Fighting for truth

After <em>Saving Private Ryan</em> comes <em>The Thin Red Line</em>. But how much, asks Samuel Hynes

Before I went to the screening of Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, I re-read James Jones's novel. The first time I read it, 35 years ago, I thought it was the best novel by an American to come out of the second world war; my second reading confirms that judgement. What makes it so good, and so permanent, is that Jones wrote only about the war he knew - the month or so he spent on Guadalcanal early in 1943, during the closing stages of the campaign there. He wasn't there when the marines made their first beachhead, nor for the desperate fighting for Henderson Field; when he and his lot came ashore five months later, the glory part was over. The Japanese had been defeated by then, but they fought on, as they always did, and so there were still the final battles of annihilation to be fought, one hill at a time.

Jones was determined that the book he wrote would be a "combat novel" and nothing else. He thought nobody had ever written truthfully about modern combat, that other writers had gone on about courage and cowardice when those terms no longer applied. His novel would be different: it would be objective, "photographic", almost a documentary, without any literary embellishments. It would not contain any Big Picture, but simply tell what it had been like for one company, his company - attacking, taking casualties, winning a hill or two, resting and getting drunk, attacking again. It would be a novel of ordinary war, made honest by what it included and by what it left out.

I thought, when I first read The Thin Red Line, that it would make a good movie, though I could see some problems. A 500-page narrative of a small-scale mopping-up operation, built out of many small incidents, and with many sharply drawn characters, but no part for John Wayne, would be a challenge for a director. Still, if he could simply keep his head down and follow where Jones led him, he might make an authentic war movie, maybe even a great one.

Hollywood thought so, too; within a year a film version appeared, directed by Andrew Marston and starring Keir Dullea. I didn't see it, but those who did found it awkward and overwritten and crowded with incidents - a comic-strip version of the novel, one critic said.

Terrence Malick's version isn't like that: it is a remarkable war movie, honestly scripted and brilliantly shot. There are strong performances by many fine actors - Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn - but no star: the centre of the story is dispersed over Charlie Company and its commanders, as it is in Jones's novel. In its combat sequences it is as faithful to the spirit of Jones's book as the transformation from page to film allows. The camera stays down on the ground with the infantrymen, peering over a ridge or running down a grassy slope or slogging through jungle, showing them as they are close-up: dirty, sweaty, scared, confused, lucky or unlucky. And if unlucky then dead because, as one soldier says, it's largely a matter of luck that decides whether or not you get killed; if you happen to be at a certain spot at a certain time, you get it. That's why there are no heroes.

Combat changes men who experience it: Jones believed that, and the film shows it. Combat is a trial or a test that a man passes or fails; if he passes, he becomes a soldier, numbed for a time by what he has done and seen, but able to do it again. In the novel, after an attack, Corporal Fife thinks: "I can kill, too! I can! Just like everybody! I can kill, too!" There is pride in that thought: Fife is a soldier now. His words aren't in the film, but his feeling is, and it is a part of the film's truth. Combat is a transforming, self-defining experience. You see it in the soldiers' faces after fighting. The film has got a crucial point right, because it has followed James Jones.

But before those truth-telling combat scenes appeared before us in the screening-room, before the film had even begun, something occurred to make me apprehensive. Where was the soundtrack coming from? Who were those children, singing in a strange language? Melanesian kids, it turned out, from the film's opening sequence: an island village, women in grass skirts, palm trees, children swimming in the surf - cliches from all the South Sea paradise films you've ever seen: and two army deserters in among them, discovering Eden. Only after that happy world had been established did the story turn to its other world, the troop ship approaching Guadalcanal that is the novel's first episode.

The village scene is innocently beautiful, and so indeed is the entire island when the camera turns from war to landscape, as it does again and again. And not only is the landscape beautiful: Malick has scattered through the film full-frame images of island flora and fauna - flowers, parrots, lizards, an owl, a crocodile, a tree full of bats - sudden patches of colour, like illustrations in National Geographic, all nature vivid to our eyes.

There are other directorial interpolations: voice-overs begin at once, soldiers of Charlie Company reflecting on God and Death and What Does It All Mean? - banalities that shift the balance of the film inward, and unsettle the characterisation. And there are Japanese soldiers, not seen simply as the distant, faceless others they usually are in war films, but at close range, as combatants firing their machine-guns and making suicide charges, and as the losers, surrendering, begging for their lives, and being shot by their captors. What Malick has done is to load Jones's long but spare combat novel with a cargo of ideology. Think about the environment. Think about nature's creatures. Think about what soldiers think. Think about the defeated. Spread your sympathies. War is a bad business. Since Malick was both the script-writer and the director, all of this is his work.

Some of these expansions of the novel come simply from the climate of ideas we live in, a different sense of what truth about war means. Some may perhaps be a consequence of Malick's peculiar situation, a director who has not made a film in 20 years, and must make his re-entry into the trade not simply with a good picture, but with a big, significant one. Perhaps he knew that his film would arrive in the theatres on the heels of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, and aimed to do for the Pacific war what Spielberg had done for D-Day and the invasion of Europe. Whatever the reasons, Malick made a good film, a moving, physical, convincing film, and then put too much into it. I came away editing it in my head, trimming it down to what would be a perfect, classic war film, with all the ideological superstructure gone.

In a couple of weeks Malick's film will meet Spielberg's in the Academy Awards voting, like two gunslingers in a Western walk-down. Both have been nominated for Best Picture and Best Director. My vote, if I had one, would go to Malick both times. In my view Private Ryan is 25 minutes of virtual D-Day followed by a conventional special-unit story, a war movie made out of war movies with only the hi-tech spectacles at the beginning and end to distinguish it. The Thin Red Line is a lot better than that, partly because of the superior material (Jones's novel), partly because of the small-scale nature of the engagement that is its story, partly because it isn't top-heavy with technology - but mainly, I think, because Malick was thinking about war when Spielberg was only thinking about movies.

Samuel Hynes is a professor of English at Princeton. His books include "The Edwardian Turn of Mind", "The Auden Generation", "A War Imagined: the first world war and English culture", "The Soldier's Tale" (all Pimlico) and "Flights of Passage" (Bloomsbury), a memoir of his time as a marine bomber pilot in the Pacific. "The Thin Red Line" (15) opens Friday 26 February for a limited engagement at the Odeon Leicester Square and from 5 March nationwide

This article first appeared in the 26 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The police force we deserve?