Do you find The Thin Red Line elliptical? Have you ever wondered why there are so many loving shots of parrots? Do you want to learn more about the multiple meanings of the film? If so, you've come to the right place!
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In Film Comment reviewer Gavin Smith writes: "There has truly never been a film about modern war quite like this one..." He's right that The Thin Red Line represents a new achievement in film. Director Terrence Malick also combines the new with the old by building in references to films that influenced him in the making of The Thin Red Line. Since Malick doesn't give interviews, it's no small feat to identify his film references, but the pay-off is deepened understanding of the film.
Note Beforehand: In order to properly analyse The Thin Red Line in relation to the films referenced in it, I have to discuss the endings of some of those films. If you're worried about having the ending of the films SPOILED for you, please turn back now.
From Here to Eternity
Perhaps one of the most obvious choices of films for Malick to refer to in The Thin Red Line is its cinematic predecessor From Here to Eternity (1952) directed by Fred Zinneman, with Burt Lancaster as gruff First Sergeant Warden, Deborah Kerr as Warden's married lover Karen Holmes, Montgomery Clift as rebellious Private Prewitt, Donna Reed as Prewitt's lover Lureen/Alma, and Frank Sinatra as Prewitt's friend. Like The Thin Red Line, From Here to Eternity is based on the novel by James Jones.
|From Here to Eternity||The Thin Red Line|
|One of the protagonists is named Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a Kentucky soldier who stopped boxing after injuring his friend in a match||One of the protagonists is named Private Robert Witt, a Kentucky soldier whose boxing an officer lands him in trouble (note: this happened in Malick's second draft script, but not in the film)|
|Prewitt is transferred to a company whose corrupt commanding officer abuses him in order to get Prewitt to join the company boxing team||Witt is upset at being transferred to a stretcher-bearing outfit, punishment for being AWOL|
|Orphaned at the age of 17, Prewitt loves the army even if it mistreats him||His mother died and Witt loves the army even if it might kill him|
|First Sergeant Warden is called "top," short for "topkick"||First Sergeant Welsh is called "top"|
|First Sergeant Warden hides his compassion for the ill-treated Prewitt behind a gruff exterior||First Sergeant Welsh hides his compassion for his suffering men behind a cynical exterior|
|Warden feels contempt for his corrupt, lazy, incompetent captain.||Welsh feels contempt for his captain and threatens to knock his teeth out.|
|WARDEN: You been in the army what now, Prewitt, five years, five
and a half?
WARDEN: Don't you think it's about time you got smart?
|WELSH (to WITT): How many times you been AWOL? You been in the army what, six years now? Ain't it time you smartened up?|
|WARDEN (to PREWITT): You know what you did just now when you turned down Dynamite Holmes? You put your head in the noose.||WELSH (to WITT):You haven't changed at all, have you, Witt? You haven't learned a thing. All a man has to do is leave it to you, you put your head in the noose for him.|
|PREWITT (to the company boxers): I ain't fighting. I quit fighting. You guys wanna put the screws on me, you go right ahead. I can take anything you can dish out.||WITT (to WELSH): I can take anything you dish out. I am twice the man you are.|
|PREWIT (to WARDEN): I ain't smart.||WITT (to WELSH): We can't all be smart.|
|Prewitt goes AWOL towards the end of the film, after killing the man who beat his best friend Maggio to death||Witt goes AWOL at the beginning of the film|
|Prewitt sneaks back to his company to help after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbour but he's shot and killed by a patrolling soldier after refusing to identify himself||Witt lures the enemy away to help save the lives of his company comrades but he's shot and killed by the Japanese soldiers after refusing to put down his rifle|
|In one of the last shots, Warden stands over Prewitt's dead body and rhetorically asks why Prewitt wasn't smart.||In one of the last shots, Welsh stands over Witt's grave and rhetorically asks, "Where's your spark?"|
Although both films draw on the writings of the same author, The Thin Red Line's Witt is a nobler figure than Prewitt in From Here to Eternity. Prewitt is defiant, rebellious, an artist at playing the bugle and intensely loyal to the army. He abides by his own code of honour, which causes him to refuse joining his company's boxing team after he blinded a sparring partner. But that code also compels him to murder the man who tortured his best friend to death. With his sulky affection for his prostitute lover Lureen and slow-burning temper, he comes across as a flawed if sympathetic human being.
Witt, on the other hand, is a divine figure. The viewer induces that Witt must have been a rebellious figure to have gone AWOL, but there's barely a hint of that when he's recaptured by the army. Prewitt would have glowered at being scolded by his captor; Witt is sad at being sent away from his company. Witt is marked as the Christ figure--he even says he's seen another world. There's no hint of Prewitt's slow-burning, violent temper in this kind soldier whose gentle nature is sensed across a language barrier by the Melanesian children and mothers who host him in their Edenic paradise.
Prewitt's code of honour might seem contradictory but it's really at home with the code of the old West: refrain from harming innocents, but punish the guilty. Witt's ethic transgresses Prewitt's. Despite being a gentle soul, he's a fierce and aggressive soldier. Witt violates the code of the West by shooting a Japanese soldier in the back. Now Prewitt might not have trouble with this, since honorable behaviour would be reserved for (white) honorable opponents, and the "Japs" are depicted as a faceless (they are never seen, only their planes are), cunning (the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour) enemy. But Prewitt wouldn't have the capacity to reach beyond his identity as an American soldier as Witt does. Witt's mobile subjectivity enables him to cross from his identity over to the Melanesian villagers and to that of a humane being who cares for a dying Japanese soldier after the heat of the battle. Many different behaviours arise in response to war, but Witt represents the very best.
