The Thin Red Line (1998) Part IV The Actors and the Characters

The Thin Red Line is a movie with an incredible cast. This is not uncommon in war movies but what is unusual is that we have actors from a very wide range in the same movie. Actors you’d hardly ever see together in another movie. I’m pretty sure this was done on purpose. Seeing the actors and the characters gives a feeling of heterogeneity. This isn’t a “Band of Brothers”, these are individual characters thrown together by the circumstances. Of course I will have to mention this again in my most anticipated post of this series Saving Private Ryan versus The Thin Red Line (which is not so much a duel than a simple comparison, to show, that those two movies go together like two faces of a medal).

The actor is one thing, the characters another. This post is meant to explore the characters. Not all of them, of course, not even all those who are included in the opening picture. I don’t want to write a 2000 words post.

Brig. General Quintard aka John Travolta (Pulp Fiction, Love Song for Bobby Long)

Like in every war movie, there are good characters and bad ones, likable ones and idiots. Although it is one of the strengths of The Thin Red Line to show the complexity of human beings, and therefore we do not find black and white characters, John Travolta’s character is the only really negative one in this movies. This is pure asshole material.

We only see General Quintard at the beginning of the movie when he instructs and – in my eyes also debases – Lt. Colonel Tall. Quintard is typical High Command. He most certainly will never see action. He is preposterous and enjoys putting down people. Malick has him stare over the ocean for a while, which means nothing else than that the guy is in an abstract, combat-free zone, somewhere above everything and not really interested in things and even  less in people. An empty shell.

Lt. Colonel Tall aka Nick Nolte (The Prince of Tides, Cape Fear)

There have already been quite a lot of discussions involving Tall in the former posts. I know I argued he is the typical “mad” superior officer, going over dead bodies to achieve what he has been told. He blindly follows orders and believes in the chain of command like in nothing else. While all this is true, to a certain extent, it’s not the whole picture we are given. Tall is far more complex than that, and I agree with a commenter, who stated that this was another proof of how excellent a movie The Thin Red Line is.

When we see Tall and Quintard together we already learn that this is pretty much the last chance for Tall to prove himself. He’s been left out during all the last promotion rounds. One can only suspect why this was the case. Seeing the type of superior he has, we can assume he didn’t have the right contacts. This has made him bitter, this and the fact that his son didn’t want to join the Army but prefers to sell fish bait.

Bitterness and the fear to fail are powerful drivers and he looses perspective easily. He tries to see the bigger picture and wants to achieve success, no matter how high the costs. He thinks that sacrificing a few to save a lot is justified. He thinks you have to drive the men, despite their hunger and fear. When given the choice, however, he will let them rest and drink. He isn’t sadistic. He is just extremely driven and not inclined to think about the individual need of his soldiers. He shouts and screams and fumes in a totally exaggerated way. That’s why I called him crazy. He is neither abusive nor does he enjoy being mean.

Private Witt aka James Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ)

Witt has the role of the one who questions good and evil. He is also the one character who would – and eventually does – sacrifice himself for others. In this he can be compared to Sgt Elias in Platoon. I mentioned it somewhere else, but I’ll mention it again, I don’t think it was a coincidence that Dafoe who played Elias later got to play Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, just like Caviezel played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ after The Thin Red Line. They ooze a saviour aura in the war movies that stuck to them and was later exploited by other directors.

Private Witt is teamed up with Sgt Welsh. These are two characters that clash when looked at superficially. If you look at it more closely however, they have a lot in common.

Sgt Welsh aka Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking, Mystic River)

We tend to have our favourite characters in a movie and in this one, my favourite one is Sgt Welsh. Sean Penn is also one of my favourite actors. I would argue that this is one of the most memorable characters in any war movie but you need to watch it at least twice to realize it. He is cynical but out of vulnerability. He is one of those who does the right thing, the good thing at the right moment but he doesn’t want it to be mentioned. He is discreet and calm. The biggest difference between him and Witt is the fact that he is no believer. Nothing makes sense to him, he thinks that all that happens is down to human nature which is inherently bad.

Capt. John Gaff aka John Cusack (High Fidelity, 2012)

Capt John Gaff is one of those young, eager officers that have the words “promising career” written all over their faces. He isn’t a bad sort but distant and withdrawn. He is everything that Tall would have loved his own son to be. At the same time he is probably also everything Tall himself would have liked to be.

