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Jewish World Review /March 19, 1999 / 2 Nissan, 5759

Julia Gorin

The Thin
Yellow Line

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) SUNDAY NIGHT, two war movies are up for Oscar nominations as Best Picture.

The Academy must be confused.

Thereís nothing like a World War II movie made in the 1990s to separate the men from the mice.

"The Thin Red Line" secures first place for its director, Terrence Malick, in the mouse category, while catapulting "Saving Private Ryanís" Steven Spielberg into the man category. That said, proponents of either film can deduce where they belong, and fans of both can remain confused.

The pre-release buzz on "The Thin Red Line" in both industry and critical circles was that it would have what "Saving Private Ryan" was missing. I, for one, was interested in seeing an improved version.

Seconds into "The Thin Red Line," it became clear what it was the insiders thought Ryan to have been missing: the message that war is wrong.

In addition to any artistic ambitions, Malickís intention with "The Thin Red Line" was to emphasize the destructiveness and error of war. The movie, which was about the battle for the Japanese-held island of Guadalcanal, showed more hugging, crying, soothing, complaining and dreaming than it did fighting. The soldiers were confused, unmotivated and detached, watching the horrors in befuddled fascination.

Sprinkled between these literally touching scenes was second-grade-level poeticism narrating every soldierís private, philosophical meditations. Each character pondered the meaning of life and the meaninglessness of war while wandering aimlessly on the battlefield. In this way Malick managed to transform soldiers fighting a war in the 1940s into sensitive males of the 90s.

The director even gave the Japanese enemy a human face, showing the POWs crying and hugging upon capture. This is supposed to be an accurate representation of soldiers sworn to the code of Bushido, coming from the same stock as the Kamikaze warriors? The Japanese have never asked for our Western pity, nor have they ever asked to be portrayed as anything less than the arrogant, imperialistic savages they were. Yet the director would have us believe that they were just like the Americans: frightened and angry, grieving and praying, and all that separated us was war.

The film even succeeded in making Nick Nolte, who is 200 percent man, come across as an emasculated and introspective shell of his manly self: Sitting in a chair, legs crossed, the tough-talking general, too, gives in to reflection and repentance while giving himself a makeshift manicure.

Why every Hollywood actor was vying to be in this movie is a mystery to me.

I can only guess that when an actor gets big, just as there is an impulse to do a high-paying action film, there is an equally strong inclination to do a low-paying ensemble war project.

While itís most certain that Malick and Spielberg have similar political outlooks, only one recognizes that there are things worth fighting for. Spielbergís movie turned quivering pansies into soldiers. Malickís turned soldiers into quivering pansies.

Spielberg showed just as graphically the devastation of war. The most brutal visual assault the audience had to endure came during the storming of the Normandy beaches by American troops who were freeing a country which rolled over and played deadódemonstrating the kind of passivity which Malick would no doubt approve of.

But even in the midst of the ugliness, Spielberg never lost sight of what was at stake, and his soldiers didnít question the necessity of their presence at the front line.

In contrast, Malickís soldiers didnít know why they were where they were, each yearning to escape to his own paradise. Like the rest of his company, the barely discernable main character was a naÔve, reluctant participant in the war, without a sense of mission or ideal beyond his own life.

"Itís just dirt!" were the words the writers put into another soldierís mouth. "Thatís all it is! [We're fighting] over dirt!"

The film can only be interpreted as fantasy, an attempt by the director to portray situations beyond the realm of his comprehension. Had WWII troops actually behaved this way, we never would have won that war. The Marines and the other men who fought at Guadalcanal did not build their legend by sitting in the tall, billowing grass, alternating between hysteria and odes for sun-dappled banana tree leaves.

In the opinion of one Rifle Platoon Leader and Company Commander who served in Vietnam, "If this movie attempted to convey the psychological impact of combat upon the human psyche, then it did a disservice to anyone who has ever served in combat. The hysteria and break-downs depicted are aberrations. Most of the people went about the business at hand with stoic resignation, but not at all without fear. The breakdowns, the inability to function were symptoms that sometimes manifested themselves after the fact."

Too often, he added, "Hollywood depicts just the opposite: men who are reduced to jello at the first shot."

There is little wonder why the few people left in the theater by the end of the plotless movie sat dry-eyed and made comments about feeling confused and unsatisfied: When characters are devoid of purpose, a project is devoid of purpose.

Even the connection between their military actions and the paradise they so longed for was lost on these soldiers: Paradise still exists only because it is protected from aggression by people and nations willing to fight for it.

But the blissful Melanesian natives inhabiting the main characterís paradise lived peacefully and contentedly until their Eden was disrupted by someone elseís war. At the end of the movie the tribal people are shown in their post-occupied state: the adults are bickering and the children are diseased. It would have been more useful had Malick shown us how well the natives would have got on if their paradise had become the Japanese real estate it almost did.

To Malick and his ilk, war is the ultimate nightmare. For all the contemplation that filled this movie, the characters never contemplated for a second what nightmare it would be to live under German or Japanese subjugation. Clearly, Malick skipped the "give me liberty or give me death" history lesson.

He also missed the 1941 history lesson: Pearl Harbor had been bombed, and millions of Americans were enlisting to help crush the axis powers. Patriotism being at a highpoint, the whole mood of the movie was wrong. Perhaps the director confused WWII with Vietnam. Or perhaps he was as doped up as his characters seemed to be.

The annihilation portrayed by Steven Spielberg in his war opus was not presented so that audiences could shake their heads in disapproval of the violence. His movie never preached whether the gains were or were not worth the losses. It let the audience decide.

But we are expected to shake our heads throughout the three hours of Malickí s student film run amokóin between catching our breath at the LIFE Magazine-inspired cinematography of exotic wildlife. One can guess from this movie that violence goes against the filmmakerís principles. But there is a thin yellow line between principle and cowardice.

The anti-violent types who make or support movies like this, all wagging a finger at the war generationís policy-makers and heroes, do so ostensibly out of principle. But beneath the veneer of principle lies pure cowardice.

Some men choose to channel their adrenaline into decorating pro-peace placards, while others save it for the front. The former is consumed with ranting about the anguish of the men who go and do what they themselves never could. Men like Malick and his continuing supporters must take a principled and vocal anti-war stance. For if they support sending others into combat, someone might one day send them into combatóand find out that they lack the grit.

Many are praising "The Thin Red Line" as an artistic triumph. But art is not usually so easily separated from its messageóand the message, as set in WWII, is perverse.

Someone who understands that there are things worse than war could never have made "The Thin Red Line." Such a person is a real man, and he couldnít possibly enjoy this movie or buy into its misplaced message, even if it's veiled with mediocre artistry.

JWR contributor Julia Gorin is a New York-based stand up comic and writer.


©1999, Julia Gorin