|Lt. Col. Gordon Tall
|Pvt. Witt (as Jim Caviezel)
|1st Sgt. Edward Welsh
|Capt. James 'Bugger' Staros
|Capt. John Gaff
|John C. Reilly
|2nd Lt. Whyte
|Brig. Gen. Quintard
|Capt. Charles Bosche
|Pvt. Ash (as Tom Jane)
|John Dee Smith
|Wittâs Mother (as Penny Allen)
|Lt. Col. Billig
|Mark Boone Junior
|Norman Patrick Brown
|Pvt. Charlie Dale
|1st Lt. Band
|Melanesian Villager (as Benjamin)
|Robert Roy Hofmo
|Melanesian Man Walking
|Melanesian Woman with Child
|Japanese Pvt. #1
|Japanese Officer #1
|Japanese Pvt. #4
|Tim Blake Nelson
|Japanese Pvt. #6
|Japanese Prisoner #2
|Japanese Officer #2
|Japanese Pvt. #7
|Japanese Pvt. #3
|Japanese Pvt. #2
|Japanese Pvt. #5
|2nd Lt. Gore
|Melanesian Guide (as Vincent)
|Japanese Officer #3
|Melanesian Villager (as Jimmy)
|Randall Duk Kim
|Nisei Interpreter (uncredited)
|Pvt. Alexander (uncredited)
|Navy Soldier (uncredited)
|Private Drake (uncredited)
Following on the earlier review of Saving Private Ryan, I have written this piece on the historical realities of Terence Malick’s remake of James Jones’ 1962 novel, first produced for the screen in 1964.
Unlike Ryan, with its stark realism and slavish attention to detail, this film did not move me with its artistic style. Of course, my grandfather’s participation in the Guadalcanal campaign as a Navy corpsman meant that I would hold this film to a higher standard than Saving Private Ryan, and to top that film’s detailed opening sequence would be quite an achievement.
Malick failed to hold to either historical detail or to Jones’ story. Malick consistently avoids Jones’ more complex and difficult issues he explores in his novel, choosing events that are overly simplistic or a cliché. Both of these omissions took me out of the story and reminded me, painfully and constantly, that I was watching a movie. Malick is an auteur, with full control of his filmmaking skills, but he is more concerned with making art than a realistic portrayal of Guadalcanal combat.
Australian Coastwatchers, volunteers left behind Japanese lines, informed the Allied command that the Japanese were building an airstrip on Guadalcanal in late spring of 1942. At the time, the Allies were reeling from unchecked Axis advance in the Pacific and Europe. The airstrip could threaten Allied installations in the Hebrides, Fiji, New Caledonia, and eventually could threaten Australia itself. Clearly a response was needed.
Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and Navy Pacific Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, squabbled over who would direct the Guadalcanal campaign. Eventually the command areas were redrawn so Nimitz was in command of the overall operation.
Hastily drawn up plans took the 1st Marine Division, commanded by Gen. Arthur Vandergrift, from American ports on the west and east coasts to Australia and their staging area in Wellington, New Zealand. This was the largest Marine unit ever assembled. They did not have time to “combat load” ñ put equipment on their transports in reverse order of how it would be taken off ñ any of their transports. Combined with operations by Marine raiders and paratroopers on surrounding islands, they attacked Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942. They met little resistance from a shocked Japanese garrison, which fled the airstrip. Once taken by the Americans on the first day, they never let it go.
Malick and Jones miss more than half of the story of Guadalcanal by only focusing on the land battles. More Allied sailors died in Ironbottom Sound — the channel north of Guadalcanal — than on land. From the First Battle of Savo Island on August 8 — until the destruction of the Japanese battleship Kirishima in November 1942 ñ there was a running battle for control of the sea around Guadalcanal. The Americans were beaten decisively at first ñ the first night of action, they lost four screening cruisers ñ but they recovered, learned how to fight at night, and how to use their radar, which the Japanese lacked. At the end, the Japanese couldn’t replace the ships they lost, while the Americans could and did.
Another key to the Allied victory was the interservice cooperation. Unlike the Japanese, who allowed senior naval commanders to interfere with the ground war, the Americans separated the chain of command so that naval commanders could not dictate land war policy. The Japanese never mastered their interservice rivalry, and they failed to communicate with each other at times.
The Allied naval commander at first abandoned the 1st Marine Division, leaving them without most of their equipment. The Marines were under constant attack from August 1942 until they were withdrawn in December. A series of pitched battles erupted around the airfield. These battles were a prelude to the ferociousness that characterized the fighting in the Pacific.
In October 1942, during the worst of the naval engagements, the first Army troops arrived. They were sure that after two days of the heaviest bombardments of the campaign, that steel rain fell every night on the airfield.
It wasn’t until January 1943, when two Army divisions and the 2nd Marine division were on Guadalcanal, that Vandergrift’s replacement felt comfortable enough to mount a major offensive. Jones was part of this offensive, which plays a central role in both the film and the novel.
