After Saving Private Ryan comes The Thin Red Line. But how much, asks Samuel Hynes, does either film have to do with the reality of war?
Before I went to the screening of Terrence Malick's The Thin RedLine, I re-read James Jones's novel. The first time I read it, 35 years ago, I thought it was the best novel by an American to come out of the second world war; my second reading confirms that judgement. What makes it so good, and so permanent, is that Jones wrote only about the war he knew - the month or so he spent on Guadalcanal early in 1943, during the closing stages of the campaign there. He wasn't there when the marines made their first beachhead, nor for the desperate fighting for Henderson Field; when he and his lot came ashore five months later, the glory part was over. The Japanese had been defeated by then, but they fought on, as they always did, and so there were still the final battles of annihilation to be fought, one hill at a time.
Jones was determined that the book he wrote would be a "combat novel" and nothing else. He thought nobody had ever written truthfully about modern combat, that other writers had gone on about courage and cowardice when those terms no longer applied. His novel would be different: it would be objective, "photographic", almost a documentary, without any literary embellishments. It would not contain any Big Picture, but simply tell what it had been like for one company, his company - attacking, taking casualties, winning a hill or two, resting and getting drunk, attacking again. It would be a novel of ordinary war, made honest by what it included and by what it left out.
I thought, when I first read The Thin Red Line, that it would make a good movie, though I could see some problems. A 500-page narrative of a small-scale mopping-up operation, built out of many small incidents, and with many sharply drawn characters, but no part for John Wayne, would be a challenge for a director. Still, if he could simply keep his head down and follow where Jones led him, he might make an authentic war movie, maybe even a great one.
Hollywood thought so, too; within a year a film version appeared, directed by Andrew Marston and starring Keir Dullea. I didn't see it, but those who did found it awkward and overwritten and crowded with incidents - a comic-strip version of the novel, one critic said.
Terrence Malick's version isn't like that: it is a remarkable war movie, honestly scripted and brilliantly shot. There are strong performances by many fine actors - Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn - but no star: the centre of the story is dispersed over Charlie Company and its commanders, as it is in Jones's novel. In its combat sequences it is as faithful to the spirit of Jones's book as the transformation from page to film allows. The camera stays down on the ground with the infantrymen, peering over a ridge or running down a grassy slope or slogging through jungle, showing them as they are close-up: dirty, sweaty, scared, confused, lucky or unlucky. And if unlucky then dead because, as one soldier says, it's largely a matter of luck that decides whether or not you get killed; if you happen to be at a certain spot at a certain time, you get it. That's why there are no heroes.
Combat changes men who experience it: Jones believed that, and the film shows it. Combat is a trial or a test that a man passes or fails; if he passes, he becomes a soldier, numbed for a time by what he has done and seen, but able to do it again. In the novel, after an attack, Corporal Fife thinks: "I can kill, too! I can! Just like everybody! I can kill, too!" There is pride in that thought: Fife is a soldier now. His words aren't in the film, but his feeling is, and it is a part of the film's truth. Combat is a transforming, self-defining experience. You see it in the soldiers' faces after fighting. The film has got a crucial point right, …