Capt Staros aka Elias Koteas (Shooter, Shutter Island)

Capt Staros is the antithesis of Tall. Tall isn’t a completely bad guy, but Staros is decidedly a truly good one. He will always think of his men first, which means he will always think of the individual first. Maybe sacrificing a few would bring the desired outcome of a  mission but that is not the way Capt Staros, a deeply religious man, would ever go. He is also very courageous and, if necessary, disobeys orders. His feeling for what is good and right is so strong that he will not think about the consequences his insubordination will have for him. But he isn’t a Private Witt, he wouldn’t sacrifice himself. He also doesn’t believe that people are inherently good but he thinks they deserve to be protected.

Sgt Keck aka Woody Harrelson (Natural Born  Killers, The Messenger)

Sgt Keck is worth mentioning because his death is so useless and tragic and on top of that his own fault. He gets one of the longest dying scenes of the movie and while he realizes he will die he goes through a wide range of emotions in a very brief period . He is one of the good ones, a good sort who dies, not through enemy fire, but through a tragic accident that underlines futility and the randomness of death.

Private Bell aka Ben Chaplin (Murder by Numbers, The Remains of the Day)

It’s through the character of Private Bell that the battlefield and the home front get connected, the life of the soldier and the life of the civilian meet. All through the movie he is thinking of his wife back home and their love for each other. It’s a bit of a war movie cliché that he is the one who gets a letter from his wife telling him that she found someone else because she was too lonely.

As you can see in this older post, there are many other actors and characters in the movie. Some like Lt Whyte (Jared Leto) and Cpt Bosche (George Clooney) have just tiny roles. One stands for the numerous men who died without anyone ever really knowing them, the other one is one of hundreds of officers that come and go endlessly. Some are good, some are bad, some are remembered, many are forgotten.

If you have seen The Thin Red Line, who is you favourite character?

If you are interested in the other parts here is

Part I The Review

Part II On Death and Dying

Part III Nature and Evil

Part V The Thin Red Line vs Saving Private Ryan is upcoming.

The Thin Red Line (1998) Part III Nature and Evil

This great evil. Where does it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doin’ this? Who’s killin’ us? Robbing us of life and light. Mockin’ us with the sight of what we might’ve known. Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night? (Private Witt)

What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two? (Private Train)

Is there evil in nature? Is man part of nature? If man is part of nature and man is evil, then nature is evil? Are nature and man one? Or is there a distinct dichotomy between man and nature?

Besides offering a profound meditation on Death and Dying The Thin Red Line also explores the topics nature and evil in different ways. Two positions are explored. Position one  assumes that man is part of nature and since he is capable of evil, nature is not all good. This idea is supported by Lt.Coll Tall when he speaks to Cpt Staros who wants to save his men. Tall shows him the lianas that suffocate the trees. This is evil, according to Tall, as it will kill the tree. Nature is not all good. He tries to make Staros accept evil because he thinks it is inevitable and part of nature.

Other scenes support this. In the beginning of the movie we see a little bird, probably he fell out of the nest and seems to be struggling for his life. We see him, his fight and we know he will die. Nobody did this to him, it just happened. It’s the way of nature.

One of the powerful symbols is the crocodile. In the beginning of the movie we see him swim freely, dive, in the end he has been bound by the men. He cannot harm anymore but he is subjugated.

The second line of thinking says that nature cannot be bad. Only man can be bad. We know the term of natural death. As I said in Part II death is part of nature but the death on a battle field isn’t natural, it’s man-made. This line of thinking supports that man has left the realm of nature, is not part of nature anymore.

Even if there are bad things in nature, nothing as bad as war can happen without man’s doing.

The Thin Red Line is set in the Pacific, on the Solomon Islands, a place to which hardly any Americans or Europeans had gone before the war. An island with a lush vegetation and a population not knowing anything of Western civilisation. The movie begins with idyllic scenes among the natives. They live in harmony with nature and its rhythms.

When the soldiers later disembark on Guadalcanal, an old native man passes them by but doesn’t even acknowledge them despite the heavy gear they are carrying and the clothes they are wearing. They are only foreigners. The natives and their land do not know yet what they bring.

War has come into this tropical paradise and not only does war kill men, it destroys nature. The men are surrounded by tall grass, hiding in it, but the bombs and grenades destroy this lush paradise and transform it into arid land.

The end of the movie seems to want to say that no matter how much man tries to destroy nature, nature will survive and the film ends on a last picture of a sprouting  coconut.

These reflections on nature and man’s nature are very old. Philosophers like Rousseau have dedicated whole books on this. Rousseau thought that man was born good but society, or culture, made him bad. In his Discourse on Inequality you can find the following passage.

The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody. (Rousseau 1754)

Here are

Part I The Review

Part II On Death and Dying

Part IV The Actors and the Characters and Part V The Thin Red Line vs Saving Private Ryan are upcoming.

