The Thin Red Line (1998) Part I The Review

Sometimes we watch a movie and love it. A few years later we watch it again and have no clue why we ever liked it. This happened to me a few times, fortunately it isn’t all that often.

I have seen the The Thin Red Line three times by now, the first time I liked it so much that it actually triggered my interest in war movies.

The second time, shortly after the first, I still liked it a lot. But that was 7 years ago and since then I have seen numerous other movies, excellent ones, good ones and abominable ones as well.

Watching it for a third time made me somewhat wary. What if…?

I shouldn’t have worried. After watching it for the third time I think it is the most radical, most thoughtful, most provocative and most difficult anti-war movie that has ever been made.

The Thin Red Line is truly a lyrical and poetical meditation on death and dying. It’s far more than just a war movie. It is transcending the genre.

I decided to dedicate more than one post to this stunning movie, exploring different aspects (something I would like to do for other movies as well in the future).

I will cover the following topics.

Part I. Review

Part II. On Death and Dying

Part III. Nature and Evil

Part IV. The Actors and the Characters

Part V. Saving Private Ryan versus The Thin Red Line

Part I The Review

In many war movies there is a bridge to defend, an outpost to be kept or a hill to be taken. Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, based on James Jones’ eponymous novel, tells the story of the taking of a hill. It’s 1942, on the island of Guadalcanal, which is part of the Solomon Islands, in the Pacific.

The movie opens on an idyllic scene. Two soldiers, one of them Private Witt (James Caviezel) have gone AWOL. They live among the natives in a paradise-like place. They swim and play with the kids, surrounded by the beauty of tropical nature. This will not last. A patrol boat will come and get them and together with the other soldiers from C-Company they are sent on a mission to take a hill on top of which is a Japanese bunker.

This is one of those typical suicidal missions. Driven by a mad Colonel (Nick Nolte) who cares about nothing but his own glory the men are led by the gentle and courageous Cpt Staros. Staros cares for his men, unlike Colonel Tall and even risks being court-martialled for disobedience in order to save his men from certain death. Tall wants them to attack frontally despite the fact that the Japanese have all the advantages. They are well dug in, sheltered by their bunker, looking down on those crawling men. Staros wants to bypass the hill. A far better and careful decision that was made after seeing how the situation really was, while Tall decided from afar, having no clue how the situation looked closeup.

The scenes that follow the beginning are alternating between intense infantry combat, scenes of dying and death, nature shots, interior monologue in voice-over and also flashbacks of the soldiers lives before the war. Witt thinks of his childhood and the peaceful idyll in the tropical paradise, Staros is very religious and Private Bell imagines his wife and their love for each other.

The losses are high, the death scenes harrowing and gruesome. Thanks to Staros’ disobedience the attack doesn’t lead to total disaster and the men are victorious in the end. However he has to pay a prize, he will be sent away under the false pretense of suffering from malaria. No matter how many soldiers’ lives he saved, he will never ever be in command again.

The Thin Red Line draws a few interesting character portraits to which I will come in Part IV of this series.

The score of the movie has been written by Hans Zimmer and underlines the poetical versus brutal aspects of the movie.

If you already want to know more about the cast here is an earlier post: My Favourite War Movie All-star Cast

Advertisements

Housewife, 49 (2006) British TV Production on Civilian Life During WWII

The British Mass Observation was founded in 1937. Its aim was to record the daily experiences of the British people for social research. During the war many people volunteered and provided information on their everyday life. Nella Last, called Housewife, 49 in the project, was one of them. Her diaries have been published and are still widely read as they provide so much detail on the life in Britain during WWII.

I wasn’t familiar with any of this before watching Housewife, 49. Since I liked it so much I have meanwhile bought the book and hope to get to it very soon. As is often the case, the book is said to be much richer and to contain a lot more than the TV film still, I really liked this film. One reason why I liked it is the great performance of Victoria Wood. Wood, who is better known as a comedian, excels in this serious and intimate portrayal of a sad and depressed house wife who finds new meaning in life. Victoria Woods is also the author of the TV film.

At the beginning of the war, the middle-aged housewife Nella Last finds herself in a sad marriage with a narrow-minded husband who is as sensitive and communicative as a stone. He neither appreciates nor shows any interest in his wife. When her boys join the Army, not in active service, but still they leave, she joins the Women’s Voluntary Service. The women from the WVS are a bunch of conceited snobs. As most of them are upper class they refuse to accept Nella as a member as she is just a simple housewife. Luckily there are a few good women among the steel-hearted group members. Especially one of them becomes soon aware of Nella’s many talents. Being accepted by these women will help Nella to overcome her depression and gain self-confidence.

Something that fascinated me was to see Nella and her husband spend many nights in their basement in a Morrison shelter. I hadn’t heard of them before. They looked like cages and could be used indoors while the bigger Anderson shelter was to be used in the garden. Preferably dug in. Here’s a wikipedia article on air-raid shelters showing pictures. I was wondering how useful they were.

