Critical comparison of The Thin Red Line and Apocalypse Now

Topics: Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola, Vietnam War Pages: 8 (2934 words) Published: February 25, 2014
MED325 – Hollywood Cinema 2, Assignment 1
The Thin Red Line & Apocalypse Now: War, Humanity and Nature on the Silver Screen Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) are widely regarded as two of the finest films belonging to Hollywood’s War genre. They both deal with similar issues and burning at the heart of each film is the notion that war is a futile practice. However, the two directors approach the subject matter in different ways. Malick with his attempt to understand war in the context of nature and Coppola’s unflinching filmic re-imaging of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Throughout this essay I will aim to compare and contrast the two films and illustrate the differing approaches of each director and the effect this has on the overall feel of each piece as well as discussing some of the aspects of each film that set them apart from the rest of the genre. Before delving into the films themselves however, it is important to contextualise each film in terms of the conflicts represented and also, to recognise a few traits synonymous with each director. The Thin Red Line is based on the Battle of Mount Austin which took place on the Pacific island of Guadalcanal. In 1942, American troops fought Japanese forces for control of the strategically placed island, regarded as the key to the South Pacific. The location also lends itself impeccably to Malick’s eye for beauty and detail. Apocalypse Now deals with the 16 year-long Vietnam conflict. The exact year is not explicit, but there are a few hints, such as references to the Charles Manson trial which suggests it is based around 1970, a time when Tricky-Dick Nixon was sitting behind the controls in the White House and support for the Vietnam War was dwindling, a theme apparent in Apocalypse Now. As far as the directors are concerned, there are a few parallels to be drawn. Firstly, they can both be seen to operate in similar ways in relation to the Hollywood studio/ star system. In order to produce Apocalypse Now how he wanted, Coppola set up a production company, American Zoetrope, with George Lucas in 1969. This was primarily a way of avoiding the often conservative restraints of the bigger Hollywood companies, however it also had the knock on effect of alienating any potential funding them and, as such, Apocalypse Now was put on hold. Production was eventually started in 1975, by which time Coppola had 6 academy awards under his belt and no shortage of potential investors vying to throw their cash at him. Similarly, Malick has chosen to disregard the traditional Hollywood star system in The Thin Red Line, with arguably the two biggest stars (at the time of release), George Clooney and John Travolta being seen only briefly onscreen. It also stands to reason that Malick’s largely unexplained 20 year break between Days of Heaven (1978) and The Thin Red Line (1998) may be due, in part, to a feeling of disenfranchisement with the Hollywood studio system which is prejudiced towards projects which aren’t immediately considered as potentially profitable. When Brad Pitt, the star of Malick’s latest film The Tree of Life (2011), was questioned about Malick’s absence he responded with, “he sees himself as building a house. He doesn’t want to focus on the selling of the real estate.”

The different approaches taken towards each of the films is first evident when comparing their starting sequences. Apocalypse Now opens with imagery of conflict, fiery explosions, jungle landscape and helicopters cascading across the screen, all the while the face of the protagonist, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is superimposed upside-down over it all, which suggests that the ghostly images melting into each other are, in fact, his memories. The opening scene is also reminiscent of the Detective or Film Noir genres, “Our first look at Willard is the classic opening of the private-eye movie:...

Bibliography: Simon Critchley, Calm - On Malick 's The Thin Red Line – 2002, Film Philosophy
John Belton - American Cinema, American Culture – 2005, New York, McGraw Hill.
Sinnerbrink, Robert - A Heideggerian Cinema? : On Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line’, (2006) - Film-Philosophy
Brian Locke – Racial Stigma on the Hollywood Screen – 2009, Palgrave Macmillan
Michael Anderegg – Inventing Vietnam, The War in Film and Television – 1991, Temple University Press
Robin Wood – Hollywood: From Vietnam to Reagan…And Beyond – 1986, Colombia University Press
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