I initially posted an article pitting twin war films Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line against each other to figure out which was the better, and that article is still available to read here. However, recently I re-wrote that review from the ground up for fernbyfilms.com friend Bryce Zabels moviesmackdown.com, a great website I moonlight reviews for. Below is the article, slightly abridged and amended, that appeared on Bryce’s site. It’s a more mature and intricate exploration of these two films from what I have already written, and I feel that both articles have individual merit, and should both be read to get a clear understanding of exactly what I feel towards two pivotal films from 1998. To read the article as published over at moviesmackdown.com, follow this link.
War is hell. And until Steven Spielberg got involved, we’d never really experienced war through the eyes of a soldier. We’d come close, with filmmakers as diverse as Coppola and Oliver Stone all giving us their interpretations, but it always seemed to be at a safe distance. The viewer was taken on a journey, but not our own journey. Unlike Ron Kovic or Ben Willard, who undertake a journey for us, Spielberg attempted to give us our own experience in war without having to leave the cinema. Saving Private Ryan, which graphically shows us the D-Day landings of a group of US forces in 1944, opens with an assault on the senses unlike any we’d ever seen. It thrust us into the heat of battle, the confusion and carnage of an assault that beggars description. It wanted us to know exactly what war is really like. At the same time, at a different film studio, a reclusive film director had also embarked upon a journey to show us the inhumanity and insanity of war. Terrence Malick, who had disappeared from the Hollywood radar for the better part of two decades in a self-imposed exile, had returned with a lengthy, languid exploration of the mental anguish of fighting the war in the Pacific, the other major theater of World War II. Gathering some of the cream of Hollywood talent and star wattage, Malick constructed a story of broken hearts, hope and devastation, the jungles of the Pacific cast as a beautiful backdrop to some of mankind’s darkest moments. With The Thin Red Line, Sean Penn and James Caviezel lead a massively talented cast into battle, told in a style that is so completely different to Spielberg’s more grimy effort, so ensuring that we experience both styles of film-making to endure the horrors of war.
Two mighty juggernauts of cinema, lined up head to head. Both set during WWII, both featuring a large cast of known names, all vying for screen-time, all with a story to tell. This will be a brutal, casualty ridden affair that will leave only the bravest, the strongest standing. Soldiers, open fire!!!
The Brutality. Imagine going into battle, the tension and outright terror sweeping through you like a cresting wave. You stand with your platoon, as your boat comes into sight of the shore, the crack of gunfire and howl of passing bullets sending shivers of fear into your very core. A whistle blows, the bow of the boat flings open, and you see before you the beach, erupting into enormous gouts of sand and body parts. Those who came before you are shredded across the sand like so much mincemeat. You grab your rifle, the only defense you have, and hurl yourself into the icy waters behind your fellow soldiers. Your friends fall around you, bullets pummeling them backwards, downwards, into the water and sand. Blood fills the sea, the stench of ammunition firing wafting through the air, as you navigate the hail of bullets to a vantage point from where you can regroup. The screams of the dying reverberate in your ears, grown men reduced to whimpering child-cries, wailing for their mothers as they scoop their internal organs off the ground around them. The roar of artillery and the krump krump of explosives deafens you. You know that any moment you too could join the hundreds of men lying prone along the once pristine beachhead.
Such is the opening to Saving Private Ryan, a tour de force of film-making that actually attempted to put the viewer into the middle of the D-Day landings on the beaches of Normandy. Bloody, dirty and as realistic a sequence as had ever been committed to film at that point, suddenly we looked at war in a whole new way. A collective shift in our perception of war occurred in that single, brutal 20 minute opening salvo; a devastatingly heroic band of soldiers shown attempting to land safely on a beach became one of the most harrowing cinematic moments of 1998. Director Steven Spielberg’s now celebrated anti-war film almost singlehandedly revolutionized the style and look of every single war film that followed, from the horror of Black Hawk Down to the carnage and desolation of Band of Brothers. Finally, the brutality of pure warfare, sans macho bravado and cliched jut-jawed pontification, had been revealed, and to those of us inexperienced in it, it was truly awful. Saving Private Ryan, once the opening sequence comes to a close, moves into more traditional territory when the surviving group of soldiers, led by a stoic Tom Hanks, are sent on a mission to find a missing soldier somewhere in occupied France, so he can be sent home. The Private, Ryan, is unaware his three brothers have been killed in action, and the powers-that-be have decided that their mother should not be left without any offspring: thus, the politically charged mission to rescue the wayward soldier. Within this story, we are introduced to the characters of the platoon charged with this duty, and come to understand the bravery and primal friendships they strike up as they maneuver through enemy lines.
