THREE STARS - Challenging
“The Thin Red Line” is an ambitious film attempting to project a complex experience onto the big screen. Written first as a novel by James Jones from his own combat experiences, this translation into film is both haunting and disappointing.
The disappointment comes from the inadequacy of film to explore the private wars raging within the soldiers. But the power of the film comes from those very same attempts to reveal the inner struggles of soldiers locked within this horror.
It is easy to understand why a novel such as Jones’ would be difficult to present on film. One of the advantages of a novel is in its ability to allow us to explore the inner thoughts of the characters. Unlike film which is limited to portraying the “actions” of “actors,” however revealing we might believe such actions to be, novels are able to delve into the thoughts exposing motivations, fears, beliefs and struggles occurring within the characters. This deeper revelation allows us to find our common humanity with those being portrayed.
If “The Thin Red Line” reinforces any common experience, it is that war is hell. One soldier laments, “War does not ennoble men; it turns them into dogs. It poisons their souls.”
Throughout the story of the fierce World War II battle of Guadalcanal, this group of teenagers and young men are discovering their fears and confronting death . Not only are their comrades dropping around them, but so too is any sense of moral imperative. This is the depth of hell where there is no savior.
When Capt. James Staros (Elias Koteas) raises the question of the recklessness of what they are being asked to do, he is removed from duty by his superior officer, Lt. Col. Gordon Tall (Nick Nolte). Tall preaches that this is their day for making their mark in their quest for advancement in the Army. The young sons of mothers back home are expendable in their campaigns.
Any sense of spiritual guidance is missing, except for the hymns of the native islanders that open the film in an idyllic village. For these young men - both American and Japanese - there is little to help them struggle with the ultimate questions caused by the suffering and deaths they experience in the horror to follow.
Instead, the spiritual questions raised are only empty musings and blind assertions coming from no transcendent belief structure or faith community. Left to their own struggles, one soldier affirms his belief in life beyond this world, while another declares “this rock is all there is.” Neither have the support or the assurance of the larger experiences of religious faith or guidance, and it leaves them, and the viewers of the film, with an empty despair. Though artistically interwoven, both humanity and the natural world are presented as being designed to be in conflict and even the most idyllic of environments are full of strife and fear.
This message of message of despair is shown at the beginning and ending of the film, when the story opens with two AWOL soldiers hiding out in an idyllic forest community with children playing and no one fighting. At the end of the film, the same soldier returns only to find the men of this village in conflict and the children in fear.
This despair is shown symbolically throughout the film, and is present within the many thoughts expressed by the voice-overs. As we watch a crocodile stealthily glide into the water and submerge in wait of its prey, the voice-over of a soldier asks, “Why does nature fight with itself?”
It is no doubt that the questions of life are heightened by the evil of war. But the answers are not present on the battlefield. “The Thin Red Line” has few heroes, and little to show for how evil was overcome. The only person willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of his comrades is Pvt. Witt (James Caviezel), a soldier who had gone AWOL on more than one occasion. Ironically, Pvt. Witt does not gain his courage from the examples of his leaders, but from sources not actually explored in the film.
The weakness of “The Thin Red Line” lies in its failure to show the viewer where the strength and courage came from for any of these young men. Instead, we are left with the haunting images of death everywhere and a sense of the futility of war. While this film may be factual to history, it does little to give us insight into the lives of those who sacrificed themselves in this tragic but pivotal battle. The Strength of the film lies in its incredibly realistic cinematography and challenging questions raised.