Six weeks later, the Japanese Navy and Army coordinated for the first time to evacuate 13,000 troops from Guadalcanal in the moonless night. 35,000 of their comrades were left dead on the island. Allied land casualties are deceiving: less than 5,000 men died during the campaign, but almost everyone, Allied or Axis, contracted some sort of disease on Guadalcanal.
The Thin Red Line, the novel, is a gritty, realistic portrayal of war. It is based on Jones’ real life experiences of war on Guadalcanal. Unfortunately, some of the best and most believable plot lines are sacrificed by Malick to provide an artistic, stylized vision that betrays both Jones and all of the men who fought on “Starvation Island.”
Jones was attached to the 27th Regiment of the 25th Division, the “Wolfhounds.” At the time of Pearl Harbor, the 25th Division was on garrison duty in Hawaii. As soon as the division could be released for combat, it was moved through a series of staging areas — Fiji Islands, New Caledonia, Espiritu Santo — arriving on Guadalcanal not in November 1942, as the film indicates, but in January 1943. Jones also alludes to a later date than the film indicates. Fixing the date earlier than January 1943 has important historical consequences. Malick delivers his troops on the island before the Allied High Command was sure they could hold. Jones and history delivers the 25th Division for an offensive.In the novel, the first assault commences on a large hill called “the Dancing Elephant.” In real life, Jones was part of an attack on a series of hills called “the Galloping Horse.” These names derived from the shape the hills take on aerial reconnaissance photos.
On January 10, 1943, the 27th regiment under Col. William McCulloch (Col. Tall in the novel and the film) was ordered to lead the attack. The attack was stalled, not due to inexperience or cowardice. According to the official records, unexpected 37mm and 75mm artillery opened up on the men climbing the steep hill. The 25th Division was told to expect nothing heavier than a knee mortar. The novel and the film do not mention heavy enemy artillery. The film, the novel, and the official records all agree there was a terrible lack of water throughout the attack.The Japanese defense was broken, as in the film and the novel, by a small group of men. The fictionalized account has Capt. John Gaff leading a few men who toss grenades into the Japanese bunkers. In the novel, Gaff gets the Medal of Honor and promptly forgets the men who helped him get it. In real life, Capt. Charles Davis, the Company E Commander, not the Regimental Executive Officer, led the detail that broke the Japanese. He was given the Medal of Honor for leading four men in a grenade attack. He continued as commanding officer for a time after his medal was awarded.
Jones has many sickening images in the novel that could have immeasurably strengthened Malick’s film. I would mention three different incidents; Malick does not include any scenes like this in the film:
- An American soldier kills a Japanese soldier while the American is alone and relieving himself. He kills the armed Japanese solider with his bare hands, beating his head against the rocks until it breaks open.
- Two American soldiers are caught while trying to withdraw from an assault. In the full view of the rifle company above on the ridge, they are pulled over the Japanese line and killed. Later they are found mutilated with their sexual organs stuffed in their mouths.
- Two American soldiers sexually gratify one another and have to deal with their unanswered questions about their sexuality.
These incidents and many others in Jones’ book demonstrate Malick’s fetish for substituting cinematography for character and plot. In the novel, these are disturbing, even terrifying events; Malick reduces the novel to high art. This undermines Jones’ central theme: war is terrifying, and the only way to overcome it is to become more terrifying yourself. Malick’s love of camera angle and color put the film against the morality of the very novel it was adapted from. Throughout the film, the graphic nature of combat on land is muted by Malick’s need to superimpose “still” images ñ shots with little or no camera, actor, or prop movement ñ onto a very fluid action story.
Malick and his cinematographer seem to be influenced by artist Tom Lea’s wartime paintings. Appearing in Time and Life Magazine, Lea’s works captured the gritty colors of the war in action paintings of the men and machines of war. Lea accompanied the Marines who invaded Peleliu in September 1944. Peleliu’s defenders were underrated by Navy intelligence, and perhaps the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War ensued. Lea’s paintings are very graphic in nature, and deeply impressed me when I first saw them at age 5. The two images here are the only ones I have, but Lea’s other paintings are in vivid color, and strikingly use contrasts between red blood and khaki green to achieve a surreal, otherworldly look.
Malick seems to be trying to recreate Lea’s paintings on film, right down to the still frame. The Thin Red Line is utterly devoid of action or movement; I timed Capt. Gaff’s attack on the hill at only 6 minutes, out of 3 and half hours.
The Thin Red Line starts off on a pleasant island, where several GIs have gone AWOL. Ultimately the location doesn’t matter, because it is simply a theatrical device to show paradise, so Malick can contrast it with the hell of Guadalcanal. In real life it was probably New Caledonia, or Fiji, where GIs tried to go AWOL. If they could.
