"The Thin Red Line"

By
Josh Becker

       I attended the second matinee screening of "The Thin Red Line" the day it opened. (Quentin Tarantino was sitting in front of me.) This was the first and only film that I went to this trouble for this year, and it was completely not worth it.
       The big hype with "The Thin Red Line" is that it's writer/director Terrence Malick’s first film since "Days of Heaven" 25 years ago. Well, I’ve got news for everybody: "Days of Heaven" wasn’t a very good movie. Although it had lovely, Oscar-winning cinematography by Nestor Almendros, everything else about that film just fell flat. Linda Manz’s dis-dat-and-de-udder-ting narration was so awful it actually infringed on the beautiful images.
       A 25 year hiatus hasn’t sharpened Malick’s storytelling abilities any, and his use of bad, inappropriate narration now makes itself known as his trademark. (I like Malick’s first film, "Badlands," and Sissy Spacek’s bland narration.) In "The Thin Red Line," James Jones’ story of the U.S. Army’s involvement in the invasion of Guadalcanal during WW2, Mr. Malick has everybody and their brother narrating the story. Honestly, at least ten different soldiers narrate during the course of this very long film. Not only couldn’t I keep all of the narration straight, I didn’t care enough to try. Obviously, Terrence Malick has never heard of the concept of choosing a point of view for your story. He wants to tell everybody’s story, and amazingly none of them holds the slightest bit of interest.
       To me, the most interesting aspect of "The Thin Red Line" is that the film is a remake and nobody has mentioned it anywhere. James Jones’ novel was first filmed in 1964 by the famous 2nd unit director, Andrew Marton, who directed the chariot race in the 1959 version of "Ben Hur." It starred Keir Dullea ("2001: A Space Odyssey"), and Jack Warden played a character that was named Sgt. Warden in "From Here to Eternity." (Jack Warden was in that film too, but Sgt. Warden was played by Burt Lancaster.) The first version of "Thin" isn’t much of a picture. It’s really a rather cheap ‘B’ movie, but it’s a hell of a lot better than this new remake; it’s short and you can easily follow it.
       James Jones was an interesting and sad literary character. He happened to have been stationed in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked, and this gave him a unique point of view for telling the story of "From Here to Eternity." I believe it was to James Jones’ complete surprise that he wrote the Great American World War II Novel. That accolade was handed out prematurely to Norman Mailer for "The Naked and the Dead", then taken back and given to Jones. (Mailer got his book out quicker.) Sadly for Mr. Jones, he was never able to follow up on the success of "From Here to Eternity." Everything he published thereafter was considered a letdown: "The Pistol," "Some Came Running," "The Thin Red Line," "Go to the Widow-Maker," "The Merry Month of May" and "Whistle." Jones died just before the release of "Whistle," the 3rd in the war trilogy begun by "From Here to Eternity" and continued through "The Thin Red Line." These three books may well be considered a trilogy, but the second two books are entirely unnecessary. Everything James Jones had to say about WW2 was said beautifully in "From Here to Eternity." The entire rest of his writing career was of no particular interest, and "The Thin Red Line" exemplifies this.
        The real story of Guadalcanal has nothing to do with the army, it’s a story about the U.S. Marine Corps and their initial invasion of the island. The army simply came in to mop up. This may very well have been where James Jones went after leaving Pearl Harbor, but the army’s participation in this battle was not nearly as interesting. He had been in exactly the right place at the right time with Pearl Harbor, but he never was again.
        And now we have Terrence Malick’s artsy-fartsy version of Jones’ book. If you took out all the extraneous, unnecessary crap in the film, like close-ups of marmosets, smoke through the foliage (exactly like "Platoon"), vines winding around trees, etc., you’d lose about 20 very dull minutes. If you then cut out all of the shots of soldiers with dirt-smeared faces looking dazedly at nothing, you’d lose another severely boring hour of worthless footage. If you then eliminated John Travolta's (who was wearing a ridiculous mustache) and George Clooney’s meaningless parts, you’d be left with a normal length, poorly focused story narrated by the entire U.S. Army. 

 Dec. 27, 1998

  Addendum (1/5/99):
       Like most bad movies, this one has, for the most part, shot right through my head, leaving nothing but the sediment of annoyance. Nevertheless, the opening of the film has stuck with me because it's so ridiculously stupid and nobody else has bothered mentioning it. The film begins in the native village of some Pacific Islanders where two American soldiers are living. There is no dialog and nothing is explained, but for somewhere between five and ten interminable minutes these two soldiers simply hang out with the natives. Finally, one of the soldiers spots a battleship in the harbor -- cut -- the two soldiers are now aboard the battleship and Sean Penn (the tough sergeant, for God's sake) is reprimanding them for going AWOL. Now wait a minute. First of all, you don't get reprimanded in the military for going AWOL, you get court-martialed and thrown in the stockade; second, and more importantly, how the hell did those soldiers get to that island? Did they jump ship and swim there? I don't know if this is true, but I got a sense that was supposed to be Guadalcanal. So, am I to assume that these soldiers not only jumped ship, they swam faster than the battleship could get there? What on Earth is this supposed to mean?

 

 

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