Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick; based on The Thin Red Line by James Jones
Cinematographer: John Toll
by Jon Cvack
Continued from Part 1....
After the battle ends, Quintard takes Staros for a walk, asking if he is willing to sacrifice any of his men, which is a fair question. Malick avoids creating an overly righteous individual, holier than all others, but instead provides us with a flawed individual, who might be allowing his relationships to the men jeopardize the overall mission, however slight. Later, the two share another scene where Quintard relieves Staros, stating that so long as Staros avoids formal objections to Quintard’s irresponsible orders, Staros will go back to the states, with no consequences to face and with a much safer and more manageable role, away from the action.
Throughout the film, Staros is seen praying with all his might, hoping to make it out alive. It’s clear what the deal means, and what’s more nuanced is that he takes it with minimal resistance. We never know if he cherished the opportunity to escape, or knew that prolonging the situation would only make things worse. The best part of this scene is its similarity to an earlier moment, when a pudgy soldier feigns a stomach ache right before the initial battle charge, begging to go back. Sgt. Keck (Woody Harrelson) scolds him for cowardice and orders him to prepare to charge. The man starts drooling and shaking, a look of fear strewn across his face. 1st St. Edward Welsh (Sean Penn) intervenes, and excuses the man, much to Keck’s disagreement. Earlier in the film, we see Welsh castigate Bell (Ben Chaplin) for going AWOL, demoting him back down to private, where he’ll now help the medics with the wounded. In the scene, Welsh declares that any man like Bell is a weakness to the unit and unfit for combat.
So why would Welsh allow the pudgy man to head back down the hill? It was only this round that I think I finally understood - as the last thing any of the men needed to see at that moment was someone scared out of his mind, pretending to be sick, possibly forcing Keck to take drastic action - either continuing to yell at the soldier, making him grow increasingly frantic, or killing the man, exasperating the fear all the other men are trying to contain.
This is the same deal as Quintard provided Storos - an easy way out for Storos, that would have the littlest effect upon the man and most positive result for Quintard. There seems a genuine respect for Storos and what he did, as is evident by the tears and bargaining. But again the performance comes on. He can’t empathize too much. You get the sense that Quintard would like to open up and explain that he understands. Perhaps Quintard was not offering the deal as a way to save himself, so much as reward Storos for having saved so many men. Quintard wasn’t strong enough to question his superior. Storos was and Quintard respected that. In the end, we don’t know what Quintard exactly believed. You could argue either way. The character embodies emptiness; where the further you go the more it leads to uncertainty.
It was during the charge through the weeds that I remembered an essay I read about the opening shot with the alligator head dipping into and out of the swamp; a perfect image for unpredictable death. I’ve written on the idea in other films - I can’t understand overcoming the fear to charge into battle. There are books like Red Badge of Courage, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and All is Quiet on the Western Front, movies like Saving Private Ryan, Platoon, and When Trumpets Fade, even a few songs that I’d be embarrassed to mention specifically for fear of misinterpreting their meaning - all which can make you come as close as possible to understanding the fear a soldier faces. To know that you are, whether agreeable or not, in a situation where you must charge into battle, where people will die all around you, and the only difference between living and dying is pure luck, chance, or randomness. The alligator doesn’t care which human it wants to eat, but it is going to eat. The battle commences and between Hans Zimmer’s score and Malick’s direction and Toll’s photography we are completely immersed within the minds of these men. There is nuance and depth, and each of us is able to interpret the vast array of characters in such unique and subjective ways, it’s as though we’re there with them, following the movie forward.
Allegedly Hans Zimmer recorded over four hours of music for the film, meaning the original film ran over that amount, eventually trimmed down by an hour and change to its 170 minute running time; Billy Bob Thornton had recorded an hour of voice over, none of it used, with Malick opting to use other characters; in a Hollywood Reporter interview with Christopher Plummer and George Clooney, Plummer vowed never to work with Malick again after how he cut the film, with Clooney stating that Adrien Brody actually had the lead in the film, only to be almost completely edited it out. While the trivia is fascinating, I can’t help imagining what else this film could have been - not better or worse, just different. Rarely has one film’s history illustrated that this story could have been assembled in a myriad of ways. Now that I’ve accomplished seeing this film in the theater, I can only hope that eventually that four hour cut is discovered. It has to be somewhere and what an experience that could be. I consider this one of the finest films ever made; where Malick accomplished the rare feat of introducing an entirely new cinematic style, that was only recently adopted by the more mainstream and accessible The Revenant (and done marvelously, at that).
The closing scene, as the men are charging through the gate, as Zimmer’s “Journey to the Line” kicks in - what I consider to be one of the finest pieces of film score ever created - and we follow the men as they head into one last dash, so close to coming out alive, and filled with such rage that you wonder what rumors the Japanese passed on afterward. I wasn’t able to finish these thoughts before that post cinematic feeling wore off. It stuck with me for a long, long time. There was so much else I wanted to explore and simply did not have the time to write it down. Even with just a few weeks and a half dozen films taken in since then the details are muddied. There is a power that this film contains. When I hear actors complain and that the film is too abstract, it all adds up to the epitome of talent. Malick had the rare privilege to create and explore a film that would completely stray from what anyone expected. Somehow the stars don’t feel like stars; the don’t pop out at you; they assemble, and like the marines they play, they each have a role. It is not about them. It is about the grander story, in which you can truly feel the craft behind each shot and scene. It’s rare that even after five viewings there’s more discover. I won’t return too soon. A film like deserves time between viewings; so that you forget where it goes, allowing it to pierce deep into your soul and transport you to a place that film and only film could ever accomplish.
BELOW: The opening scene and an alligator
Please report any spelling, grammar, or factual mistakes on our contact page
Thoughts on films, old and new
© Jonathan Cvack and Yellow Barrel, 2015 - 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jon Cvack and Yellow Barrel with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.