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Re: Combat films

From: Allan Goodall <agoodall@i...>
Date: Fri, 17 Mar 2000 20:09:23 -0500
Subject: Re: Combat films

On Thu, 16 Mar 2000 23:57:40 GMT, (David

> I didn't bother seeing SPR since I'd heard it was a typically
> saccarine piece of Speilberg twaddle (this is the man whose
> Holocaust film has the Jews get out alive, the man whose slavery
> film had the slaves get away free) and I really cannot abide Tom
> Hanks. 

Well, I wouldn't call it saccharine. I suppose you could guess whether
Private Ryan is saved or not based on the fact that it's a Speilberg
but other than that, it is hardly saccharine. In fact, most of the main
characters are dead by the end of the film. Don't think of this as a
by the guy who made ET, think of this as a movie by the guy who made

> I saw good reviews for TRL, saw it and enjoyed it very
> much. Actually, I saw dozens of bad reviews for TRL on the 'net,
> which all seem to revolve about them *not* portraying the
> Japanese as inhuman killing machines... which seemed like a
> patently silly complaint.

"Thin Red Line" I thought did a good job of depicting the Japanese from
point of view of the soldiers fighting them. You don't actually see many
Japanese up close. The depiction of the stunned Japanese prisoners was
done, I thought.

My complaints with the movie have little to do with historical accuracy.
They are mostly story telling problems.

My biggest complaint is the main plot. Actually, the main conflict, the
really interesting one, between the company commander and Nick Nolte's
general character is a good one. The way it builds, unfolds, and is
is very good. Only one problem: this plot is resolved with still 1/3 of
movie left to go. It's as though Mallick didn't know what to use as the
thrust of the movie. I realize he was basing the film on a novel, but
was THE central conflict of the film. It's the only conflict that isn't
entirely internalized within a character. It's the conflict that grabs
most effectively, is most effectively written, is most effectively
and when it ended I had a big gap open up before me. The rest of the
just isn't that interesting. There isn't any sense of purpose or
to the characters after that.

Far too much of the film is dedicated to beautiful filmwork that does
nothing to propel the story. The opening sequences, for instance, make a
lovely travelogue of Guadalcanal and the islands there about, but it
nothing but chew up celluloid. The characterization that it shows could
easily been done with half the footage. This is a minor thing, really. I
didn't mind it. What I really minded was that having done this beautiful
work at the beginning of the movie, he continued to do it throughout,
stifling any sense of pace. I can see why the art school critics loved
film. From a cinematography standpoint it's awesome. Unfortunately, that
comes at the expense of pace.

I saw the film with two friends: Michael, a military history buff like
myself and a movie reviewer for CBC radio, and Chris, also a military
history buff. After the film, we got into a debate as to whether two of
characters were actually one character. In the end, we decided that
were two characters (the one pining for his wife, and the one who was
frolicking at the beginning of the movie). But the fact that we were
confused enough that we could have a meaningful discussion as to what
involved which character shows a lack of distinction between the two.
actors are physically similar, but worse, the characters speak with the

This is a big failing throughout the film. ALL the characters have the
"voice". The soliloquy by Sean Penn's character sounds like the internal
musings of Nick Nolte's character, which sounds like the tortured soul
yet another character. It's as though everyone speaks the same way as
everyone else inside their head. Or outside, for that matter. Compare
to Saving Private Ryan and there is no comparison. In Ryan, each
is distinctive, in voice and nuance. Not so in TRL. This may have been
deliberate, but it didn't work for me.

While we're at it, the long expositive talking of the characters on the
nature of life, death, and war wore thin after a while. It was nicely
(for the most part), but more than a bit indulgent. By the end of the
film I
was thinking, "Yadda, yadda, yadda, get on with it...". 

Finally, there was the "Dear John" scene. Dear John letters are a combat
film cliche. It's like the partner in action movies who is looking
to a vacation while his wife is pregnant and he's days from retirement.
KNOW he's going to buy it. In WW2 films from the 40s onwards, you know
guy who talks about his wife incessantly is going to get a Dear John
by the end of the movie. Well, perhaps the book that Mallick adapted was
source of this cliche, but it didn't stop him from rising above it. If
anything, he's done the definitive cliche: slow motion scenes of his
wife on
a swing, for God's sake. When the "mail call" was sounded while the
were resting, I thought to myself, "Oh, no... he wouldn't!" Yes, he did.
character with the wife on the swing gets a Dear John letter. He
even change it slightly to avoid cliche, like having her run over by a
or come down sick with the flu or something. No, she runs off with a
(or was it a navy man, don't remember...). 

Those are the faults I found in the film, and the reason I haven't
picked it
up on tape or DVD. The reasons I'm tempted to pick it up, though, are
reasons many people liked the film. The cinematography is gorgeous.
There is
one beautiful scene with a squad of men moving over a hill on the way to
reconnoiter a Japanese bunker. They travel hunkered down through the
grass. The grass is whipped by wind, and the billowy clouds above scud
in the wind. The troops move in the same direction, flowing with the
The clouds block the sun, sending patterns of light and shadow over the
hill. The shadows must have swung the exposure by about 2 f-stops, but
Mallick (or his cinematographer) kept the whole, splendid scene in
exposure. It's the most beautiful scene I've ever witnessed in a war
and almost worth seeing the whole film for.

The acting is very good. Nick Nolte deserved an Oscar for his roll.
forgive Mallick his one close up of Nolte where Nolte is back lit and
can see that he has a pierced ear; not exactly what you'd expect in a
general.) The central plot and conflict is VERY well done. I'm not sure
he felt he had to make the company commander of European descent instead
Jewish (as is true in the book) but he did. If it was simply for casting
sake, it was a good choice as the company commander is played by an
excellent actor (who's name escapes me). Sean Penn was understated, but
a good actor when the script allows him to be, and fit right in. The
cameos were a tad intrusive, I thought.

The combat sequences didn't have the same realism as those in Ryan, but
was just a cruel fortune of timing. If Mallick's film had come out
people would have talked about the realism in TRL... until SPR came out.
It's not as gory as SPR, and you don't get the feeling of bullets
over your head (or beside your head) but the sequences were pretty good.

So, that's my review of "Thin Red Line". It has some masterful stuff in
but I found it deeply flawed. Rearranged, and tightened, and it could
been a classic war film. In the end, though, it felt too existential for
war film (which, again, might be Mallick's point). The pacing was off,
he had to say about humanity and killing had been said elsewhere and
better (TRL's long posturing poetics doesn't compare to the descent into
madness of "Apocalypse Now"), and the story really ended 2/3 of the way
through the film. But the acting is excellent and the cinematography
wonderful. I might get this on DVD if only because it's easier to
it by jumping from one chapter to another.

Allan Goodall
Goodall's Grotto:

"Surprisingly, when you throw two naked women with sex
toys into a living room full of drunken men, things 
always go bad." - Kyle Baker, "You Are Here"

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