“They Got Fish That Live In Trees”


Not Your Grandfather’s War Film


By Michael McGonigle, CTS



     About thirty minutes into Terrence Malick’s multi-Oscar nominated 1998 film The Thin Red Line, the men of C - Company have hastily exited their landing crafts on the pristine beaches of Guadalcanal expecting heavy opposition. But the sun is shining, the sky is a rich azure blue and this tropical paradise seems better suited for a vacation than a battle.


     Invoking the Hitchcockian maxim about the difference between shock and suspense, for me, this beach landing is more unnerving than the celebrated Omaha Beach assault in Saving Private Ryan and the soldiers are right to be wary. All the intelligence says that this deceptively beautiful landscape is crawling with Japanese troops, yet reconnaissance officers report with puzzlement that there is no evidence of Japanese troop activity within miles of this beach, contrary to what they have been told by the native guides.


     Well, if the guides are wrong about this beach, what else are they wrong about? Our C.O. Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) realizes there are going to be some significant unknowns to factor into this battle. Then, one of the recon officers says, almost as a throwaway observation, “They got fish that live in trees here”, which I have used as the title of this essay.


     Talk about a topsy-turvy world. I know about fish and I know about trees and fish don’t live in trees.  (Well, yes, there are some that do, even here in the USA, but they are generally native to the tropics). But the real meaning behind the observation is this: do not trust your previous experience while you are here at Guadalcanal.


     This is good advice to keep in mind when considering Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line. If you are expecting a typical “WWII Film” containing that genre’s promulgation of the God-ordained rightness of America and the indifference of US soldiers only too glad to march into direct machine gun fire to defeat “those little lemon colored characters” as John Wayne so memorably described the Japanese in The Sands Of Iwo Jima, then The Thin Red Line will be a severe disappointment.


     Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum hit the nail on the head in his excellent critique of The Thin Red Line in his essay Malick’s Progress where he reports on asking a friend of his who had already seen The Thin Red Line if the film had anything new to say about World War Two and his friend answered that The Thin Red Line, “is more ambitious than that”. That very ambition is what angers people most about The Thin Red Line. In the same way that people expect their Vietnam War films to unquestionably show the certifiable idiocy of the military and the corruption of the US government; any film about World War Two MUST be about our selfless defeat of the Nazis, the Japs and the fact that we were totally right in every thing we did because they attacked us first, so there!


     Any WW2 film that doesn’t pucker up and kiss the ass of the so-called “Greatest Generation” (you got to be kidding, just look at my grandparents) is nothing short of blasphemy. But Terrence Malick is a filmmaker who does not feel the need to provide the ordinary and he never has. Using the book The Thin Red Line by James Jones as his source, Malick tries to illuminate the dark existential heart of war and what it means to be a human being in that situation. I suppose Malick could have chosen any war for this, but the source material was about Guadalcanal, so that’s what Malick’s film would ostensibly be “about”. But it would be a mistake to view The Thin Red Line as an historical record of the real Guadalcanal.


     While it is relatively forgotten today, the six month long battle from August 1942 through February 1943 at Guadalcanal was an important part of our ultimate victory against Japan. Early on, the USA was only concerned about growing Fascism in Europe until of course, Japan attacked Hawaii in December 1941. Even after that, our military focused upon a “Germany First” strategy until Japan’s continued aggression could be ignored no longer. 


     Don’t forget, simultaneously with Pearl Harbor, the Japanese also attacked The Philippines, Hong Kong, Guam, Wake Island and The Malay Peninsula. We soon concluded that Japan was moving steadily south and they would be in Australia and New Zealand before long if someone didn’t do something and that is what led US troops to the Solomon Islands and Guadalcanal. 


     Guadalcanal has a fairly diverse terrain of sandy beaches, extinct volcanoes, rain forests and high grassy bluffs, but it was strategically located so that any Army with an air base on the island would have unfettered control of the islands within a thousand miles in every direction. So that’s how a place that few people had heard of before WWII became a household name almost overnight.


