The Thin Red Line (1998) Part II On Death and Dying

Sergeant Storm: It makes no difference who you are, no matter how much training you got and the tougher guy you might be. When you’re at the wrong spot at the wrong time, you gonna get it.

You are going to die. I am going to die. We are all going to die. It is inevitable. The difference lies just in whether we want and allow to be reminded of the fact or not. Whether it makes us feel uncomfortable or not and to what degree.

The way death and dying are shown in The Thin Red Line will trigger three different ways of reacting:

  • We see it and allow to be reminded of our own death which will make us feel uneasy and sad to different degrees
  • We see it and look away or feel nothing
  • We see it and make fun of it

These three ways to react to someone’s dying can also be found as reactions in the movie.

I would argue that there is not one war movie out there that thematizes death, dying and killing like it is done in The Thin Red Line. I would also say that I think that this may be one of the reasons some people have a problem with it as the death scenes are very intimate, very intense. We have people who die screaming, people who die swearing, some pray, some mumble, some are quiet. This is quite usual in war movies but we have also an emphasis on those who watch them which is unusual. The importance of looks in The Thin Red Line would be worth a chapter on it’s own but I will only focus on the looks related to death and dying.

We have those who look away when someone is dying, no matter how close they are to the person. And we have those who acknowledge the others dying. Some are moved by it, some are not. Watching someone die is a very intimate act, if you think of it. Being with someone during his final moments is a privilege. Private Witt gives each and every single suffering man his full attention, looks at him unflinchingly but also unobtrusively and with compassion.

There are also the looks directed at the dying enemy. They are very different. They are indecent almost. Some make fun of them, stare, strip them off their dignity. Witt also looks at the enemy with the same intent attention and compassion.

In the movie there is equally a meditation about death’s randomness as expressed in the quote by Sgt Storm at the beginning of this post. Why does one man die while the other who is maybe a far lesser soldier survives unharmed? This is something that has been on my father’s mind a lot. When he was drafted he was heartbroken and hoping to get killed on the battlefield. While his friends and comrades died, he didn’t get one scratch. My father has not one tiny little scar, yet he eagerly awaited death. This is mysterious and the movie shows this exceptionally well.

Death is part of nature (which I will try to analyze in part III) but the dying on a battle field isn’t natural, it’s man-made.

Killing is also a theme. Although it is legally acceptable to kill someone on a battlefield, in a war, soldiers didn’t kill lightly. I use the past tense deliberately because movies – or series in this case – like Generation Kill – and also already some of the Vietnam movies – show that there are more and more soldiers who have no empathy for those they kill. Those who play war games may see a running person at a distance not like a human being but just like another target. And they certainly don’t feel guilty.

The soldiers in The Thin Red Line do not kill lightly. They do feel guilt and the term “enemy” doesn’t mean much anymore once they have shot him down with their own gun.

One of my earliest posts on this blog focused on the topics Death and Dying. You can find it here:  On Death and Dying or Why War Movies Teach Us a Buddhist Lesson. Nothing has changed in my perception since then. I still think that the way death and dying are treated in our society is very problematic. We have to accept the fact that they are part of life. All war movies deal with death and dying but not all involve the viewer as much as the The Thin Red Line. Like hardly any other movie it manages in a very subtle way to raise the awareness for our own mortality.

The following parts are upcoming:

Part III. Nature and Evil

Part IV. The Actors and the Characters

Part V. Saving Private Ryan versus The Thin Red Line

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The Messenger (2009) or Fighting, Dying, Notifying

Some people say that The Messenger should have won the Academy Award instead of  The Hurt Locker. It is very possible that they are right.

As long as there are wars there will be fighting. As long as there is fighting there will be dying. And as long as people die in combat someone will have to notify the families. This difficult duty is the job of the Casualty Notification Officer. The Messenger explores this difficult task. To notify people is difficult for many reasons. Some are devastated and the their grief is unbearably raw. Others can´t even accept it. Some turn against the messenger, some are openly aggressive. Some are kind and caring.

Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) comes back from a tour in Iraq badly injured. He is said to be a hero even though he can’t accept this. He gets appointed to assist Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) who has done the job as Casualty Notification Officer for a very long time. He tells Will to strictly follow procedures. Don´t touch the relatives. Inform them directly. Be clear and precise and leave again.

The first job they get is already a harrowing one and Will realises that it might be even more difficult than he thought it would be. After their job is done, they go for a drink. Tony is a AA, so all he drinks is hot water with lemon. He asks Will very direct questions about everything. At first Will is reluctant to answer but he has no choice.

One day the two have to inform a young woman of the death of her husband. Will is very touched by her and her reaction and contacts her again later and they start to form a bond.

There are many different stories and storylines that are interwoven which is the strength of this movie. In it´s essence I would say, yes, this is a movie about war, but it is even more a movie about relationships. Deep relationships. Each and every single person in this movie carries a deep wound, either physical or psychological. Injuries, heartbreak, loss, betrayal. They have endured a lot and try to cope and heal by opening up to each other.

Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson are remarkable. Remarkable is actually and understatement.

I think The Messenger achieves a very rare thing. It gives us real people. Courageous and open people. And it says a lot of profound things about war and its consequences. Ultimately when there is a war, there will be death and dying. No one should forget this.

The Pacific versus Band of Brothers: Should we compare?

I finally got to watch the last episode of The Pacific. Even though I had an entry on it a while back I didn´t feel like writing about it before I had seen the whole series. It proved to be  a good decision since I couldn´t really appreciate it at first. I couldn´t help myself, like so many others, and compare it constantly to Band of Brothers. Apart from being a HBO miniseries produced by Spielberg and Tom Hanks, opening with men who were there talking about their experiences, those two series have nothing in common. Sure they both show a lot of very intense and gruesome infantry combat scenes but that is that.

Band of Brothers, as the title eloquently indicates, was about a close-knit group of men, one Army Infantry Company. This is not the case in The Pacific. The Pacific focuses on three main characters, the three marines Sgt. John Basilone, PFC Robert Leckie and Eugene B. Sledge. The last two wrote books about their experiences. The first episodes focus on Leckie, whereas the last ones tell Eugene aka Sledgehammer´s story. This last detail is based on the fact that Eugene went to war much later than the others. He missed Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester, one main battle and one major experience of the war in the Pacific.

The mini series shows a lot of off the battle ground episodes. Soldiers on leave in Australia, Leckie´s stay at different hospitals and later we see Sledge back home. Many of this off the battleground parts look at the symptoms of post-traumatic stress of which both Leckie (in a very physical way-peeing himself-) and Sledge (more psychological-he´s depressed and has endless nightmares) suffer intensely.

The series has  many crucial moments. Truly gory battle scenes.  Endless rain on Cape Gloucester that grinds down the morale. The realization that all they learn is “killing Japs”.

There is one key scene, the moment when the two friends Sidney and Sledge meet as one leaves and the other arrives in the Pacific. Sledge wants to know from Sidney how it is to be fighting but he doesn´t get an answer. This is actually a recurring theme in war movies (there is a scene like that in The Deer Hunter and in many others): the inability of those who have experienced it to tell those who are about to experience it what it is like to be in combat. Or maybe it is not so much an inability as a refusal. They have been there, they know it´s no use. You cannot talk about something that is so completely different from anything you imagine. No one who hasn´t been there will ever know what it is like and there are no words to really convey this, nothing that equals the experience. All you have got in the face of the innocent and ignorant is silence. The Pacific shows this very well.

I would like  to point out specifically one further scene. It is related to one of my major points of interest namely Death. In The Pacific we see one of the most touching deaths in the history of war movies. I don´t want to spoil anything so I´m not going to tell you who is dying. What makes this scene so different is the way it is shown. We do not see the actual dying, we hear that the person died and then the corpse is being carried  by some soldiers and transported through the lines of men standing there paying tribute and crying. This is a genuinely heartfelt and sad moment. A display of utter futility.