The Beauty. You stand, sweating, staring into an almost impenetrable jungle, insects flitting about your head in a desperate attempt to suck you dry. The howl and whistle, shriek and cackaw of distant wildlife echoes across the mountainside, the jungle slowly giving way to a lush, grassy undergrowth. Somewhere up the mountain before you, hidden in a maze of tunnels and booby-traps, the enemy waits, guns trained upon the grass-top until you decide to appear, before opening fire. You wait, always waiting for the command to advance, terrified of death. Nearby, a soldier sits, reading a letter from home. Tears roll down his cheeks, the shuddering sobs coming silently so he doesn’t disturb the unnatural peace of the landscape. Behind you, somebody writes their own letter home, a bloodstained scrap of paper perhaps the last vestige of normalcy in a conflict that has claimed so many lives. A tent nearby barely hides the tempered anger of officers debating their next course of action; you know your fate rests in their hands. A twilight assault on the mountain or a rest overnight, to attack fresh in the morning?
As you look around, you become aware of just how magnificent a place this really is. The tropical jungle is green, a serene beauty transcending the horror of the humanity before it. This place is beautiful, a paradise without end. How can it be so spoiled, tinged with the tragedy of battle, the atrocity of humanity’s desire to kill each other in a senseless battle. Somewhere, somebody hums a listless tune, penetrating the silence like a gunshot. Heads turn, several pairs of defeated eyes watching a man walk across the field. memory floods back, of the wonderful days before the war, family and friends around you and no real sense of danger or anger in your heart. The Thin Red Line straddles the difficult balance between the solitary soldier battling his own inner demons and fears, and the epic scope of a battleground so impossible to navigate. At its heart is the terror, the unimaginable horror of feeling so alone in this place of tranquility and beauty, the mental hurdles the military machine must face when fighting an enemy on his own territory. A beautiful territory. A deadly territory. The Guadalcanal theater. You’ve reached The Thin Red Line.
The Battle. And so we come to it. The decisive battle between a film essaying America’s full powered entrance into the War in Europe, and one in which we see the mental anguish of continued war in the Pacific. Both films are an indictment on the futility and stupidity of war, and both show the way in which battle strips away the humanity from each person, slowly and surely. In Saving Private Ryan, the bombast and explosive opening stanza soon give way to a more developed character story, with the complex multi-racial group of soldiers giving lessons in army life to newcomer Private Upham (Jeremy Davies), who is seconded as a replacement member of Captain Millers depleted company. Miller (Hanks) doesn’t question the reasons behind what he sees as a futile mission to locate Ryan, although the resignation that he is unable to always see the background of a given situation is writ large on his face. Miller leads his men through the French countryside on their mission to locate Ryan, which develops some tacit aggression from his men, who can’t understand why they are risking the lives of many to save one. A fair question, reasons Miller, but he’s an army man, and he follows his orders, no matter how stupid or unreasonable they may seem.
With The Thin Red Line, we see a different take on wars futility, as it more deeply examines the emotional cost the soldiers fighting these battles endure, as their humanity is slowly stripped away with each kill, with each battle. The primary character in Red Line is Private Witt, played by James Caviezel, although he appears and disappears throughout the films narrative for the duration. As the battle for Guadalcanal heats up, we are exposed to various storylines from different perspectives, the commanding officer right down to the lowest rank grunt. Everybody gets a moment in this film for a little self examination (no, not that kind!) and it’s here where Line achieves some of its success. That’s not to say Line is without fault, for it has many and they are wide ranging. However, where The Thin Red Line performs well as a film is when it’s focus is clear, and it’s narrative structured. The film suffers a lot from obvious post-production tinkering, and it’s to the detriment of the film. According to reports, Malick had a lot of issues with the post production on this film, tinkering with the structure (and even trying to remove all the scenes with dialog… imagine that!) and having Final Cut on the film, something he’s entitled to but perhaps he should have listened to those who had concerns.
Spielberg is a master storyteller, as almost everybody in the world will attest to. Some of his films have fared better than others, but it’s an undeniable fact that the man knows how to pull and audience along with him for the ride. Private Ryan is one of those films that grabs you by the throat, tosses you around like a dog with a childs toy, and tries to swallow you without chewing. It’s a visceral, confronting film at times, although at its quietest still skirts the depth of emotion and character that would have made this a truly awesome cinematic experience. SPR has a multiple number of cast members, all vying for their character to develop on-screen beyond the cliched. Hanks, as the leader, gets the lions share of development, and it’s primarily through him that we journey on this film: unlike The Thin Red Line, which appears not to have any true lead character, since the film sways between so many all the time.
While Ryan might be the more cohesive, the more structured narrative of the two films, it’s not without fault. In it’s quiet moments, Ryan manages to misstep in it’s core emotional weight. This is not a fault with anybody in particular, per se, I just think that Ryans weighty action sequences and graphic, in-your-face violence tend to tip the balance against the slightly shallow, less well rounded characters. The general jabber of the soldiers as they make their way through the countryside is amusing, and their peril unbelievably great, however we don’t quite get the emotional connection with them all that I would have liked. As Miller, Hanks delivers yet another performance that should have been a contender for Best Actor Oscar. He’s ably aided in his acting duties by a fairly decent cast, including Barry Pepper (with whom Hanks would go on to co-star with again in The Green Mile), Vin Diesel (in his first major motion picture role), Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Matt Damon, Adam Goldberg and Giovanni Ribisi. But we don’t really understand their motivations, we don’t get into their heads like we want to, with the script tending to focus more on the mission statement and the action, leaving us only the merest moments to pause between battles. It’s a little frustrating, but not enough to lessen your enjoyment of the film.
