Reprinted from the March 1999 VP. (Scripture references added.)
Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 50 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 8; Language 7; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
“Can you draw out Leviathan[b] with a fishhook, or press down its tongue with a cord? Can you put a rope in its nose, or pierce its jaw with a hook? Will it make many supplications to you? Will it speak soft words to you?
Job 41:1-3 [b] Or crocodile
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Tiger! Tiger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
From the very first shot–of a crocodile swimming –we know that Terrance Malick’s film is not going to be like Private Ryan. Mr. Malick, in adapting James Jones’ novel, which had been based on the novelist’s experience as a WW 2 soldier on Guadalcanal, has transformed it into a visual meditation on the meaning and source of existence, sacrifice, the will to survive, friendship, violence and its affect on men and nature. The latter ecological theme is especially dealt with far more than in the novel, Mr. Malick starting the story in a native village where some of the G.Is are enjoying R&R, rather than on the troop ship where Mr. Jones had begun his novel. The natives live in harmony with nature, and for a while so do the Americans before being sent back into nature destroying combat.
Mr. Malick also focuses more on one individual of the Army Rifle Company, C-for-Charlie– Pvt. Witt. It is his off-camera voice we often hear raising questions like a khaki-clad Psalmist; “What is this war in the heart of nature? The war in which nature is at war with itself?…Is there an avenging power in nature?…” It is Witt perhaps who feels the strongest that C-for-Charlie Company is family, for although he is transferred to another unit, he keeps returning, time after tine, to his old unit. The opposite of Witt the idealist is First Sergeant Welsh, a tough cynic, full of courage, but contemptuous of any attempt to find any meaning in all the carnage and random death. He tells Witt that “in this world a man’s nothing,” to which Witt replies, “You’re wrong. I seen another world.” Later we hear his stream of consciousness thoughts about sacrifice, “poured out like water on the ground..” and “glory, mercy, peace…truth. You give calm to the spirit. Understanding… courage… the contented heart…”
Witt’s interior monologues make the exterior happenings stand out all the more in their starkness. For example, it is just after we hear the above thoughts that the company comes upon the first dead soldiers they have seen, two Americans whose legs have been blown off. “Maybe all men got one big soul…all have one face, one big self” Witt thinks later as he looks upon some wounded men, “Everyone looking for salvation by himself. Each like a coal drawn from the fire.”
Another soldier who regards the men as family is Captain Staros, struggling with the awesome responsibility of having to send his men into death-dealing combat. He has been ordered to take Hill 210 at all cost; the Japanese gunners there are blocking the advance of the whole army. Staros prays that “I will not betray You or my men.” He argues with his commander Lt. Col. Tall, who has commanded them to make a frontal assault on a hill held by the well-entrenched Japanese, rather than a flanking movement through the jungle. Later, the commander talks with the captain: “You’re too soft, not tough fiber enough.” Staros responds, “I don’t like to see my men getting killed, sir. Have you ever held a dying man in your arms, sir?” Of course, the colonel has not. As a commander he must stay detached in order to see the big picture. Staros has gotten too close; an expendable soldier has a face for him, which makes the man precious, rather than a replaceable part of a killing machine. Sensing Staros’ struggle and believing that it inhibits his effectiveness, Tall relieves him of command. and recommends that he be transferred back to Washington (considered a happy fate by everyone else).
All of the men struggle with their will to live and their duty as soldiers. Each thinks that he is a coward because of this struggle (the novel is especially strong on this point), all of them raised to think that courage means having no fear or desire to save one’s skin. And so they put up a front, no doubt trying to imitate John Wayne, everyone’s idea of a soldier, braving fire on a Hollywood set far from the real front lines. Jones the novelist writes much about, and Malick the filmmaker shows, the numbness that combat brings on the men’s feelings and all that they have been taught about decency. We see them shoot Japanese soldiers trying to surrender, or after combat sitting by and looking upon wounded enemy soldiers crying for water or relief and not raising a hand to help them.
But of their own the men are often solicitous to the point of sacrifice. One of them throws himself upon his prematurely exploding hand grenade, thereby saving his buddies at the expense of his own life. Another, the cynical Sgt. Welsh, I believe (with such an ensemble cast, all of them wearing helmets, it is difficult at times to figure out who is doing what!), braves machine gun fire to bring morphine to a wounded soldier screaming in agony. The medics had lost their lives trying to help the fallen soldier. It is clear that the wounded man is dying, but both for the sake of mercy and to lessen the effect the man’s screaming is having on the pinned down company, Welsh brings him the ampoules of medicine, letting the man himself give the extra amount that both know will lead to the blessed relief of death. When Capt. Staros wants to recommend him for a medal, Welsh angrily refuses, telling him he will beat him up if he does. For him and the other men any talk of fighting for flag or glory is b.s.–they fight to survive, and to take care of each other.
Lt. Col. Tall, as played by Nick Nolte, comes off a little better in the film than in the novel (where he is more of a pompous glory seeker). He sees the current battle as the stepping-stone to his promotion, so he orders the men to keep advancing, even though they have no water supply. When his protégé’ reminds him they could die for lack of water, he replies that all of his life he has waited for this moment. A lifetime of bitter disappointment is summed up in his, “You don’t know what it’s like to be passed over.” The men keep pressing on.
Some more of Witt’s musings worth pondering:
As he gazes down at a dead soldier, ‘This great evil–where does it come from? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this? What’s killing us, robbing us of life?…Is there darkness in you, too?”
“How did we lose the good? What keeps us from reaching out to the glory?
Witt returns again to C-for-Charlie Company, and Sgt. Welsh calls him a troublemaker. “Still believe in the beautiful light?” he asks sarcastically. Witt replies, “I still see a spark in you.”
“One man looks at a dying bird and only sees pain–death’s final word. (Another) Man sees that same bird, and feels the glory, feels something smiling through it.” (It should be admitted that even the viewer will find this faith affirmation difficult to accept, because earlier Malick has shown us a close up of a small bird covered with oil and soot, gasping for breath as it lies dying in the muck. The camera lingers over it for the longest time, searing into our consciousness the image of innocence crucified by human evil!)
Hill 210 is taken, at great cost–the toll must be counted not only in terms of blood, but in what the savagery of combat does to the men’s values of human decency, as in the rage of battle they slaughter their enemy without mercy. The action moves on, other hills to take, other streams to cross. It is at one of these that one of the main characters makes the supreme sacrifice. At the end of the film Sgt. Welsh, still cynical and tough, nonetheless shows that Witt might be right about him, that there might be “a spark” still burning within him, for he stands at a comrade’s grave and quietly makes the sign of the cross.
The ensemble cast convincingly brings to life Malick’s superb script: Sean Penn is First Sgt. Edward Welsh, Jim Cavielzel Pvt. Witt, George Clooney is Capt. Bosche, the replacement for Staros, Elias Koteas Capt. Staros, Woody Harrelson S/Sgt. Keck, Nick Nolte Lt. Col. Gordon Tall. Plus there are at least half dozen other characters, such as the heroic Capt. John Gaff played by John Cusack. This is one film that I have been recommending to friends that they read the novel first so as to have a framework of action and characters that will help bring order out of what might seem a chaotic movie. It is not always easy to tell whom we are watching, and especially to figure out why Witt leaves and returns to C-for Charlie Company so often. This is a film that invites a return visit, promising further rewards with each new viewing. I am looking forward to seeing it again, and rooting for Mr. Malick and crew to be duly rewarded when the Academy Awards are handed out.