World War II has been the setting of so many films, it seems dangerous terrain for a filmmaker attempting anything new. We could say that perhaps about any genre that has had a long life and that continues to interest, but in the case of WWII films the early versions seemed to determine expectations about the boys -- from all over this great country (“hey Iowa, have you met Brooklyn here?”) -- and the hardships they faced (“Captain, the men haven’t had a decent meal in two months”) and the untimely deaths they met (“he was right here a minute ago, talking to me about his girl back home, and now he’s–”), to say nothing of the cliché of the tough-as-nails commander who either sees the error of his ways only at the cost of his platoon, or proves to his men they can take more than they ever believed they could; then there’s the sensitive leader, the gutsy malcontent, the oddly detached and therefore somewhat spiritual enlisted man, maybe a blood-thirsty eager killer or two, the romantic with the girl back home, the brainy kid who just wants to be one of the guys, the determined suck-up and rah-rah, the ethnic folk hero type, the cowardly leader, etc., etc. Not even the Western has as many stereotypes and stock characters, and not even the Western is as emphatically a man’s world, guys only affair.
The Thin Red Line (1998), which was screened at the WHC last Monday, manages to do that, but at least it tries and sometimes succeeds. One reason it succeeds as much as it does is because of casting and acting. In war pictures like this one, there are a lot of characters, a lot of little stories, and you’ve got to have actors -- what used to be called “character actors” -- able to pull off their given bit in the whole. The cast on-hand for TRL is impressive and they’re able to push these familiar GI Joes into somewhat new terrain. As the most dramatic untimely death, Woody Harrelson is riveting, as the irascible Lt. Col. Tall, Nick Nolte is full-bore Nolte -- perhaps his greatest scenery-chewing role ever; as the sensitive Capt. Staros, Elias Koteas acquits himself well, and as the spiritual, detached Pvt. Witt, James Caviezel has the face of an impassive idol, and Sean Penn, as the gutsy malcontent, 1st Sgt. Welsh, simply has a face -- rugged, good-looking but not too, expressive, wry, inward -- that belongs here, that could’ve made a career of this genre in an earlier era.
The other reason the film succeeds is cinematography: John Toll’s swooping runs with the men through high grass and up hills, the feel of the bombardment as a chaos of movement and noise, the perspective shots of characters at key moments, the judicious use of slow motion (not overused as it so often is in action movies), as for instance the almost dreamlike scene when the GIs finally overtake the Japanese camp, and the pervading sense of natural beauty and mystery even in conjunction with such violence and horror.
What I’m not quite sure succeeds is the overarching meaning of the film. As the most harrowing WWII movie I’ve ever seen, TRL deserves its place in a film-buff Hall of Fame, but as a movie with its own logic and meaning -- a film set in WWII rather than a film “about” WWII -- it’s less clear what we’re dealing with. The pacing is epic, the intro in the Solomon Islands, where “the gentle savages” live their childlike lives in what looks a natural Eden, are a bit tendentious in opposition to the war scenes, as though we should all wish to “go AWOL” from the 20th century and go back to our noble savage roots in nature, and the relationships among the men, such as they are, don’t really resonate. Most characters seem a bit monadic, in their own worlds of struggle and strife and death, so that the scenes which matter most are the truly intense exchanges: Nolte bawling out Koteas; Nolte getting sensitive himself and revealing his motives, in a bid for bonding, with John Cusack; Caviezel offering consolation to Harrelson during his death throes; the brief and somewhat enigmatic exchanges between Penn and Caviezel. These things stay with one after the film is over, but even more does the control of the action -- the narrating presence, as it were -- impress one with its determined command and its idiosyncratic emphases. Malick is an oddly self-possessed filmmaker and he has given us an oddly compelling account of the battle of Guadalcanal that seems leavened with a kind of grandiose, spacey clarity -- and if that phrase sounds a bit like an oxymoron, that’s as it should be because the film is a bit overwhelming, and I can’t recall the last film I saw that I’d say that about.