That’s not to say Saving Private Ryan is a failure as a film, because it isn’t. What I have pointed out is such a small failing that it is almost negligible to the amazing power this film holds. I think we’re so desensitized now by the fact that every time a battle sequence is filmed these days, most directors will emulate Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s style. The super crisp jagged technique employed by Kaminski here is a defining moment in cinema; since then, any time you have a battle, you have to film it like they did on Saving Private Ryan – it’s almost become a cliché. Spielberg also amped up the tension by de-saturating the film stock of most of it’s color, perhaps in a similar vein to shooting in black and white like he did on Schindler’s List. Others have come and gone trying to get their films to look as frenetic and stylish, but the fact remains that Spielberg did it first, and revolutionized the way we see battles unfold on screen. The Thin Red Line, meanwhile, takes it’s visuals from a more sumptuous style: the wide-screen film format perfectly encompasses the look that Malick was going for in his exploration of the beauty of Guadalcanal, because the film is visually impressive. Cinematographer John Toll’s brilliant hues and textures literally leap off the screen in what is essentially a three hour postcard of tropical islands. And the expected battle sequences, scattered primarily in the center of this epic film, are beautifully rendered.
But the nitty gritty of this whole essay is to spell out one major caveat with the films: and in this case, the subject leans towards the bloated, unfocused Thin Red Line. To be honest, this film is a chore to get through. Clocking in at a bladder bursting three hours, the film needed to have a coherent structure and narrative in order to maintain interest. Since Malick seems determined to confuse the audience with a multitude of characters with the merest transient moments (check out George Clooneys ten second cameo at the end… how does he get major marquee billing out of that?!) and a desire to focus on the ethereal, the ephemeral, rather than the realistic, Thin Red Line becomes a lumbering, badly paced triumph in cinematic flatulence.
This is the kind of arrogant film-making you’d label as being made by an “auteur”. With Thin Red Line, Malicks inability to generate any tension or emotive weight until about 90 minutes into the film is indicative of just how much you’ll enjoy this test of endurance. The film really takes off during its brilliant middle act: the storming of a hillside by a platoon of soldiers, and Nick Noltes gruff, brutal commanding officer, Colonel Tall, are glimpses of sublime fimmaking. Here the tension ratchets up, as Tall must try and convince Captain Staros (Elias Koteas, in one of his finest film performances) to lead his men up the hill in what appears to be a suicide mission. At this moment, Thin Red Line becomes a great war film. Then, that goodwill evaporates the moment we head into the convoluted, incoherent and stubbornly inane final act, where Malick again demonstrates his pomposity to his audience by drifting into this weirdly lame wishy washy dialog, intercut with images meant to be poignant and meaningful: they aren’t, and it isn’t. Not even the great Sean Penn can carry this films final act into anything even remotely resembling good storytelling. What story? Where’s the story going? You’re screaming at the screen for the movie to hurry the hell up and do something! It’s all something pointless, and as an audience we don’t have anybody we can really root for the whole way through. Which is a crucial mistake to make. A film without a key character whose journey we follow, is a film devoid of interest for most. And why does Malick seem intent on shooting long takes of trees, flowers and foliage, all of which merely serve to pad out an otherwise bloated film? I got sick of watching yet another long tracking shot of enormous trees stretching up into the sky, of flowers and junglescapes that last for ages (interminable ages too!) and generate no emotional response from the audience. Sorry Terrence, but it does nothing for me.
Let’s get this straight: I’ve spent a long time trying to dissect The Thin Red Line to try and figure out what on Earth its point is. There are copious voice-overs, from almost every character on screen thinking about war and the futility of it all… to be honest, often it plays like hippie hocus pocus to me, and I detested the arrogance of Malick to think he could make a film like this and expect people to appreciate the “art” of it all. I get the same emotion from postmodern art and Monkey paintings.
Saving Private Ryan was a landmark film in many ways, mainly for the way in which it revolutionized the War Picture genre, and gave it a genuine shot of adrenaline going forward. The ante had been upped, and again it had been Spielberg at the forefront.
Oh how I wish Terrence Malick had stayed off the directorial radar. The Thin Red Line is a tedious, vacant cinematic experience, perhaps best reserved for waking people from a coma by being even more boring than being in a coma. Spielberg’s Private Ryan is a vastly superior cinematic experience, a real war film that allows us to experience what it must be like for combat troops. While TTRL had only the barest of great moments, Saving Private Ryan is filled with them. In this titanic battle of war, go looking for Private Ryan, and skip past the thin red line.