Housewife, 49 is a movie that works well on two levels. Besides offering insight into the life of British civilians during WWII, it follows one woman’s emancipation and search for meaning in life.

Unfortunately I didn’t find a trailer but the movie can be watched on YouTube. Watching part I will give you a good impression and help you decide whether you should watch it.

A Few Words on My War Movie Lists

Those of you who know this blog, are aware of the fact that I try to do as many lists of war movies as possible. Some by conflict, some by country. This is a dynamic process and thanks to some readers I’m constantly updating them.

Since updating the lists is quite time-consuming I can’t always do it immediately but I wanted to take this opportunity to thank those who contribute regularly and to mention especially the List on Australian war movies which has undergone a lot of changes since I first posted it. I recently got a few new suggestions and will have to update it, but it’s already worth looking at.

Maybe you will also be interested to know which list is viewed the most. It’s actually the List on 10 German war movies.

Where Eagles Dare (1968) War Themed Action

I’ve never seen Where Eagles Dare before and must say I was pleasantly surprised. It’s entertaining and cinematographically stunning.

It’s a fabulously scenic film with some pictures that would even look good in a vampire movie. Plus we get to see two great actors, Clint Eastwood and  Richard Burton who, teamed up, give this movie a special something that I found very appealing.

The story is the tale of a suicide mission. A group of mountaineering soldiers, led by British Major Smith (Richard Burton) and American Lt. Schaffer (Clint Eastwood) are sent to free an American officer captured by the Germans and held in a castle in the mountain, called Eagle’s Nest.

From the moment they parachute out of the plane it’s obvious that the mission they are on is a fake one. What they really need to do, is uncover double-agents.

From the moment they land in the snow-covered woods, until they climb into the castle, the action and tension is relentless and is even intensified, when they have to escape from the castle again.

It’s quite a violent movie, with loads of explosions and a great deal of merciless killings. But it is also very suspenseful, there is plenty of action reminiscent of a modern-day movie. (It seems as if this was Quentin Tarantino’s favourite war movie and that he wanted to do a remake. I hope he will not and that the similarities one can find in Inglourious Basterds is all there will be.)

It was a pleasant surprise to find a female agent who has quite a great role, and fights and shoots just like the men.

I loved the cinematography, the steep mountains, covered in snow and the castle, nested on the top of a hill, gave the movie a Gothic feel.

The fact that I always feel uneasy in cable-cars made watching this movie quite impressive as some of the most gripping scenes take place on the top of a cable-car.

Apparently the movie has been criticized for not being anti-war. I think, that there are for sure movies with a clearer anti-war statement, which is one of the reasons why I think this is more of an action movie with a war theme than a real war movie.

In any case,  I found it very entertaining and I loved Clint Eastwood in this.

I’ve heard that Where Eagles Dare is one of a pair, the other one being The Guns of Navarone. There is a certain likeness, logically, they have both been written by Alistair MacLean. I couldn’t say which one I prefer, I think they both have a lot to offer.

Which one do you prefer?

Italiani Brava Gente aka Attack and Retreat (1964) Needs to be remastered

I was wondering the other day (since I’m in the middle of reading Elsa Morante’s La Storia aka History) if there were any Italian war movies on the Italians on the Eastern front. Purely accidentally I found this movie Italiani Brava Gente aka Attack and Retreat, an Italian-Russian co-production.

Italiani Brava Gente depicts the unsuccessful and tragic Battle of the Don. The Italians role during WWII wasn’t exactly glorious (I’m not talking of the Resistance!) and this movie seems to bear testimony of this.

There are bits and pieces of it on YouTube but, as you will see, in very bad condition. This is deplorable as the movie looks very interesting. If ever a movie needed to be remastered, I think it’s this one. And yes, you see correctly, Peter Falk is in it.

Has anyone seen this or any other Italian war movie (apart from Roma, Open City aka Roma, Città Aperta)?

Der Untergang aka The Downfall (2004)

Der Untergang aka The Downfall is one of the very best war movies I have ever seen. It’s fascinating, chilling and marvelously well acted. Swiss actor Bruno Ganz gives one of the best Hitler performances I’ve ever seen and this despite the fact that he did at first not want to play the part. If you are familiar with Bruno Ganz you know that this accomplished and gentle actor usually plays very different roles.

The idea to focus on the very last months of Hitler’s life was very well-chosen and to open and finish the movie with the testimony of one of those who were in the bunker with him until his death, gave it an another dimension and explored something that I have never forgotten since I first saw this movie. Traudl Junge was 22 when she was hired to work as the Führer’s personal secretary and went to live with him and his staff in the bunker in Berlin. The whole time while the situation went from serious to hopeless, while the Russians were advancing in the East and the Americans and the other allies in the West, she stayed with Hitler, his wife, the Goebbels and many others in this sinister place. In the opening sequence and the closing part, the real Traudl Junge, meanwhile an old woman, says that she cannot forgive herself for not seeing it. She wasn’t any younger than Sophie Scholl, who died at 22 fighting the Nazis. Youth is no excuse, she says. Others saw it, she didn’t. Including her also underlined the historical accuracy of the movie.