A boat pulls up, which is apparently out of 1983, fresh from patrolling off Grenada. The boat was built long after the Second World War. The boat picks them up.
The GIs are put in the brig aboard ship. The transport was reasonably accurate, as were some of the higgins boats used in the landing.
Many things were wrong with the landing as it was portrayed in the film. The American aircraft covering the landing were converted AT-6 Texan trainers, not the actual aircraft used on Guadalcanal. The division was dropped in the jungle without experienced guides, and immediately goes into combat.
In real life, and in the novel, the division was sent to Henderson Field, the airstrip that was the key to Guadalcanal. There they were bivouacked and underwent orientation, which by all accounts was inadequate. While at Henderson Field, the division was shelled.
Henderson Field was repeatedly shelled and bombed during the six month campaign. The worst attack, not portrayed in either the novel or the film, was “Black Tuesday” October 13, 1942, two Japanese Battleships and other vessels slipped down the slot and shelled the airstrip with new “proximity” fused 14″ shells. Unlike the shelling shown later in the film, this completely wiped out the air defenses and almost ended American resistance. In the novel, the shelling is unnerving but not utterly destructive. One man’s hand is amputated.
In the film, the company deploys into combat immediately. The unopposed landing did occur, but on August 7, 1942, when 1st Marine Division landed to light opposition. Malick plays fast with the history here to create a sense of foreboding and dread. Again, by not adhering to history, he weakens the overall story.
The men who come ashore do have basically accurate equipment: M1 Garand semiautomatic rifles, Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs), yellow M1917 “pineapple” grenades, M1911 Colt .45 pistols, and Thompson submachine guns. However, Malick avoids several key figures in history and in the novel. The weapons and mortar platoons are conspicuously absent; the water-cooled M1930 Browning machine guns, and the 60mm and 81mm mortars are missing. I assume Malick wanted to emphasize the isolation of the platoon by cutting it off from heavy weapons and support.
This sense of isolation culminates in a battle in a river. In the book, a green commander leaves a squad (about 12 men) behind the company in an exposed position, where it is wiped out. This happened many times on Guadalcanal, most notably when the 1st Marine Division’s Intelligence Officer, Col. Frank Goettge, led a reinforced platoon to capture supposedly weakened Japanese Marines. Everyone on the patrol was killed, which effectively ended Marines taking surrenders ever again in the Pacific War.
In the book, a melee ensues when the squad tries to escape and is cut down. The impact of the slaughter is deeply felt by every man in the company, and this had a profound effect on their fighting esprit de corps.
Malick chooses a more artistic and symbolic resolution, with the death of Pvt. Witt as he leads the Japanese away from his company. The death scene is filmed, as is almost the whole movie, in slow motion as Witt falls to the ground, his magnanimous gesture “redeeming” the humanity of the universal “soldier.” In other words, pretentious crap.
The character of Pvt. Witt drove me insane. Malick believes in eliminating as much dialog as possible, so Witt and others becomes this instrument of prose poetry in voiceover. Inane and useless, these voiceovers pop up at every scene, from soldiers in combat, men dreaming of their wives, even dead Japanese soldiers. This device was so overused, it became a joke. Malick is a junior filmmaker for resorting to such a film school trick.
Witt’s death caps a supposedly “deep” discussion about the nature of man between Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) and Witt. Throughout the film, these two men seem bent on discussing philosophical issues that really had no meaning or place on the Guadalcanal battlefield. Sometimes they would apparently have “discussions” by staring out over water or grassland and communicating by telepathy (in voiceover). Of course, Sgt. Welsh breaks down and cries over Witt’s grave.
In the book, Witt and Welsh are both more complex and a cliché in their own right. The hate each other, and never resort to philosophy, choosing instead to curse each other. Witt doesn’t die, and Welsh never cries. They are simple men, motivated more by thoughts of survival for themselves and their unit then pondering the philosophy of war and humanity.
Also, the novel clearly hints at the inherent anti-Semitism in the Army at the time. The character, Capt. Stein, is pushed around by his colonel. In the film, the character’s name is changed to Staros, which obliterates that discussion. I thought that was a poor choice that reduced the tension between the two characters. Apparently Hollywood studio bosses worried about complaints from the Jewish community. I think they would have applauded a nuanced approach to a difficult issue. Perhaps the Army was uncomfortable with the issue and deleted the name in exchange for their cooperation.
The Thin Red Line is at best an incomplete film. Malick changed so much of the integral heart of the novel and the history behind it, he should have just made his own story.
It is filled with historical inaccuracies, a ponderously slow, meandering plot, and no real clear theme other than Malick’s pretentiousness. The film is a disservice to the 35,000 Japanese and 5,000 Americans killed on Guadalcanal during the Pacific’s longest campaign, and the thousands who lived and died on or near its shores.
The 1964 version is very different, but isn’t a classic war film either. Hopefully someone will make a version that is faithful to the novel.