For Prewitt, his first Sergeant Warden is the very best. Warden is kind to Prewitt, trying and failing to lessen Prewitt's unjust punishment at the hands of the corrupt captain. Prewitt admires his sergeant's integrity and fairness. In turn Warden admires the soldier's stubborn courage, even as he tries to get Prewitt to "be smart" and give in to the captain's wishes. Their relationship mostly positions Warden as parent to Prewitt's stubborn child, although there's a subtext to the scene where drunk Warden caresses the back of drunk Prewitt's head (granted, Warden spends most of his time in a risky affair with the captain's wife).
In The Thin Red Line, Welsh tries to position himself as Witt's parental figure, telling Witt that he's "just another mouth for [him] to feed." Welsh doesn't just want to discipline Witt, he wants to influence Witt to view the world the way he does. Conversely, Witt doesn't agree or disagree with Welsh; he simply eludes him. As the film and relationship progress, the tables are turned. Welsh turns to Witt for help, asking him, "You still see the beautiful light. How do you do that?" Their relationship evolves, unlike Warden's and Pruitt's. It's also almost compressed. In the middle of a war, the Witt-Welsh relationship has a quiet, intense quality that makes it seem like the only thing in the world. In fact, it is the only genuine human relationship in the world of The Thin Red Line. Bell imagines he has a relationship with his wife who has in reality become estranged from him, Doll creates a mask of public bravado to hide his intense fear from his comrades, and Dale isolates himself through cruelty.
Human relationships--Warden's and Prewitt's doomed respective heterosexual relationships, Prewitt's and Maggio's friendship, not to mention Warden's and Prewitt's--are the core of From Here to Eternity. But the film's cynical about those relationships. Warden pursues the captain's wife after he hears how accessible she is--she's had affairs with other army men. Prewitt's romanticised notion of his relationship is dissipated when he realises that Lureen/Alma's prostitute job demands she be accessible to many men. The corrupted traditional authority figures such as the captain and other officers make the army an unjust brutal place. There's no glory in this man's army.
Glory, however, lives in The Thin Red Line. This isn't to say that the film champions war in an mindless, jingoistic way. There are extraordinary courage and loss in the war. The viewer's identification with the Americans makes her feel their great courage, but she feels equally the loss of the Japanese. There are no clear figures to despise. Even the potentially least likable character of all, the colonel who knowingly pushes for his men's slaughter, is humanised. We feel his frustrations and his own silent fear at being surveilled in turn by his commanding officers. We can't judge human behaviour here. We love both the beauty and the banality of horror.
The Sand Pebbles
Perhaps I've gone crazy watching The Thin Red Line so many times, but I contend there are connections between it and this 1966 film directed by Robert Wise. The Sand Pebbles stars the King of Cool Steve McQueen, who looks quite fetching in tight white sailor pants, Candice Bergen as his love interest, and Mako as Po Han, his Chinese assistant on the American gunboat San Pablo.
|The Sand Pebbles||The Thin Red Line|
|Story is about American soldiers fighting a conflict against the Chinese in China||Story is about American soldiers fighting a conflict with the Japanese in the Solomon Islands|
|The Chinese men who do all the actual work of the Americans on a gunboat seem to like the American soldiers; later, they hate the Americans||The Melanesian villagers seem to like the two American soldiers Witt and Hoke; later, they hate Witt|
|Shouting of the Chinese soldiers who fight the Americans in the last sequence sounds similar to...||... shouting of the Japanese soldiers who fight the Americans around when Doll shoots his first Japanese soldier (shouting is difficult to identify as Chinese or Japanese)|
|Steve McQueen stays behind to hold off the enemy soldiers so that his beloved fellow soldiers and Candice Bergen can get away||Witt leads the enemy soldiers away so that his beloved fellow soldiers can get away|
|Steve McQueen unlearns his anti-Chinese racism by identifying with his steam room assistant Po Han has a boxing match with an American soldier||Witt avoids racism by identifying with the Japanese soldiers... "the Japanese suffer just like the Americans"|
There aren't any striking similarities between Patton and The Thin Red Line--no similar lines, no similar sounds--but Patton seems to have influenced the character of Tall.
|Patton||The The Thin Red Line|
|Spurious correlation alert: Patton was directed by Franklin J. Schaeffner||Spurious correlation: The Thin Red Line director Malick was awarded the Franklin J. Schaeffner Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Film Institute|
|General Patton likes to talk about the ancient Greek tale The Peloponnesian War||Colonel Tall likes to talk about the ancient Greek tale The Odyssey|
|General Patton unflinchingly stands before an enemy plane on a bombing run||Colonel Tall unflinchingly stands as the enemy bomb the trenches|
|General Patton shouts a lot||Colonel Tall shouts a lot|
Coming soon! Polly don't want no stinkin' cracker! Polly wants to compare the parrots of Lady from Shanghai and The Burmese Harp!Back to The Thin Red Line main page