The Thin Red Line, 1964.
Directed by Andrew Marton.
Starring Keir Dullea, Jack Warden, James Philbrook, Kieron Moore, Ray Daley and Bob Kanter.
A private and his sergeant clash during the heat of battle as American G.I.’s fight the Japanese in the Guadalcanal Campaign of World War II.
In 1998 acclaimed filmmaker Terrence Malick returned to the silver screen after a self-enforced twenty year absence to adapt James Jones' classic World War II novel The Thin Red Line, producing a sprawling, star-studded and philosophical epic that explored the paradox of nature as both beautiful and cruel, as told through the eyes of a group of American soldiers in the Pacific theatre of war. However, Malick’s interpretation was not the first time that Jones’ source material was brought to the screen; in 1964 director Andrew Marton delivered a mostly-forgotten low-budget black-and-white title of the same name, which is now looking to reintroduce itself to a new audience with a long-overdue DVD release.
As with Malick’s effort, Marton’s The Thin Red Line is a loose adaptation of Jones’ novel and focuses on the American assault on Guadalcanal, a small island whose occupation was crucial to halting the Japanese advance into the Western Pacific. Marton – who is perhaps best known for his second-unit work on classics such as Ben Hur (1959) and Cleopatra (1963), as well as being one of the directors responsible for Darryl F. Zanuck’s ambitious war film The Longest Day (1962) – opts to narrow this setting by concentrating on two contrasting characters – the battle-hardened Sgt. Welsh (two-time Academy Award nominee Jack Warden) and Private Doll (Keir Dullea, star of 2001: A Space Odyssey), a young soldier whose innocence is gradually stripped away by the brutality of war.
The relationship between Welsh and Doll plays out pretty much how you’d expect as the pair clash due to their differing values, with Welsh giving the younger man a hard time as he tries to instil discipline and teach him to obey orders, which just might help to save a man’s life in the harsh insanity of battle. Naturally this relationship progresses as the soldiers march on towards their final destination and the psychological effects of death and destruction – the thin red line between sanity and madness - begins to take hold, turning the young Private from a reluctant conscript to a ruthless killing machine. Running alongside this narrative are a number of intriguing subplots and supporting characters, the most interesting of which comes in the form of Captain Stone (Ray Daley), an officer whose concern for the safety of his men puts him at odds with his superiors, and indeed the very nature of combat.
Of course as with any good war film, The Thin Red Line contains more than its fair share of action sequences and while they pale in comparison to modern and ‘realistic’ depictions of battle such as the gruesome scenes of Saving Private Ryan, the film does stand out amongst its contemporaries in terms of violence. There are several genuinely harrowing scenes, such as the painfully slow death of a G.I. caught in an explosion, his death assisted by repeated doses of morphine, and Private Doll repeatedly slamming the head of a Japanese soldier to the ground to earn his first kill. Meanwhile the action set-pieces include the soldiers navigating a minefield flanked with heavily fortified machine gun nests, attacking a village held by the Japanese and engaging in hand-to-hand combat within a network of caves, all of which are well-realised given the filmmaking constraints of the time.
I would imagine that the majority of people who purchase this DVD will fall into two camps – those with a fondness for classic war movies and those who are drawn to it because it shares the same title as Malick’s 1998 release. The former will undoubtedly find much to enjoy with Marton’s take on the material while the latter may also be pleasantly surprised, if they can take the film at face value and manage to avoid comparisons between this and Malick’s poetic - and far superior - update.
The Thin Red Line is released on DVD on January 31st.
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