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

All About War Movies is One Year Old or A Best of War Movie List

What started as a simple experiment to fight procrastination and get me back into a daily writing routine has become sort of an institution. Another aim of this blog was to explore the topic of war movies systematically. It ended up being less systematic than intended. For the time being that is. I still have a project in the back of my mind and should I find more time I will pursue it. I have lost a few friends and won a few on the way. What does that mean you wonder, well, I had some funny reactions from people I know in real life. Seems as if my interest in war movies didn’t match the picture they had of me… Do I care? A little bit but not too much.

Ok, now, so this little blogging project is one year old. I have written 220 posts, at first three per week and then, during last summer, almost daily. If I wasn’t writing two other blogs, maybe I would have gone on at that pace.

I could tell you a lot of different things looking back on this year, a lot of things about myself but let’s not go there. In lieu of all that let me give you a best of list. A very personal best of list that takes into consideration what I like, nothing else.

Best movie on the Napoleonic wars

Waterloo

Best Civil War Movie

Glory

Best WWI movie

Gallipoli

Best WWII movie

When Trumpets Fade

Best Vietnam

Platoon

Best Vietnam Vet

Jacknife

Best Korea

Gotta pass, haven’t seen enough

Best Gulf War

Three Kings

Best Iraq

Battle for Haditha

Best other American war movies

Black Hawk Down

Best Resistance

L’armée du crime aka The Army of Crime

Best German war movie

Stalingrad

Best Submarine movie

Das Boot

Best Sniper movie

Enemy at the Gates

Best War Romance

Casablanca

Best least known war movie

When Trumpets Fade

Best female actress in a war movie

Madeleine Stowe in Last of the Mohicans

Best war movie score

Black Hawk Down

Most watched war movie

Black Hawk Down

Best Irish Civil War

The Wind that Shakes the Barley

Best Hitler Movie

Der Untergang aka The Downfall

Best Holocaust movie

The Pianist

Best Remake

Are you joking?

Best epic war movie

King Arthur

Most surprising war movie

My Boy Jack

Best Infantry combat

Saving Private Ryan

Best Cavalry Combat

The Lighthorsemen

Best Air Combat

The Dam Busters

Best Naval Combat

Master and Commander

Funniest war movie

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Best Children and War

Voces Inocentes aka Innocent Voices

Best War and Journalism

Welcome to Sarajevo

Best POW

Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence

Best Legal Drama

Judgement at Nuremberg

Best war movie poster

Platoon

Most dreaded war movie (obviously not watched yet)

Tha Battle of Algiers

Yeah well, I could go on but that’s it and since it’s my blog’s birthday, I’m lazy and will not link the movies. Or just not today…

Historically Misleading War Movies as Seen by the TIME Magazine

I discovered an article today in TIME magazine in which they made a list of 10 historically misleading movies. As was to be expected quite a few of the movies are war movies. The whole article was spurred by the movie The King’s Speech which is also among the 10.

I will only concentrate on the war movies they name and give a brief summary why they chose to include them.

The Patriot (2000)

They critizied that The Patriot portrays British soldiers as evil. Another point was the fact that Benjamin Martin whose character was a mix of different real charcters, was shown as a family man while  Swamp Fox who was one of the real characters was no family man and actively persecuted Cherokee Indians. Further more the movie showed a total ignorance of slavery and whitewashing of history. They consider it to be pure American propaganda.

Robin Hood (2010)

Robin Hood tried to transform myth into history. Although it was correct to transform Richard Lionheart into a bloodthirsty monarch, the accuracy ended there.

Braveheart (1995)

This movie has, according to the TIME Magazine, too many inaccuracies to be named. How about the kilts? Scotsmen in the 13th century didn’t wear belted plaid. Gibson’s Wallace is born poor, the real Wallace was a nobleman. And why is he wielding a Chinese weapon? Wallace never met Princess Isabella and certainly did not impregnate her. At the time the movie took place she was only 9 years old anyway.

300 (2006)

Sparta was not a free city-state at all but on the contrary  known for mistreatment and exploitation of its slaves. The Persians were not as debauched as they are shown and their monarch wasn’t a circus freak.

Pearl Harbor (2001)

Pearl Harbor was mostly criticized for the rearranging of chronological events and its sappy simplistic nationalism.

Yeah well, not so surprising after all. At least I didn’t have the feeling any of the ones mentioned were very accurate or at least not in every element.

What strikes me is the title of the post and its explanation. They actually imply that people learn their history through the watching of movies.

