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Terrence Malick's "the Thin Red Line" and Hollywood's Traditional Depictions of War

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THEThin Red Line is a three-hour epic about the World War II, directed by Terrence Malick, who made his comeback to the film industry after 20 years with a subject that had been neglected for almost as long.(1) The film is based on James Jones' novel, published in 1962, which was first adapted for the big screen by Andrew Marton in 1964 rather unsuccessfully. For many years, the book seemed to defy cinematic adaptation due to its deliberately choppy, episodic storyline, its lack of a single heroic protagonist and the multiplicity of perspectives.(2) However, Malick tried to overcome these obstacles by creating a film which broke "most of the commercial rules about narrative and drama"(3), as a critic observes. My interest in The Thin Red Line is therefore twofold: firstly, I will try to explore the ambivalent nature of its narrative which oscillates between the Hollywood tradition and art-cinema narration and secondly, I will focus on the representations of war, in an attempt to compare them to the World War II films of the past.

World War II stands out as an intriguing period in the history of Hollywood cinema. After the bombardment of Pearl Harbor and the American involvement in the war in 1941, the Hollywood industry was eager to express its wholesale commitment to the imperatives of war. As Tomas Schatz observes, "never before or since have the interests of the nation and the movie industry been so closely aligned, and never has Hollywood's status as a national cinema been so vital".(4) Hollywood's prompt mobilization, combined with the prominent role of cinema as the dominant mass medium at the time, turned the Second World War into the most thoroughly documented and dramatized event in history(5) Since television and the 24-hour transmission of images were not yet available, it was the motion pictures that brought the war to the wide public through the vast production of newsreels, documentaries and dramatic features. However, despite the abundance of images and representations, all the fiction and non-fiction treatments of the war shared a common message: that the American people fought for a just cause and the war effort had to be sustained at all cost until the final victory.

The representations of armed forces in wartime movies encompass a wide range of films which feature soldiers, sailors and airmen both in combat and non-combat situations. Especially at the outset of the war, the "war themes" were integrated into the already established film genres, such as the musical and the comedy, where the uniformed men functioned merely as props in crowd scenes, in the streets, in night clubs and train stations.(6) However, according to Schatz, "the term war film took on steadily narrower connotations as Hollywood refined specific war-related formulas."(7) These formulas comprised espionage films, occupation films, home-front dramas depicting military training or the daily experience of the wartime Americans, and above all, combat films, which constituted the core of the genre.

The combat movies provided the most direct and all-encompassing treatment of the war by dramatizing the actual battles and inaugurating a new sense of realism and historical immediacy in the Hollywood films. They depicted battlefield situations on sea, land or air, and described the violence, the hardships and the courage of the soldiers in the front. The largest number of combat films produced during the war take place in the Pacific theatre of operations(8) and some of the most legendary examples include Wake Island (1942), Bataan (1943), Guadalcanal Diary (1943) and 30 Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), to name just a few. Hollywood's response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour was not only swift but also relentless. In the combat films, the portrayal of the Japanese as duplicitous and barbaric 'subhumans' had no precedent. As Dick notes, "in contrast to the 'good German' and the occasional good Nazi, good Japanese were almost unheard of."(9)

However, in the postwar era the World War II film genre underwent some significant transformations. Although the combat film remained the dominant formula for another two decades, the films looking back at the Second World War adopted a more moderate stance towards the enemy and tried to provide a less biased account of the war. As Manvell observes, "as the years pass, the antagonisms between the former enemies become relaxed into a form of mutual respect for prowess and dedication in war...."(10) Some of the most frequently debated films that exemplify this revisionist turn are Attack! (1956), which portrays a conflict within the American army, Tora Tora Tora (1970), which tries to shed light on the circumstances that led the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor, and Patton (1970) which provides a very controversial portrait of a modern hero.(11) Patton was actually the last commercially successful and critically appraised epic of the Second World War(12) because the war in Vietnam and the establishment of television as the popular mass medium brought about significant changes in the motion picture industry. After remaining in the spotlight for almost four decades, the subject of the WWII was superseded by the more controversial conflict of Vietnam and the contemporary needs of the film market. As Doherty notices,

By the early 1990's conventional Hollywood wisdom considered the 1941-45 background 'box-office poison' because multiplex mall crawlers and the crucial 18-to-24-year-old demographic find Frank Capra's Great Struggle as remote and irrelevant as the Peloponnesian Wars.(13)

Some years later, however, in 1998 Hollywood did return to the all-time classic theme of WW II and the Thin Red Line is a very critically appraised example. Nevertheless, the course of time and other events caused considerable transformations to the war genre and my analysis of the film will try to identify them.

Elements of narration in the Thin Red Line

The Thin Red Line is set in the Guadalcanal Island in the Pacific Ocean in 1942 and depicts the attempt of the American army to seize control over the Guadalcanal Island in the Pacific Ocean and their battles against the Japanese occupiers. The structure of the film is rather episodic and the syuzhet can be analyzed in the following segments:

* The film opens with an idyllic sequence in an unspoiled island in the Pacific. Private Witt (James Caviezel) is absent without leave (AWOL) and he is enjoying his time away from the ugliness of the front. In a voice-over we hear his thoughts about nature, life and immortality unravelling in a contemplative pace. Soon he has to return to the Charlie Company and face the rebuke by Sergeant Welsh (Sean

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