Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Film Review Thin Red Line by Terrence Malick

This year the director Terrence Malick will release his sixth film - 'The Tree of Life'. His first film Badlands was released in 1973 - 37 years ago. He has made some of the most beautiful films I have ever seen and in anticipation of 'The Tree of Life' I'm going to review all five of his previous films over the next couple of months. You can read my review of The New World - here

The Thin Red Line was released in 1998 and marks the return to film making of director/writer Terrence Malick after a 25 year absence.

It is a two and a half hour meditation on war. It is a visual poem. The plot seems secondary to the film. It forms a structure to hang the film on.

A newly arrived division of US infantry struggle to capture a Japanese machine gun emplacement that dominates the whole area. Eventually they destroy the gun emplacement, take the Japanese as prisoners and are rewarded with a week ‘off the line’. After they return to the campaign under new leadership they continue their advance.

The film combines different voices and narratives of the men of C Company who form part of the final stages of the Battle of Guadalcanal fought in the Pacific Solomon Islands in 1942. The film is based on the 1962 autobiographical novel by James Jones. Although this is clearly a war film full of the action and violence we expect from a war film - yet at its heart are the characters, their emotions and the relationships of a small group of soldiers who fight against a challenging natural environment, the Japanese and their own thoughts, doubts and fears.

This is emphasised by the different narrators that conduct us through the film. Unlike Malick’s earlier films – 'Badlands' and 'Days of Heaven', this film combines the internal narratives of a war weary Sergeant, a power hungry Colonel, a Private who has known only desertion and AWOL, and a Company Commander who is struggling with his abilities as a leader. These different narratives offer us very different perspectives on the events of August 1942. And this creates an intimacy with the characters and at the same time enables us to see these events from different points of view. However I feel the film is framed by the first narrative we hear - that of Private Witt. And I think we see the film ultimately from his perspective. His voice carries the soul of the film.

These voices help make it a very warm and human film. Another way in which the film manages to radiate humanity comes as we are made aware from the very beginning that this war has superimposed itself on a landscape and the Solomon islanders that live here. Malick wants us to know that the conflict is just passing through. That the landscape and its people form part of a continuum that co-exists and will continue long after the war has ended. This is brought home early on in the film. As the soldiers move stealthily and carefully through the jungle, an old Solomon islander, half naked and holding a stick, appears from nowhere walking in the opposite direction, glancing curiously at the men, dressed in combats, fully armed and wary, going about his own business. It is a moment of irony that is almost absurd. Such beauty contrasted with such horror.

And this brief encounter offers us a wider perspective and commentary on the events of the film. Not only an American perspective but Malick here offers us a perspective from the Solomon islanders themselves. In another part of the film Witt is speaking to a young mother and trying to make friends with her son. The boy barely talks – but she does. The portrayal of both the old man and the young mother reject any stereotypical images we may have of the indigenous people.

But the film also offers us a Japanese perspective - not in words but in mime and in highly stylised postures . I don’t know very much about Noh Theatre but I wonder if the defeated Japanese are portrayed as traditional Noh characters. Their pained and agonised expressions like Noh masks, their cries of despair like chants, and their economic use of language are all features of Noh Theatre.

Well it seems I could go on and on about this film. But I’ll finish off with these few comments. This film marked the return of Malick to Hollywood after a twenty five year absence from film making. They knew he was good. And everyone wanted a piece of it. The film has John Travolta and George Clooney, Sean Penn, John Cusack, James Caviezel and an amazing performance from Nick Nolte.

John Toll's cinematography was extraordinary. He manages to capture the action and horror of war in one moment and the sublime beauty of the natural world in the next. He seemed to tap into Malick’s poetic vision of the film.

And the music seemed to capture the ethereal quality of the film. Hans Zimmer's score along with Faure’s In Paradism from the Requiem and music by Arvo Part just wove together all the different strands of the film into a poem.

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