from book to film which gives the clearest indication of Malick's purpose. In the book Witt stands for an indestructible Americanness. A near-illiterate Kentuckian, he joins and leaves C for Charlie depending entirely on his view of the commanding officers. He refuses to serve with officers he despises, so uses the chaos of frontline combat to allocate himself to different units, uncontrollable by the military machine.

For Malick, Witt's ability to escape the machine in which he serves is due not to a specific social formation but to his status as natural man. Far from being the archetypal American he is a figure who has lost all trace of nationality. When we are introduced to him in the lyrical opening sequence we find him in a native village where he has gone absent without leave. Malick's genius can be seen in his determination to render Guadalcanal as a real place - not simply the site for the first great land battle between the Americans and the Japanese but a tropical island complete with its indigenous peoples. But his depiction of this place is insufferably and patronisingly innocent - a natural world without con?ict or contradiction. Its only real function is to signal Witt's privileged access to a natural order which the army can recognise only as something to destroy.

Human abattoir

In its drive to replace history by nature, to transform World War II into War itself, Malick's film at the most crude ideological level is identical to the movie with which it will be endlessly compared: Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. Such a comparison may seem unfair. Malick's film even at its most pretentious is both interesting and captivating; his use of image and actors, sound and landscape is always intelligent. At the core of his movie is probably the best single description of close-quarters combat to come out of World War II. By contrast Spielberg's movie has at its core a story so mendacious as to be ludicrous. Apart from in the opening sequence, its attempt to universalise "the American bomber crew movie" is merely patronising, and, at least to this viewer, insufferably tedious.

It is instructive here to remember Sam Fuller, one of the greatest directors of war movies. In an interview with Tim Robbins shortly before his death Fuller mused that it was impossible to catch the true horror of modern warfare because no audience would be prepared to look at the human abattoir a modern infantry battle creates. Was it Fuller's words which provided the inspiration for Spielberg's opening sequence of the landing on Omaha beach? But Spielberg then abandons all attempts at realism in favour of a story which defies every aspect of military history to produce Kael's "American bomber crew" wandering around Normandy to save the one remaining member of the Ryan family. When the small patrol led by Tom Hanks finally locates Private Ryan only to find that he is unwilling to abandon his own comrades, the cynical sergeant argues in favour of remaining to fight with their charge because this may be "the one decent thing to come out of this war". How someone who made a film about the Holocaust can so trivialise the struggle against fascism beggars belief. How audiences are willing to let him get away with it shows how far we now are from World War II.

If Tom Hanks can die...

The war movies of the 40s, 50s and early 60s were secure in the justness of their cause. Vietnam changed all that, with every movie having to confront both the justification of the war and the racial divisions within the ranks. The citizen army was shown to represent a fatally divided nation no longer convinced of its historically allocated role. Both Malick's and Spielberg's movies can be seen as attempts to forget Vietnam. It is a long time since we saw an all-white American army on our screens and, if anyone were tempted to argue that these films are rightly representing the make-up of the pre-60s segregated US army, it can be no accident that it is an army equalled purged of any other difficult ethnic divisions. But if it is an army which is no longer divided, it is certainly not an army which has rediscovered any kind of historical role. The decision to ignore history cannot be partial. If the films no longer make any attempt to investigate the reality of American society then they can make no attempt to understand the wider world of which that society is a part. War here is an evil which can find no justification and the finality of the death it brings is brought home by both films as stars die right and left, cut off with all the murderous randomness of battle.

Ideological readings of films are usually both predictable and uninteresting, an earnest footnoting of the obvious. But these two films, one a ?awed masterpiece, the other an enormous commercial success, demand ideological analysis. For both films make crystal clear that the greatest military power the globe has ever known will not now allow even one of its soldiers to die in any foreseeable military con?ict. If Tom Hanks can die senselessly, then anybody can and nobody will. It is well known that life imitates art, but there can be few more striking examples of this than Operation Desert Fox, which signalled a new era in military history - battles in which the attacking force operates under the constraint that it can sustain no casualties. If this is the first clear political message of these two films, they also share a second one. The most powerful form of entertainment ever developed, a form which now benefits from a range of technical and human resources never before enjoyed, has abandoned any attempt to understand the world except in the most banal and immediate of human terms. The United States of America has an army that is devoted to ignoring death and a culture that is devoted to ignoring history. Comprenne qui voudra or, if you prefer an Americanism, go figure.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012