In these final months when most of his generals and officers already knew that the war was lost and that the Russians would take Berlin, Hitler still tried to convince himself that they would still win. At the same time he carefully prepared his and his wife’s suicide, making sure that their bodies wouldn’t fall into the hand’s of the Russians. That Hitler was mad is undeniable but in these final months even the most hardened followers started to realize that he had some serious and fatal issues. He went from one outburst to the next, raging and roaring and putting everyone ill at ease. Some  of the people around him tried to tell him that all was lost but he didn’t listen. Some, like Hitler, still believed the war could be won and others who knew better still stood by his side as they had sworn allegiance. These were the ones who would never leave him. The number of suicides that followed Hitler’s suicide and the German capitulation is amazing.

Although I had seen The Downfall  before there were a lot of details I had forgotten. For example the fact that Hitler didn’t care what was happening to the German people. In his reactions to the generals and officers who were pleading to save the German people one could really see the extent of the madness of this man.

I had also forgotten how intense the fighting was in the city of Berlin and how on the side of the Germans everyone was fighting, even children.

The most chilling part is played by Corinna Harfouch as Magda Goebbels. The wife of Joseph Goebbels and mother of seven children was the exemplary German wife and mother. A fervent Nazi and believer in Nazi ideology she not only decided to follow her husband in his suicide but she took all of her children with her, killing each one of them with her own hands.

If you haven’t seen this movie already, you should really watch it. It’s fantastic and you will be able to see most of the great German actors in outstanding performances.

The Downfall is one of the movies on my list of  10 German War Movies You Must See Before You Die

Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom (1995) A Story of the Spanish Civil War

At the beginning of Ken Loach’s movie Land and Freedom, we see a young woman sorting out the things her late grandfather has left behind. She finds a suitcase full of black and white photos, newspaper articles and letters that show her a hidden part in her grandfather’s life. Little had she known that he had fought in the Spanish Civil War and loved a Spanish woman.

In 1936 David Carr (Ian Hart) is an unemployed miner and member of the British Communist Party. When someone from the Spanish Communist Party shows up and tells them about the Civil War in Spain in which the people fight against General Franco’s Army and the rich landowners, David spontaneously decides to go to Spain and fight for the rights of the people.

On his train journey he meets people from the Spanish militia, part of the POUM, a communist group that fights independently of the International Stalinist Brigades. He has no particular place to be and decides to join them. The people in the little group he is fighting with are all idealists. They come from all over the world, the US, Germany, Italy, Ireland, the UK. They want to fight for the rights of the peasants and the poor and not join the Stalinist Brigades which they consider to be corrupt and only interested in their own cause.

David who at first seems to think he is living some kind of adventure, soon faces the harsh reality. Not only is the fighting often heavy and there are casualties but they are badly trained and equipped and the Stalinists keep the weapons from them. When one of those faulty guns explodes, David is injured and sent to the hospital. Blanca, one of the group visits him in Barcelona, after he has come out of the hospital. They spend a night together but she leaves disgusted when she finds out that David has decided to join the Stalinists.

David will regret his decision soon enough and return to his old POUM group. The movie ends tragically and on a note of utter disillusionment.

Land and Freedom was absolutely not what I had expected and I assume that is exactly what Ken Loach was aiming for. We all have our ideas about the Spanish Civil War, some very romantic ones mostly. We know that Hemingway fought in Spain and so many other writers, painters… It seemed to have been one of the very rare wars with a justified cause to fight for. Ken Loach destroys all our romantic ideas and that is why the movie is good and annoying at the same time. He tries to show how it must have been. The fights and differences within the Communist Party and their subgroups, the endless talking and theorizations. The middle part of the movie is one long annoying and boring conversation and dispute about collectivism.

An aspect I wasn’t familiar with is the fact that women were only allowed to fight alongside the men at the beginning of the war. Later it was decided that they had to do “womanly” things like cooking or being nurses. I thought that women fought all through this war. Another shattered illusion.

Loach has earned a lot of praise and got also a lot of scolding for this movie. Some think that finally someone told it as it was, others think he dirtied the memory of the Spanish Civil War.

I am a fan of Ken Loach‘s movies, he has done quite a few that I liked a lot, although I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I liked Land and Freedom, I must say, I appreciated it. I felt somewhat stupid for having to realize that my idea of the Spanish Civil War had maybe been a tad too romantic as well.

Unfortunately there was no trailer of Land and Freedom, only the first part of the movie.