Cinema: Oh, what a gorgeous war

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The Independent Culture
The Thin Red Line (15)

Director: Terrence Malick Starring: Sean Penn, Ben Chaplin, Nick Nolte, John Cusack

170 mins

First, the legend. Terrence Malick made two acclaimed movies in the 1970s, Badlands and Days of Heaven. Then, uniquely for a film-maker, he dropped out. He dropped out for 20 years, before resurfacing, as mysteriously as he had vanished, to make a third movie, The Thin Red Line, a three- hour adaptation of James Jones's semi-autobiographical account of the World War II battle of Guadalcanal. And such was the aura that his inexplicable silence had conferred upon him in the meantime, a number of Hollywood's biggest male stars humbly queued up to appear in it. Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp and Kevin Costner were all told thanks but no thanks. Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, John Cusack, John Travolta, George Clooney and Woody Harrelson were among the chosen ones.

Now, the movie itself. There's a lot to be said about it, both for and against, but the basic problem can be expressed in two monosyllabic words: too much. There's just too much beauty, too much violence, too much action, too much blood; there are just too many sunsets, too many dewy flashbacks, too many parakeets and palm trees. Too much, in short, of a voluptuous muchness. One can, as we all know, have too much of a good thing, but it took The Thin Red Line to prove that one can equally have too much of a great thing.

For it does, on occasion, brush against greatness. There are unforgettable sights to be seen here. It might be an entire sequence (a Sisyphian attack on a ridge controlled by Japanese machine-gun firepower generates a stupendous 15-minute tour de force of action film-making). Or a fleeting visual vignette (a brief flashback scene of a woman on a swing, head thrown back, legs in the air, up she goes, down she comes - the quintessential cliche of sun-dappled cinematic lyricism - is filmed with such panache it's almost as though one had never seen the image before). Or even a single shot (a crocodile emerging dozily from the slime; a soldier hosing down a bloodstained stretcher). And the textures! The hyper-real "thereness" of every blade of grass! If there were an Oscar going for Best Foliage, The Thin Red Line would be a shoo-in.

If such an Oscar did exist, of course, it would be the war-movie equivalent of the award for best costume design, a compensation, not a consecration. Unconditional admirers of the movie have sought to justify its lush aestheticism by the argument that man's contamination of natural beauty is precisely its Rousseauesque subject-matter - which is credible enough except that the relentless splendour of the cinematography ends by making one feel as though one has been bludgeoned by gorgeousness. Malick clearly saw his movie as an epic poem rather than as a conventionally linear fiction, but his vision is a trifle too close to that of National Geographic magazine: he likes to get nature to pose for him. Yet if 30 years of cinephilia have taught me anything, it's that, of all the rival art forms - drama, painting, music, even architecture - the one least compatible with the cinema's multifarious versatility is, paradoxically, still photography. To simplify crudely, film is about articulating movement, photography about arresting it; film is about life, photography about death. Malick's frequently stunning shots, alas, appear pinned to the screen like so many exquisite but dead butterflies.

This was always going to be a major flaw, but it has been compounded by the virtual absence of narrative shape or psychological plausibility. Unlike most war movies, which leaven the horrors of combat by simultaneously celebrating male comradeship and solidarity, The Thin Red Line tells what scant story it has through a series of solipsistic voice-over reveries supposedly "thought" by a few of the more prominently visible (and starrier) members of the platoon. If I say "supposedly", it's not just that these voices are mostly indistinguishable and interchangeable, but because the high-falutin rhetoric of the musings - "Darkness and light, strife and love - are they the workings of one mind, the feature of the same face?" - make it impossible to attribute them to the ordinary G I Joes who are supposed to be musing them. (They're also inaudible for much of the time; and, in view of the regular complaints made by American critics about the incomprehensibility of unsubtitled working-class accents in films like Nil By Mouth and My Name is Joe, we Brits should maybe let them know they're not the only ones with a problem.)

The Thin Red Line has already prompted comparisons with Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, but the real, and possibly conscious, reference is to a now forgotten war-movie director named Lewis Milestone. Like Malick's movie, Milestone's Korean War drama Pork Chop Hill focused on an assault on one apparently minor but strategically significant enemy-held position. His Second World War drama A Walk in the Sun also used the device of a soundtrack mosaic of improbably articulate ramblings. And the best-remembered image of his First World War drama All Quiet on the Western Front was of a young soldier stretching out his hand to stroke a butterfly and suddenly convulsing in death from a sniper's bullet, a shot to which Malick pays homage in The Thin Red Line. Unfortunately, he also shares with Milestone a craving not merely to make a war movie but the war movie, the war movie to end all war movies, and the disappointment is commensurate with the ambition.

There's a scene in Cocteau's Orphee in which Jean Marais is handed a fashionable arts journal by a critic and discovers that its pages are blank. "That's ridiculous," he remarks. "It would be more ridiculous," answers the critic, "if they were covered with ridiculous texts". For the past two decades the pages of Malick's cinema have been of an irreproachably pristine blankness. Now he's gone and filled them up; and even if the result is far from ridiculous, it's no match for the silence.