     The gritty truth however was that the Battle for Guadalcanal was long, hard and cost many thousands of lives. There were multiple beach landings some harder than others, numerous individual battles both large and small and our US soldiers fought with great bravery, skill, ingenuity and were the eventual victors. We all owe the soldiers who died there a great deal. But to give them their due, the Japanese put up a terrific fight at Guadalcanal. If anyone thought going into the war that the Japanese Army would be a pushover, Guadalcanal quickly disabused them of that false comfort.


     There is no way one film can cover the entirety of Guadalcanal and Malick doesn’t even try. In fact, he doesn’t even clue us in as to when the battle fought in The Thin Red Line takes place although military history buffs could probably figure it out, in reality, that has little to do with what The Thin Red Line is truly about.


     The mainstream audience’s puzzlement with The Thin Red Line usually starts at the very beginning of the film. There is no historical device like title cards or narration to put the time period into context, no solemn music or waving flags; there isn’t even an opening battle, just a shot of a crocodile sliding silently into a swamp. And just that quickly we find ourselves in an island village with friendly natives and incongruously, two lean, young Caucasian men. It is altogether peaceful and pleasant and there is no indication that the world is involved in a huge war, until the appearance of a Navy patrol boat and we suddenly realize that these two guys are AWOL soldiers.


     But, there is more happening in this opening sequence than just an introduction to the film’s characters and storyline.  We get a taste of how the rest of the film will flow. Unlike Steven Spielberg’s deliberate eschewing of “the Chapman Crane and Steadicam” approach to filmmaking for Saving Private Ryan, Terrence Malick immediately envelopes us in all manner in of cinematic technique. We get the Chapman Crane shots and Steadicam shots. We get copious voiceover narration, visual flashbacks, diagetic sound and music to place the film geographically along with non-diagetic music for mood. Terrence Malick is telling us from the get go; be prepared; I am going to use all the techniques of cinema at my disposal.


     Another unusual narrative technique used in The Thin Red Line that roundly confused audiences was its constantly shifting cast. In Saving Private Ryan, we start with one group of characters and then pretty much follow them as they go on their mission. Yes, some are killed and we get some new recruits along the way, but the story always comes back to Tom Hanks and company and there is nothing wrong with that.


     The Thin Red Line however, plays faster and looser with the members of C - Company.  There are a few constants like Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel and Adrien Brody (who pop in and out of the action as needed) but overall, the narrative shifts to different characters as C - Company proceeds further inland and further along with their mission. At different points, we focus on Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, Woody Harrelson, Ben Chaplin, Jared Leto and John Cusack among others and these characters live, die or disappear pretty much as people would in a real war situation.


     Consider the first scene where the Americans lose soldiers. 2nd Lt. Whyte, played by Jared Leto is sent up a grassy hill towards a bunker where it is firmly believed the Japanese have some machine gun nests. Leto silently cues two soldiers to move up closer. Swallowing hard they both move up the hill with great caution. Suddenly, rifle shots ring out and kill these two soldiers with a stunning swiftness. Leto gives one of the most pained looks of fear and sadness I have ever seen an actor give when he realizes that he has just sent these two men to their deaths.


     This is where the armchair chicken-hawks get their “patriotic” sphincters all atwitter because the two, soon to be dead, soldiers actually hesitate before going forward and Jared Leto is visibly upset by the fact that he has sent these men to their deaths. This is one of the few war films that actually show this and I am certain it really happens. Remember, bravery is not the psychotic absence of fear, but continuing to act even though you are fairly paralyzed with fear. It is not wrong to hesitate before going toward almost certain death, I would be wary about any man who didn’t.


     But these rec-room warriors never mention what happens immediately after this. There is an all out charge on the bunker and Jared Leto (among others) is sprayed with machine gun fire and killed instantly. We see this and are stunned, but so much else is happening, we don’t have time to fully process what we have witnessed. I imagine real battles are like that. Although I was in the military, I was never in combat, so I have no idea what combat is really like. But apparently, every blogger who liked Saving Private Ryan has been in combat because universally they say it has the most realistic battle scenes they have ever seen.


     I don’t want to be a spoiled sport, but conservative bloggers, contemporary film critics and radio talk show hosts (who actively avoided service in Vietnam) are not the best people to judge what realistic combat looks like. Let me just say that The Thin Red Line has some of the best, most originally staged and mounted combat scenes I have ever seen in a movie. And no, I don’t know if this is what it was really like on Guadalcanal.


