Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line" and Hollywood's Traditional Depictions of War

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THEThin Red Line is a three-hour epic about the World War II, directed by Terrence Malick, who made his comeback to the film industry after 20 years with a subject that had been neglected for almost as long.(1) The film is based on James Jones' novel, published in 1962, which was first adapted for the big screen by Andrew Marton in 1964 rather unsuccessfully. For many years, the book seemed to defy cinematic adaptation due to its deliberately choppy, episodic storyline, its lack of a single heroic protagonist and the multiplicity of perspectives.(2) However, Malick tried to overcome these obstacles by creating a film which broke "most of the commercial rules about narrative and drama"(3), as a critic observes. My interest in The Thin Red Line is therefore twofold: firstly, I will try to explore the ambivalent nature of its narrative which oscillates between the Hollywood tradition and art-cinema narration and secondly, I will focus on the representations of war, in an attempt to compare them to the World War II films of the past.

World War II stands out as an intriguing period in the history of Hollywood cinema. After the bombardment of Pearl Harbor and the American involvement in the war in 1941, the Hollywood industry was eager to express its wholesale commitment to the imperatives of war. As Tomas Schatz observes, "never before or since have the interests of the nation and the movie industry been so closely aligned, and never has Hollywood's status as a national cinema been so vital".(4) Hollywood's prompt mobilization, combined with the prominent role of cinema as the dominant mass medium at the time, turned the Second World War into the most thoroughly documented and dramatized event in history(5) Since television and the 24-hour transmission of images were not yet available, it was the motion pictures that brought the war to the wide public through the vast production of newsreels, documentaries and dramatic features. However, despite the abundance of images and representations, all the fiction and non-fiction treatments of the war shared a common message: that the American people fought for a just cause and the war effort had to be sustained at all cost until the final victory.

The representations of armed forces in wartime movies encompass a wide range of films which feature soldiers, sailors and airmen both in combat and non-combat situations. Especially at the outset of the war, the "war themes" were integrated into the already established film genres, such as the musical and the comedy, where the uniformed men functioned merely as props in crowd scenes, in the streets, in night clubs and train stations.(6) However, according to Schatz, "the term war film took on steadily narrower connotations as Hollywood refined specific war-related formulas."(7) These formulas comprised espionage films, occupation films, home-front dramas depicting military training or the daily experience of the wartime Americans, and above all, combat films, which constituted the core of the genre.

The combat movies provided the most direct and all-encompassing treatment of the war by dramatizing the actual battles and inaugurating a new sense of realism and historical immediacy in the Hollywood films. They depicted battlefield situations on sea, land or air, and described the violence, the hardships and the courage of the soldiers in the front. The largest number of combat films produced during the war take place in the Pacific theatre of operations(8) and some of the most legendary examples include Wake Island (1942), Bataan (1943), Guadalcanal Diary (1943) and 30 Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), to name just a few. Hollywood's response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour was not only swift but also relentless. In the combat films, the portrayal of the Japanese as duplicitous and barbaric ‘subhumans' had no precedent. As Dick notes, "in contrast to the ‘good German' and the occasional good Nazi, good Japanese were almost unheard...