Academic journal article Film Criticism

"Writing in His Musical Key": Terrence Malick's Vision of the Thin Red Line

Academic journal article Film Criticism

"Writing in His Musical Key": Terrence Malick's Vision of the Thin Red Line

Article excerpt

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It is an unfortunate fact that film versions of James Jones's 1962 novel The Thin Red Line have, in the opinion of many viewers and critics, failed miserably both in terms of profits and narrative fidelity. Although it "received polite reviews," the 1964 film directed by Andrew Marton and written by Bernard Gordon did poorly at the box office, in part because of weak promotion and marketing by the production company, ACE Films, which filed for bankruptcy as filming was wrapping up (MacShane 214). Equally troubling, however, the script radically deviates from the novel. For example, Gordon invests the conflict between Pvt. Doll and 1st. Sgt. Welsh, played respectively by Keir Dullea and Jack Warden, with far more thematic attention than it deserves. Moreover, Gordon makes wholesale changes in the plot of the novel and virtually reinvents the novel's physical setting. His own screenplay having been rejected by Philip Yordan, the film's producer, Jones wrote to Burroughs Mitchell, his longtime editor at Scribners, that the film "fails to substantiate the spirit of the book" (qtd. in MacShane 214).

Terrence Malick's 1998 production has elicited an even greater chorus of criticism. For one, Roger Ebert condemns Malick for not being faithful to the book:

   It's as if the film, long in pre-production, drifted away from the Jones
   novel (which was based on Jones' personal combat experience) and into a
   meditation not so much on war, as on film. (3)

For Ebert, of principal concern is Malick's failure to develop fully the cast of characters as carefully as Jones, who "drew his characters sharply, and indicated the ways in which each acted according to his ability and personality" (2). Thus, Ebert suggests, the Jones novel would have been better served had it "been filmed by Spielberg in the style of Saving Private Ryan," which premiered in the same year. Writing in The Nation, Stuart Klawans echoes Ebert's sentiments, asserting that "fidelity to the source isn't evident in the finished film" (34). Once more Klawans traces the movie's failure to Malick's refusal to replicate the directorial approach in Saving Private Ryan, a movie "about a specific war, fought for specific reasons in a specific time and place" (35). A more "artful" film, Malick's The Thin Red Line is, according to Klawans, little more than "metaphysical guff" (35). The shifting, detached narrator--for Ebert the "voice of the director" (1), for Klawans a fragmented "Oversoul" (34)--exaggerates even further the film's apparent artfulness and disconnection with Jones' novel.

Notwithstanding the manifold and vocal condemnations, some few critics have applauded Malick's visualization of Jones's narrative. In a featured article in Film Comment, Gavin Smith conceives of the film as a necessary companion piece to Saving Private Ryan. As Smith writes,

   If Saving Private Ryan offers a kind of total experience of war, deeply
   invested in enthralling spectacle, unassailable visual mastery, and the
   rejuvenation of a specific iconography of archetypal characters and
   symbolic situations, then The Thin Red Line proposes a more abstracted or
   interiorized anti-spectacle, in which the viewer's attention is repeatedly
   directed away from "the action" and towards ostensibly irrelevant sights
   and sounds. (11)

Rather than distancing the film from its source, Malick's use of the "refractive voiceover" approximates the novel, which "doesn't have a protagonist, but shifts from one character's point of view to another" (8). Moreover, Smith contends that "with certain notable additions and adjustments, Malick extracts his basic events and characters intact from Jones' narrative" (8). Peter Biskind makes much the same claim. He writes that Malick "agonized about every deviation from Jones's novel, no matter how trivial," even to the point of seeking permission from Gloria Jones, the late novelist's wife, "for the smallest of changes. …

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