Something else is very different from Band of Brothers. Even though it was WWII, this wasn´t the same war. This is not about a bunch of soldiers freeing occupied countries and captives. We have no rewarding moments like the one in Band of Brothers when they liberate people in a concentration camp. The war in the Pacific seems much more futile at moments. And senseless. And it lasted longer. The war in Europe was already over, Germany had surrendered but Japan had not. Only after Little Boy and Fat Man did this war stop. This must have been some sort of an anticlimax. By the time those soldiers came home, the whole world had already been celebrating the end of the war. The party was over and they had missed it.

Needless to say that this influences the tone of the movie.

For all these reasons I do not think it is doing The Pacific any justice to compare it to its older brother.  It really has its moments this series.

One last thing needs mentioning though and it is something I did not enjoy much. The Japanese are never ever shown in a positive light. You truly get the impression that they were a bunch of murderous automatons. If anyone wants to see a more honest depiction I suggest you watch Tora Tora Tora (1970) or Letters from Iwo Jima (2006). They both try to and  succeed in doing the Japanese justice.

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Christ and The War Movie Hero

Don’t get alarmed! I’m not going to be blasphemous here. I have just been wondering about this coincidence/symmetry for quite a while and would like to give you something to ponder.

In 1986 Oliver Stone did Platoon starring Willem Dafoe as one of the main characters whose death has written film history and is also depicted on the movie’s poster. The hero who sacrifices himself.

1988 Willem Dafoe played the role of Christ in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of the Christ.

1998 one of the main characters in  A Thin Red Line, the most pensive one, is played by James Caviezel.

2004 Mel Gibson, who had  major roles in many a war movie, chose James Caviezel as Christ in The Passion of the Christ.

With regards to The Passion of the Christ one must add that there aren’t many movies out there that are more graphic, gory and bloody. One of the longest agonies in film history.

It’ s about death and dying again.

On Death and Dying or Why War Movies Teach us a Buddhist Lesson

Without any doubt there will be death and dying in a war movie. As a cultural anthropologist it often struck me how different other cultures handle death. In a society like ours,  in which death is a taboo (there seems to be an even greater taboo when it comes to dying) the war movie is one of the rare places where it is shown with such frequency. When it comes to movies in general  there is only the action and thriller/crime genre where you can count on death with the same certainty only not in such abundance.  Else you are left with rare films about illness, very rarely you’d see an old person dying or, more likely, already dead. A few deal with accidents or rather their consequences  like Atom Egoyan does in The Sweet Hereafter.

I did often wonder where my interest in war movies came from, besides from the urge to understand what happened, why it happened and how it felt for those involved. I think that they teach us a lesson in non-attachment. You see characters that you get to know and like and you know that for sure some of them are going to die. And death seems, for our human eye,  not to choose very carefully in whom he spares and whom not. In the war movie we see death and dying in a magnified overdrawn way. There is everything you could see in daily life: quick death, painful death, slow and agonising dying. Nothing is left out. If you go one step further it makes you contemplate your own perishability. A further lesson in non-attachment.

In the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying Sogyal Rinpoche teaches that it is a good exercise to picture ones own death on a daily basis. It is maybe the most fundamental aim in life to have a good death.

I think it is not arbitrary that the late great American journalist Studs Terkel did as well a book on The Good War: An Oral History of World War II as on Death, Will the Circle be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for  a Faith.

For anyone who would like to pursue his/her own reflections on this topic a few more or less random reading suggestions:

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying Sogyal Rinpoche, 1992

The Pagan Book of Living and Dying Starhawk, 1997

On Death and Dying Elisabeth Kuebler Ross, 1997

R.I.P. – The complete book of death and dying Constance Jones, 1997

Dancing on the Grave: Encounters with Death Nigel Barley, 1995

Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson Mitch Albom, 1997

Will the Circle be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for a Faith Studs Terkel, 2001

Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir David Rieff, 2008

Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death Irvin D. Yalom, 2008

The Year of Magical Thinking Joan Didion, 2005

Noch eine Runde auf dem Karussel: Vom Leben und Sterben Tiziano Terzani, 2007

Das Ende ist mein Anfang: Ein Vater, ein Sohn und die grosse Reise des Lebens Tiziano Terzani, 2006

Der Tod meiner Mutter Georg Diez, 2009

Das westliche Totenbuch Irene Dalichow, 2001