For those of you who are curious about the other movies, here are the non-war movie ones: The Far Horizon, 10 000 BC, JFK, The King’s Speech, Shakespeare in Love.

Most Memorable Vietnam Vet in War Movies

I actually had a discussion yesterday about this topic. Which is the most memorable Vietnam vet in any movie? De Niro in Taxi Driver? Ron Kovic in Born on the 4th of July? Or even Rambo? The one I prefer is Jacknife. He is the most touching and likable. But I think not necessarily the most memorable. The most memorable for me is de Niro in Taxi Driver. Anyway, I want to hear what you think, which is the most memorable and which one did you like the most?

Here are a few to refresh your memory (and yes, indeed, Robert de Niro is certainly THE Vietnam vet actor)

Robert de Niro in Jacknife

Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver

Robert de Niro in The Deer Hunter

Sylvester Stallone as Rambo: First Blood

Tom Cruise (in one of his best roles) in Born on the 4th of July

Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage in Birdy

James Cann in Gardens of Stone

Jack Dunne in Heroes

Tom Laughlin in Billy Jack

James Woods in The Visitors

Bruce Willis in In Country

John Lithgow in Distant Thunder

One little confession, I haven’t seen the last four… Did I miss something?

Stalingrad (1993) The German Movie That is One of the Best War Movies Ever

Joseph Vilsmaier’s Stalingrad is one of the most powerful war movies I have ever seen. It bears testimony to Germany’s outstanding filmmaking capacities. It is also one of the rare that I have watched at least three times and every time I discovered something new. That’s why it is difficult to write a decent review and not one that is so long that you jump to the next post without even finishing the introduction.

Stalingrad focuses closely on five characters, four of which have been together since they fought at El Alamein.  We first see them on leave in Italy  from where they board a train to the Eastern Front. They don’t really have a clue where they are going or what for. They know the Führer says it is crucial and they have to trust him on that but first voices can be heard that doubt the decision-making of their command. During their train trip they meet their new Lieutenant, Witzlan (Thomas Kretschmann), for the first time. He isn’t battle hardened like the others are, in fact he has never fought at all and there is immediately a lot of friction.

When they get off the train in Stalingrad they face total chaos. There are heavily wounded soldiers everywhere, fighting is extremely heavy and they are in the midst of it all right away. The German officers in Stalingrad are mostly cruel Nazis, the treatment of Russian prisoners is harrowing. Witzlan is, as the privates discover now, a very humane person. He will not tolerate abuse and cruelty and comes into conflict with superiors on that subject. He may be inexperienced but he has a great character and his decision making isn’t all that bad, as we soon see.  As a matter of fact his subordinates learn to respect him a lot. One of the majors however is one of the most obnoxious characters of war movie history, a real jerk.

Stalingrad consists more or less of seven very distinct parts, the first one is the leave in Italy, followed by a heavy infantry combat one, then a sequence in which they are doing forced labour, next is the so-called “tank episode”, then they escape, meet again later with a part of their original group and finally try again to escape, out of Russia and back to Germany.

Because Stalingrad focuses practically only on five people it is a very intimate and emotional movie You have the feeling to know these people, you care for them, they are really humans with all their strengths and flaws. They are no heroes, they are normal people caught in what was one of the biggest tragedies of WWII, one of the battles that cost the most lives.

And there is the setting and seasonal implications. Russia in winter is one of the coldest places on earth. This really is a winter movie. Snow, ice, freezing and the total hopelessness of the people involved makes it unforgettable. Most of those who survived the battles froze to death later.

I have often wondered, if I had to choose, which climate I would choose. Fighting in the desert, in the jungle or in the icy cold planes of Russia? All three settings bear their own horrors as did the war soaked trenches of France and Belgium. My father fought in the desert, where you fight exhaustion, thirst, Fata Morgana and hallucinations from the heat and have to endure long walks through arid barren country where you can’t hide and are an easy target.

From my own personal point of view, I tink that icy Russia would be the worst. Stalingrad is for me the worst battle that ever took place. The battle and its aftermath are horrible.

I haven’t seen the Finnish movie Talvisota aka The Winter War yet, this might be similar, also a winter movie, but apart from that I think the extreme that is depicted in Stalingrad is unique. No other war movie achieves to convey such a powerful anti-war statement.

It think it safe to say that it is not only one of my Top 10 but it is also generally acknowledged as one of the best ever.  It manages to combine very intimate portraits of five soldiers, intense infantry combat, the depiction of a grueling climate and one of the biggest miscalculations of Hitler. 5/5 is an absolute understatement.