     Furthermore, The Thin Red Line actively subverts genre expectations. It tries to strip the human characters of as much politics and nationalism as it can, while also considering the effect war has on the natural world. The film consciously plays with time and memory and philosophy. The Thin Red Line delves deep into its characters personal exaltations and personal demons.  We hear the characters thoughts, in voice-over, disconnected from their actions. People think one thing and then do the opposite. 


     Another thing that occurs in The Thin Red Line that gets little credit is the depiction of wartime violence. Like in Saving Private Ryan, we also see soldiers getting blown apart in The Thin Red Line. So, why did the deaths in The Thin Red Line feel more personal and painful to me?


     When Sgt. Keck (Woody Harrelson) accidentally blows out his midsection with a hand grenade, why did his slow fade into death wrack me with emotion? When Pvt. Beade (Nick Stahl) is dying and crying, yes CRYING and looking up at the sun dappling through a leaf and he KNOWS this will be the last thing he ever sees, why was I convulsed with tears?


     There is one scene in The Thin Red Line that makes me cry every time I think about it, in fact, my eyes are welling up as I type this. It occurs when Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn) races out under heavy fire to deliver morphine to a boy soldier named Pvt. Tella (Kirk Acevedo) who’s received a fatal abdominal wound, who knows he’s dying, but is not dead yet, who can’t stand the pain and can’t stop screaming and knows he has to shut up, lest he give his fellow soldiers position away.


     Penn gathers up a fatal dose of morphine and delivers it to Pvt. Tella who knows he has to administer this suicidal dose himself. Sean Penn is as gentle as he can be and just before Penn runs back to safety, the dying boy offers a sad and plaintive “Goodbye”. I get so moved by the tenderness of this pure human exchange under the most inconceivably awful circumstances you can imagine that I am reduced to fitful sobs every time. Why did these scenes make me feel more proud to be an American than anything in Saving Private Ryan?


     Yet it is the scenes of humanity and honor that are the main ones conservative critics like to beat The Thin Red Line with. As if showing compassion for your fellow soldiers is some how wrong and part of an anti-war agenda that The Thin Red Line aspires to. Remember, only Vietnam War films are anti-war, WWII films are NOT anti-war because that was the “good war”, and besides, we won.


     But these patio Pattons forget the many scenes of bravery in The Thin Red Line like when Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin) gets close enough to the Jap bunker to accurately gauge what’s going on there, I felt his strength and courage though his obvious fear. Or when Captain Gaff (John Cusack) later leads a small squad to the top of the ridge and successfully fights off the Jap machine guns in the bunker and who then stands firm in his demand for water for his men against Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) who only wants to keep advancing and we see that the quiet strength of Gaff is more honorable than any goal of Tall’s because he is only out for personal glory. 


     If there is one sequence that drives people crazy, it is the scene where Captain Staros refuses Colonel Tall’s order to charge straight up into the enfilading machine gun fire. Critics cite the old standby that in the military, especially during war, ordinary soldiers must follow orders and that the military system only works by the unquestioning completion of any order given by any officer.


     This is simply not true; enlisted men and officers alike are only obligated to follow LAWFUL orders. Orders that are illegal, immoral, confusing or contradictory, or that come from an unverifiable source are not to be followed; in fact it is the soldier’s duty to NOT follow such orders.


     Armchair chicken hawks who prattle on about a “soldiers duty” to follow all orders are like crooked scumbag landlords. They count on the fact that you the soldier (or tenant) does not know his rights and they will eagerly tell you that you have none, but this is bullshit. Just because you are in the Armed Forces, you didn’t stop being a citizen. Your oath of enlistment obliges you to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the rights enumerated therein still apply to you.


     Signing up for the Army does not mean signing up to die any more than being a fireman requires you to burn to death in a house fire. Yes, the job is dangerous and you can be ordered into harms way, but if a colonel orders you to commit suicide, you would be under no obligation to follow through. But, as an honorably discharged veteran myself, trust me, if you ever do refuse a direct order, you better have a really good reason, along with a really good lawyer and lots of witnesses because you will be in for the fight of your life, as it should be.


