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Whether you feel Terrence Malick’s movie version of James Jones’ The Thin Red Line is a masterpiece of Homeric proportions or a heap of bogus profundity, I recommend the newly reissued original screen version from 1964. That was also the year of Dr. Strangelove, and the films share a cold surrealism.

The director is Andrew Marton, a codirector of the proto-Saving Private Ryan, Darryl F. Zanuck’s The Longest Day. Psychological and compact where Malick’s is philosophical and epic, Marton’s Line neglects most of the rifle company taking Guadalcanal, focusing on the strange comradeship of First Sgt. Edward Welsh (Jack Warden here; Sean Penn in the remake) and Private Doll (2001’s Keir Dullea; the downplayed Dash Mihok). Welsh, who thinks of the war as some kind of tough-guy aptitude test, is enthusiastically resigned to chaos. Doll is just as unhinged but unfocused: Before the battle, he daydreams of his wife, then dreamily swipes a pistol. Does he want extra protection? Or plan to shoot himself in the foot? Or the head?

The first battle scene is one-on-one. Doll squares off with a Japanese soldier, shoots him, then straddles and strangles him while wailing in subhuman tones. It would be hard to imagine a scene more inhumane — until Welsh enters and coldly bayonets the corpse. In Marton’s anti-gung ho genre film, the idea — unpretentiously handled — is war turns men not into killing machines but simply into men who kill. B+

The Thin Red Line

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  • Movie
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mpaa
  • R
director
  • Terrence Malick

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