     Regarding the situation presented in The Thin Red Line, Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) was correct in refusing and Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte) was wrong in ordering the charge. C- Company ultimately disabled the Japanese machine gun nests, completing their assigned mission and dozens of American men did not have to die needlessly and Colonel Tall realized this as well; why do you think he decided not to report Staros’ insubordination? But my point is I can’t think of any other time when I have seen direct refusal of an order in a WWII movie that didn’t end up with the refusers getting killed or arrested. 


     Another problem some critics have with The Thin Red Line has to do with the plentiful use of voice-over occurring on the soundtrack. While numbskulls like Robert McKee rail against the use of voice-over, for my money this is one of the most original and moving aspects of The Thin Red Line. Sometimes the voice we are hearing does not always belong to the character we are watching and you have to pay close attention to catch this. 


     At its best, this voice over device allows us to gain insight into people, so by the end of the film, even though he has been exposed as a glory seeking jerk, Colonel Tall actually gets my sympathy because I do understand that he does feel the pain of his men, even though he will sacrifice them needlessly.


     At its worst, there is a sameness to the observations made by the soldiers, but then, most of these kids are away from home for the first time having led somewhat coddled lives back in the states. It makes sense that they would just now begin asking tough existential questions. The Thin Red Line critics seem to think that no soldier has ever considered questions bigger than just the day-to-day survival. I find it sad that, conservative critics especially, seem to think that ordinary men never take the time to consider bigger issues. But they do. 


     Whether fairly or unfairly, since both Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line were released in 1998 and both received nominations for Best Picture, so they will be compared to each other regardless of their extreme differences.


     One need only look at the box office gross, the positive critical reaction and the number of Oscars Saving Private Ryan received to gather that it was the more popular film. This is not surprising as Saving Private Ryan conforms completely to the cultural myths about WWII that we prefer to remember. So, despite the salty language and graphic violence, Saving Private Ryan is still the “Feel Good” war film for the whole family.


     Yet, I feel an obligation to point out that Saving Private Ryan does not begin with the Omaha Beach landing, as everyone remembers. The film begins with a shot of a tattered, washed out US flag waving for an unconscionably long time before we move on to an old man walking with his family past rows and rows of well tended graves in a cemetery for Normandy Invasion dead. Except for one gave marked with a Star of David, all the other graves are marked with a Christian cross signaling to us (either intentionally or unintentionally) the unquestioned righteousness of the dead.


     Our old veteran then becomes physically unsteady at the sight of a particular grave and the memory of so much death and destruction and it is then that we dissolve into the past to view this veteran’s memories, which turn out to be completely bogus.


     Because it ultimately turns out this old dude is THE Private Ryan of the title who was eventually saved and he was nowhere near Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. In fact, he was dropped into the French countryside by parachute. This is why Tom Hanks and crew are sent to find him.


     Don’t get me wrong, you don’t have to have been on the beaches of Normandy to appreciate the tough time the soldiers had securing them, but this whole movie is one big sham as the memories we witness never happened to the character who is supposedly remembering them. 


     Suppose at the end of Titanic, after witnessing over three hours of memories, Gloria Stuart had turned to the camera and said, “But I wouldn’t really know, you see, I was never on Titanic; but I did sail on The Lusitania.”  Well, the audience would have rightly felt like they had been sucker punched and they would have thrown their popcorn boxes and quart size drinks at the screen.


     But that’s not what I observed happening to audiences at the end of Saving Private Ryan.  Despite being treated as idiots, the audience mostly left the film with their hearts full of pride and their brains empty of thought. Excessive patriotism will affect you like that. For me Saving Private Ryan was just as ludicrous as any of the Indiana Jones films that take place in WWII.


     When I left the theatre after seeing Saving Private Ryan, I remember I went to a diner for supper and by the time the meal was over, I had a hard time remembering that I had even seen a film.


     That did not happen to me after The Thin Red Line. Now, I will cede that The Thin Red Line has a faulty third act and that it does drag in some places, but overall, I found the film hauntingly profound and many of the scenes and images have stayed with me over this last decade and I can’t shake their power even now. 


     For me, Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line was one of those seminal films that make me realize why I love movies. The Thin Red Line is a serious work of visual and aural poetry, as well as being intellectually and emotionally honest. Jonathan Rosenbaum was right, The Thin Red Line is more ambitious than your usual WWII film.